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MICHAEL WHITE: A raft of troubles for Theresa May as chaos engulfs the government

Picture: Martin Rowson - Credit: Archant

Michael White takes a look at the chaos derailing the government and the less than helpful visit of Donald Trump.

When I awoke to bright sunshine (again) on Monday I wondered which upcoming headline would most likely darken my day by tea time.

Would it be Donald Trump’s Helsinki love-in with Vladimir Putin? Or Boris Johnson’s threatened Brexit resignation speech to the Commons? Correction: Boris’s heavily-promoted ‘He’s Coming Home’ column in the Daily Telegraph. It pays much better even if it does break the ministerial code.

In the event it was neither, not on Monday anyway. Instead the Commons treated itself to what was once a regular late-night drama, a series of votes on the Brexit trade bill which had the potential actually to matter. Parliamentary sovereignty in action, wasn’t this what the Brexit referendum was supposed to be about? ‘Taking back control’ to Westminster?

Yes, it was. And this is what backbench power always looks like during periods when a government lacks both the numbers and the authority to impose its will on MPs. Think struggling Jim Callaghan in the mid-70s or John Major 20 years later. It all looks chaotic. But it will pass.

In the 10 days since Theresa May attempted to impose her will on the cabinet at Chequers, her supposed ambush has produced a fire-fight over the No 10 white paper – assailed from both sides as a ‘calamity’ (J Rees-Mogg) and a ‘disaster’ (K Clarke).

After reading the 94-page paper both warring factions saw the Chequers compromise as ruinous second-best. The Daily Telegraph orchestrated a ‘treachery’ chorus from its crustier readers against the vicar’s daughter, one of their own.

After making no more than a perfunctory attempt (only anoraks watch Sunday sofa television) to sell her package, May duly dug her kitten heels in, only to go barefoot shortly afterwards and appease her hard Brexit critics in the European Not-Much-Research Group. Monday night’s four narrowly-won votes on ERG-amended clauses reflected that familiar pattern: a tactical retreat after domestic foes cry ‘treason’ in the wake of a strategic retreat to accommodate the undiluted red lines of her negotiating opponents in Brussels and Berlin. Assorted Labour amendments also went down as did the customs union backstop on Tuesday. But she lost on staying in the EU medical agency. What a shambles.

Where does it leave the May government and the prospect for an orderly accommodation with the EU27 that delivers a soft enough Brexit for all but zealots on both sides to muddle along with? As usual, no one can confidently say, though both Remain’s Anna Soubry (one of 14 Remain Tory ‘loyalists’ to vote against May) and Brexit’s Bernard Jenkin had already led a chorus of Conservative MPs on both sides declaring the Chequers white paper – just four days old – another of Monty Python’s dead parrots. Reprising the John Cleese role in the famous sketch, May insists it is only resting.

The undignified spectacle has prompted a fresh outbreak of midsummer media madness, made only slightly worse by Guto Bebb’s resignation, the first Remain minister to quit in despair, more cruelly worse by the unbroken heatwave.

There is talk of Tory splits (again) and centrist realignments with Labour’s Umunna-ites, of May’s demise and a Corbyn government, all of which wise voters will believe only when they happen. No one under 50 should be allowed to use the word ‘unprecedented’.

Downing Street’s response to the frenzy? As the number of backbenchers demanding a leadership contest reportedly passed the necessary 48 mark (15% are needed under the rules), No. 10 brightly suggested that everyone pack their buckets and spades, their beach towels and shrimping nets, and head to the beach a week early – to catch shrimps instead of Theresa. Even in that wholesome thought she was defied.

The nautical scene which sprang most quickly to my mind as Tory MPs started devouring each other in despair of finding dry land was Theodore Gericault’s huge 1819 work of Romantic extravagance, The Raft of the Medusa. The gory painting – it hangs in The Louvre – depicts the shipwrecked passengers and crew of a French frigate, which sank off the west African state of Mauritania, suffering all manner of horrors before the survivors were rescued 13 days later.

Then as now, most of the blame was conveniently dumped at the feet of the Medusa’s captain, an inexperienced incompetent, appointed via political patronage, who had been hurrying too fast towards Senegal and run into a sandbank which he should have known was there. Note that weak leadership, Theresa, though being a political submarine herself she wouldn’t have had time for a raft. May and her mutineers would have drowned together, but quietly.

The events of the past few days have shaken my core conviction that both sides of the Brexit negotiation – the EU 27 as well as the Brits on their raft – have too much to lose by failure to negotiate some sort of deal-in-progress by March 29 next year.

