The 1987 poll tax brought about Thatcher’s downfall. Now Brexit will do the same for Theresa May, says ANDREW ADONIS.
Lord Salisbury, the most reactionary prime minister of modern times, had a saying about the outcome of general elections. ‘When the great oracle speaks, no-one is quite sure what the great oracle said.’ It was like that in the House of Commons for Tuesday’s high drama on the EU Withdrawal Bill. Did Theresa May suffer another great loss of control over Brexit to Dominic Grieve and the group I now call the ‘Tory patriots’? Or did she stare them down?
There are two undoubted facts. Just before the debate a junior minister of whom no-one had heard, Dr Phillip Lee, resigned in protest at Brexit and called for a People’s Vote. In a virtual recitation of last week’s call to arms in The New European, he said he could not live with his conscience, and his children and grandchildren, if he did otherwise.
There were then several meetings involving Grieve and ministers on his ‘taking back control’ amendment regulating different levels of parliamentary direction, should there be ‘no deal’ after this autumn. These culminated in a hurried meeting in the prime minister’s room in the Commons, just before the key vote, where May promised 17 of the patriots ‘as a matter of trust’ that the Government would table its own amendment largely based on the Grieve one, provided they didn’t humiliate her by voting her down. They duly didn’t.
The vital utterance of the oracle therefore comes in the House of Lords next Monday, when the government tables its new amendment. And since its wording can be directly compared with the Grieve amendment, any backsliding will be immediately obvious, and lead to a huge further government defeat in the Lords.
So it looks as if, in the latest procedural wrangling, Grieve has won decisively. However, the interplay with Lee’s resignation will be equally decisive in the months ahead. Not because Lee is about to become a household name, but because he is likely to be the first of several ministerial resignations in the run-up to the withdrawal treaty. Each one will be a bigger nail in the Brexit coffin, adding not just greater numbers but steadily greater Tory respectability to the cause of a People’s Vote.
I know personally of four ministers contemplating resignation, one in the cabinet. And since their basic critique is not so much about the form of Brexit but the very fact of Brexit, I doubt they will be bought off. For those of us of a certain age, the parallels become ever more eerie with the horrors of the poll tax, that last great Thatcherite extravaganza.
The poll tax was at the heart of Margaret Thatcher’s last (1987) manifesto. She christened it the ‘flagship of the fleet’, no less. It was going to democratise local government by making a clear link between paying for local services and receiving them, unlike the previous property rates which were paid only by home owners. The people would ‘take back control’ of their local councils, particularly those which had been colonised by dangerous left wingers like Ken Livingstone and John McDonnell who weren’t properly accountable to their localities in any ‘meaningful vote’.
To begin with, there were great arguments about the poll tax as a concept and the meaning of local democracy. But as the full horror unfolded of a poll tax of £550 a head to be paid by the residents of Hackney, rich and the unemployed alike, the issue became whether the ‘flagship’ could stay afloat at all, not whether it was going to sail into a Thatcherite blue yonder.
By 1990, year two of the poll tax, it didn’t matter whether you were for or against it. It simply couldn’t be made to work. New mitigations and ‘transitional reliefs’ were introduced week by week but to no avail. The ship sank, and Admiral Thatcher went down with it.
So with Brexit. As ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and ‘taking back control’ become ever more desperate quests for something workable in place of our entire system of European trade and economic regulation, the Brexit ship is on the rocks. First there was the ‘implementation period’, where nothing much would change for 21 months. Then we had a ‘backstop’ to this implementation period, where also nothing much would change, with a customs ‘arrangement’ to replace the customs ‘union’.
Last week we were on to the ‘backstop to the backstop’ and whether David Davies would resign if there wasn’t one. May promised him an ‘aspiration’ to have a backtop to the backstop – but not a definite end date for the ‘backstop backstop’ because her officials fear that simply can’t be made to work. Meanwhile, customs ‘arrangement’ has become ‘max fac’ and the ‘frictionless borders’ have become, well, ‘as frictionless as possible.’ And all this is before we get to ‘meaningful votes’ of the House of Commons which turn out not to be meaningful, and referendums which have to be renamed ‘people’s votes’ because, well, we need a new name for that thing too, so the bemused voters don’t think it is pure groundhog day.
The poll tax lasted two years. It brought about Thatcher’s downfall. The parliament which enacted it also became the parliament that abolished it. Brexit’s two-year anniversary is in a fortnight. I suspect this parliament will abolish it – via a People’s Vote. It will bring down May. And like the poll tax, no one will go near the disastrous idea again for a very long time. Maybe centuries.
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