After Syria and Salisbury, it is back to chaotic normal for the Prime Minister
It would be easy to think that the most significant development of Theresa May’s week was the resignation of her Home Secretary Amber Rudd. It was certainly the most dramatic: Rudd’s sudden departure, after admitting she inadvertently misled parliament over what she knew about immigration removal targets, shifted the focus onto the Prime Minister, the architect of the ‘hostile environment policy’ as Home Secretary, and arguably the person who bears the most responsibility for the Windrush scandal. Yet the moment which could have a more important bearing on May’s future involved a different former Cabinet minister.
Viscount Hailsham, who as Douglas Hogg served as agriculture minister under John Major, led the Tory rebellion in the House of Lords to try to stop a no-deal Brexit and give parliament the right to tell the government to renegotiate a better agreement with Brussels. The amendment means that when parliament gets to vote on the final Brexit deal this autumn, this will be truly ‘meaningful’ – not May’s take-it-or-leave-it plan, but offering a third option where MPs instruct the government to try harder in the interests of the British economy and people.
It was the seventh such defeat for the government in the Lords, and the numbers showed the strength of opposition to a no-deal scenario: no fewer than 19 Conservative rebels, joining with opposition peers to inflict a crushing majority of 91. The House of Lords, scenting the dwindling authority of the Prime Minister, are flexing their legislative muscles.
Similarly, the Lords defeat makes it harder for the Prime Minister to force through a hard Brexit in the Commons, where Tory rebels will have been emboldened by the broad support for those votes in the Upper Chamber. In Rudd, those rebel MPs have just, in theory, gained a new member in their ‘naughty corner’ to potentially defy May over Brexit.
Rudd is not naturally rebellious. In fact her loyalty to the Prime Minister, by accepting responsibility for much of the Windrush debacle when she could have deflected it back onto May, contributed to her resignation on Sunday evening. The MP for Hastings and Rye was also loyal to David Cameron as an ally to George Osborne when he was building his power base in government. So it is hard to tell whether she will join Anna Soubry, Nicky Morgan, Ken Clarke and other former ministers who could, potentially, stage rebellions when the EU withdrawal bill returns to the Commons later this month.
As defenders of the Remain cause, and the best hope of defeating a hard Brexit, the pressure is on these MPs to uphold the changes made by peers – not just on rejecting a no-deal scenario, but on the Lords’ amendments on keeping the UK in the customs union after Brexit.
Rudd was a prominent figure in the Remain campaign, taking the lead in many of the television debates in the referendum’s closing stages. What’s more, friends of Rudd are furious that she was let down by Home Office civil servants who they claim had failed to brief her properly on immigration targets before her ill-fated appearance before the home affairs select committee last week. If there was ever a time to rebel, in the interests of saving Britain from a hard Brexit, she might calculate that this is it.
Rudd’s departure from Cabinet also risks upsetting the careful balance between enthusiastic Brexiteers and ministers who backed Remain and are wary that Britain’s negotiating is hurtling towards a hard Brexit or, worse, a no deal. It is a balance that the Prime Minister has strained hard to achieve over the past six months, after losing four other Cabinet ministers to forced resignations.
On the face of it, the ministerial changes this week were ‘Brexit-neutral’, because Rudd was replaced by Sajid Javid, who voted Remain, and who in turn was replaced as Communities Secretary by another Remain supporter, James Brokenshire. But Javid’s instincts on the issue are far more eurosceptic than his June 2016 vote suggests.
In fact, many in the Tory party had expected him to back the Leave campaign, given his previous comments on the EU, and it was only his closeness to his mentor Osborne – who helped his promotion through the ministerial ranks in the Treasury – that compelled him to pick the Remain side.
By promoting Javid, May has, for now, contained the fallout over Windrush because the new Home Secretary, referring to his own experience as the son of immigrants, has vowed to make it his ‘most urgent task’ to ensure those families are not threatened with deportation or have any other rights removed. But with her authority severely undermined by this immigration crisis, she has also boosted the chances of a future leadership challenger.
Under May, Javid has already been outspoken and independent-minded. After last year’s snap election disaster, the then communities secretary challenged the Prime Minister in Cabinet over her much-criticised ‘strong and stable’ campaign.
He had expected to be sacked in a post-election reshuffle; in fact, he was kept on, so his defiance of the PM only made him stronger.
The new Home Secretary has already made clear he will plough a different furrow on immigration to Rudd and May, saying the word ‘hostile’ was ‘unhelpful’ and did not ‘represent our values as a country’. Javid said he would instead pursue a policy of making Britain a ‘compliant environment’ for illegal immigrants.
This independent approach suggests Javid will not be a pushover when it comes to what May wants on Brexit – including her proposal for a customs ‘partnership’ which Brexiteers regard as Britain staying in the customs union in all but name.