The BBC’s Europe editor, Katya Adler, made a similar point from Brussels on Tuesday. The word now is they want a deal (and our cash, of course). Renewed Russian confidence after staging successful World Cups in Moscow and Helsinki, China on the march, confusion in US leadership, trade wars with the EU ‘foe’, freeloading NATO fragmentation… the world looks a scarier place. Of course, it does, Jean-Claude and Angela. Do keep up.

Of course, they’d prefer Britain to stay, added the BBC’s Adler. Come back, all is forgiven even.

Cue former education secretary, Remain voter Justine Greening who – 24 hours earlier – had become the most senior Tory so far to back the People’s Vote campaign for a second referendum, the cause long championed by The New European and by those big marches the other weekend. Up popped Nigel ‘Skint’ Farage – struggling to get by on £500,000-plus of ‘betrayal’ media earnings and an MEP’s salary, say transparency researchers – to admit that, given the apparent parliamentary stalemate, it might have to come to that after all.

Tory Remainers, including John Major, signalled growing interest in a second vote. Lib Dems and the SNP block would be up for it. Corbyn-led Labour remains opposed, self-marginalising as ever in the mistaken belief that the absence of a coherent strategy and tactical opportunism will be mistaken for statesmanship by voters when the great day of reckoning comes, in October or – still more likely in my opinion – in 2022.

As you know, in her Times article Greening offered voters three choices plus a second preference vote to guarantee a result: whatever deal May finally achieves in Brussels; a hard ‘no deal’ Brexit; or staying in the EU. The basic objection is still a roadblock. Cynical repetition of the claim that ‘voters gave us clear instructions to leave the EU’ (Liam Fox did it again on Tuesday) means a second vote will be framed and denounced as standard Brussels procedure – think Ireland or Denmark – to overthrow a democratic vote.

Coming from people who never for one second accepted the thumping 2-1 result in 1975 that’s a cheek. But it’s where we are in our populist moment where cries of ‘betrayal’ and ‘elites’ pass for intelligent political conversation and feelings of left-behind grievance can be stoked shamelessly by those with ‘gold-plated pensions and inherited wealth’ (in Soubry’s phrase) as well as by street-corner fascists whose mothers didn’t love them.

The emotional impact of the ‘make them vote until we get the right result’ objection is a serious one. Add to it the likelihood that, whatever form May’s post-Chequers deal might eventually take, plenty on both sides will want to reject it, as they did this week, and I’d say the chances are quite high for a hard (‘let’s get it over with’) Brexit win more decisive than in 2016.

That applies even in areas like the all-white, Leave-voting North East where evidence accumulates that its thriving car industry will not survive unscathed from a hard Brexit. Leave is driven by emotion and by hope that what Keynes called the ‘animal spirits’ of market innovation will be unleashed. Meanwhile industry and finance, even Whitehall departments, are making arrangements for a no deal – just in case. Some good will come of this. But will it be enough?

So the granular ‘what does it mean?’ implications of Monday’s ERG-amended votes – does the reversal of the Chequers offer to collect tariffs on the EU’s behalf kill off the plan? – seems to me to be essentially symbolic, not substantial. Clearly wrecking Chequers was the intention. But remember, this week’s drama has been about Tory party infighting, not Michel Barnier’s real-life negotiation with Dominic Raab.

Thursday’s eyeballing debut should have generated some macho headlines by the weekend. Let’s be positive, fresh thinking may help and Raab is a full 25 years younger than Davis.

The Barnier clock ticks on, but those clichés about 11th-hour deals remain true, as clichés often do. And the final deal – if there is one – will undergo constant granular refinement as post-Brexit reality takes its toll on the Irish border and at Dover. In articles, interviews and his speech on the trade bill, David Davis still insists that DExEU’s rival plan, belated and aborted though it was, would have resolved the trade problem via a ‘mutual recognition’ regulatory regime and solved the phoney Irish border issue via the wonders of AI technology.

Reading it does make you ask yourself why no one else can spot these simple remedies and put us all out of our misery. But I rarely look to DD or to Boris for granular solutions. Last spring I heard the then-foreign secretary, during his two-year sabbatical from journalism, address a high-powered private audience on Brexit. As we came away someone said: ‘I learned nothing except that Boris is as useless in private as he is in public.’

You can experience similar feelings by reading his debut ‘He’s Coming Home’ column in Monday’s Telegraph. It was a rehash of Johnson’s ‘Global Britain’ riff in which the world is portrayed as queuing up to do business with us if only we can regain the self-confidence of our ‘bearded Victorian’ ancestors. He also seems to be under the impression that he presided over a highly successful regime at the FCO. A pal who talked recently with David Cameron reports that he too is still in deep denial about his own legacy. It happens that I did read an, all too rare, upbeat article about post-Brexit British trade prospects at the weekend, one whose feet were on the ground.

Sunday Times magazine reporter, John Arlidge, had spent months traipsing around after senior officials in Liam Fox’s trade team. Fox himself emerged as pretty feeble, but Antonia Romeo, his permanent secretary, sounded a live wire.

As for Crawford (‘I’m just a humble civil servant’) Falconer, the Scots-born Kiwi who is DExEU’s chief trade negotiator and a highly-experienced man, he was very impressive.

The thought occurred to reporter Arlidge, as it did to me, that most of what we were being told about the golden opportunities out there in Asia and Africa for a dynamic and nimble export-focussed economy could have been pursued by Britain while inside the EU. Yes, but Brexit will force us to concentrate on what we’re good at, it’s a ‘change of mindset’ that will unleash those animal spirits, says Falconer – who May’s Brexit man, Oliver Robbins, is reported to have kept at arm’s length. OK, if you say so, chaps. But no one was stopping you before.

Though he seems shy about his age (I can’t find it anywhere), Falconer must remember that dramatic switch in New Zealand’s outlook after Britain joined Europe in 1973, forcing traditional Kiwi exporters of lamb, cheddar cheese and butter to the UK to diversify and develop new Asian markets. After a tough transition from protectionism that tiny Pacific country has done brilliantly well – think Kiwi fruit and Kiwi wine – though it helps being almost Asian if you’re chasing Asian markets. Distance matters and cultural ties aren’t everything.

Which brings us to the week’s other drama, Donald Trump’s European tour, his assault on the NATO allies, his condemnation of the EU – apparently as a bigger trade ‘foe’ even than China. In passing there was his handbagging of May’s Brexit strategy (‘sue the EU,’ he told her privately) in the columns of the Sun, reinforced by his suggestion that Boris Johnson would make a ‘great prime minister.’ All this and a soft-soaping of President Putin after their brief session together, details of which are only now trickling out. How weird.

It’s very weird, it was even noticed by conservative Republicans at home – all but senator John McCain conspicuous for their craven complicity in Trump’s reckless and improper conduct in office. But let’s not be too smug now that Trump has left town without groping the Queen and with characteristic, buck-passing grace disowned as ‘fake news’ his disobliging comments in the Sun. It did not prevent respectable constitutional conservatives like Matthew Parris (Times) and the Telegraph’s Charles Moore, a former editor and rightly-acclaimed biographer of Margaret Thatcher, from lauding what they called his honesty.

Trump was right to point to NATO’s European partners underspending for decades on NATO, they said, albeit wrong in most of the detail. He was right to protest about the size of the EU’s overall trade surplus and the price Germany exacts from its southern neighbours in terms of eurozone austerity. Come to think of it, he also ‘has a point’ – as the columnists put it – over the ‘chaos’ he detected on Fox TV in May’s government, even if it is rich from a man who governs in chaos and has the law in hot pursuit.

But the notion that Trump is guilty of no more than bad manners, or is doing up all a favour by ‘shaking things up’, is to misunderstand fundamentally what the Great Disruptor and his shady cronies are about. Yes, he makes some valid points, but so did that loud German leader with the toothbrush moustache when he said the Treaty of Versailles was unjust. Other US presidents have protested about NATO spending and German surpluses, but done so constructively with open intentions.

The Trump crew are different, they are nationalists, they are populist in tone and routinely dishonest in detail, they are authoritarian and anti-constitutional. They are more comfortable with dictators, with ‘strong leaders’ like Putin, China’s Xi and North Korea’s grotesque ‘little rocket man’ than with dull, decent Merkel or even May. When Brexit cheerleaders move straight from condemning their own prime minister as a ‘traitor’ to condoning Trump’s evident dishonesty and casual hostility towards democratic allies, it should give decent people everywhere cause for concern.

When conservative Republicans accuse their own president of disloyalty to American values alarm bells should ring off the hook. Even Michael Gove has been signalling belated remorse over the Brexit campaign’s unscrupulous use of the Turkish migration scare in the referendum campaign. Beware of the T-for-Traitor word and of normalising the abnormal. It’s hard to reverse.

A second referendum? A new Tory leader? A general election? How best concerned voters express their alarm in ways that make a difference is increasingly the challenge we all face while we still have the chance.

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