As Home Secretary, Javid has replaced Rudd in the Brexit Cabinet sub-committee, otherwise known as the Brexit war cabinet, where he could find himself siding with Brexiteers in their scepticism of May’s customs proposal.
Javid’s ambitions to be Prime Minister could tempt him into playing up his Eurosceptic credentials to appeal to Tory grassroots. As an unidentified Tory Brexiteer told the Daily Mail this week: ‘It’s basically another member of the Brexit war cabinet for us. [Javid] was bullied into backing Remain, but anyone who knows him knows where his heart lies.’
But the Prime Minister is now so weak she had little choice but to promote Javid as Home Secretary and try to minimise the immigration row. After a bumpy start to 2018, with a Cabinet reshuffle that went awry, May had experienced a period of good headlines when events played to her strengths as an authoritarian: first, in standing up to Russia over Salisbury, and then in joining the US and France in military strikes against Syria. But that period now seems like a blip, and her fortunes are back to normal – she has never been able to fully regain her authority lost in last year’s election when she threw away her government majority.
This week’s local elections are set to bring more bad news for the Prime Minister. The Conservatives are set to pick up votes from UKIP, whose local election performance was reaching its peak in 2014 when the council seats were last put to the vote. But given UKIP are now an almost spent force in politics, voters switching back to the Tories cannot be regarded as a major achievement, just a resettling of votes around two-party politics. The Prime Minister now has to steel herself for the closing stages of Brexit negotiations, and demonstrate that real progress has been made by the time of the crucial European summit this summer.
Against this backdrop, she now has a Brexiteer wing in her party that becomes more hard-line and intransigent by the day. Their reaction to the votes in the Lords – which is simply doing its job as a legislative checking mechanism – was typified by the Mail’s front page headline condemning the ‘House of Unelected Wreckers’.
Politicians who have spent their careers defending parliamentary sovereignty over governments now rail against any moves by MPs and peers to exercise that sovereignty. Liam Fox, the international trade secretary who once said securing a post-Brexit trade deal with the EU would be the ‘easiest in history’, attacked peers on the Today programme for acting ‘rashly’ by ‘confronting the democratic view of the British people’. He added: ‘I think there’s a very big debate now about whether the unelected house can actually thwart the view of the British electorate in a referendum and… legislation coming from the House of Commons.’
Fox claimed the public never voted for Britain staying in any sort of customs union – but in fact the issue was never debated in detail during the referendum, and was certainly not on the ballot paper. In forever harking back to the referendum result, Fox and other Brexiteers are in denial about how much things have changed in nearly two years: not only with the public’s effective rejection of May’s hard Brexit in delivering a hung Parliament last June, but by the negotiations that are ongoing in Brussels. The Prime Minister last week repeated her position that she believes ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ on Brexit but in her Mansion House speech in March she hinted at a softening of the line.
May has tried to navigate a course through the difficult waters of the customs union, for fear of destabilising the Northern Ireland peace process by defaulting to a hard border in Ireland if the UK has no customs link with Europe. Her plan for a partnership, a hybrid arrangement under which Britain would collect EU import tariffs on behalf of Brussels, has been blocked by Boris Johnson, David Davis and other Cabinet Brexiteers, who know how weak her hand is, and prompted the menacing report from the European Research Group which directly threatened her leadership over the issue. Of course, any proposal relating to Northern Ireland would also need the backing of the DUP, on whose support in parliament the Prime Minister relies. All options for Britain’s future relationship with Europe remain on the table, including the prospect of a ‘People’s Vote’ on the final deal, where the public are given the chance to either approve the negotiated settlement with Brussels or, under one scenario, remain in the EU. The Labour Party, despite adopting a broadly pro-Brexit approach, has made clear it intends to back the amendments made by the Lords on the customs union and the attempt to prevent a no-deal exit. When the Commons gets its chance to vote on the EU Withdrawal Bill, as amended by the Lords, the situation becomes even more dangerous for the Prime Minister.
Can she really persuade her MPs, including those ‘naughty corner’ rebels, to vote for the prospect of a no deal if the Brexit agreement isn’t good enough? It is unlikely. May will either have to start making concessions on the many amendments made by the Lords, or risk a series of heavy defeats in the Commons. There have been hints from Number 10 that the Commons vote on the customs union, and other Lords amendments, could turn into a confidence issue for the Prime Minister – effectively a challenge to ‘back me or sack me’. Yet with opposition inside her own party from both Remain supporters and Brexiteers, May’s command of her MPs’ loyalty does not stretch far.
In allowing Rudd to be made a scapegoat for the Windrush scandal that May herself helped to create, the Prime Minister has not exactly protected those closest to her. Above all, Brexit remains in the hands of Parliament, as it should be under a representative democracy, rather than under the control of a weakened Prime Minister held hostage by the intransigence of Brexiteers.