Michael White on another fudge which sees Theresa May survive but Brexit’s judgement day is approaching
What does Matteo Salvini have in common with Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un of North Korea, but not with Theresa May, the 0/10 ‘schoolmistress’ of the US president’s recent musing? That’s right. The new Italian home secretary has a populist’s eye for the showbusiness side of policy. The television pictures and soundbites may be forgotten – or reversed – next month, but they cheer up their supporters while they last. The sugar rush of emotion surges on.
May’s Brexit policies may turn out badly too, as MPs on all points of the political compass warned her during Tuesday’s Commons debates on the EU (Withdrawal) Bill and did again on Wednesday. But they rarely have a showbiz moment: no sugar rush with Theresa. Any populist flair the PM might once have had left Downing St with Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, those Praetorian advisers and authors of the 2017 election disaster.
So Salvini fires up his right-wing supporters by rejecting a crowded boat load of African migrants, leaving Spain’s new left-led government to accept them and Brussels to look embarrassed. Trump has an airborne ‘temper tantrum’ and insults his G7 allies en route to a cosy mini-summit and vacuous communiqué with Little Rocket Man, his recently sworn ‘sick puppy’ of an enemy. ‘Peace in Our Time’ headlines galore spew from a media which should know better – and probably does, even in Pyongyang.
But bland and boring Theresa, barely name-checked at the G7 by Trump or the photographers, flies home to downbeat ‘May’s Last Ditch Plea to Rebels’ headlines. Her plight is accompanied by another burst of ‘she’s gotta go’ speculation from pro-Brexit Tory MPs who are usually no better at plotting than they are at devising a viable Brexit strategy. Yet this week May survived – yet again. Not for nothing did David Cameron call her ‘the submarine’.
By 4.15pm on Tuesday, when MPs started the first of the week’s series of votes to overturn the Lords amendments which so upset the tabloids (‘Great Britain or Great Betrayal?’ waffled the Sun), much of the hot air had already been gently released from the bicycle tyres of the Remain Tory rebellion. May’s work experience chief whip, Julian Smith, could be seen still scurrying around the chamber as the votes loomed after a series of hostile speeches from his own side.
But the pattern was quickly set: victory at a price. Team Smith carried the day against a ‘sifting committee’ to monitor any high-handed rejigging of repatriated EU legislation via ministerial secondary orders, known as ‘Henry VIII’ powers. The government won by a comfy 22 votes, 324 votes to 302.
And so the voting proceeded on near-identical lines to remove the uppity Lords legislative graffiti. Next to go was the peers removal of March 29 2019 as the ‘exit day’ on which Britain leaves the EU – exactly two years after May’s fateful and decidedly premature decision to trigger Article 50, an unforced error from which so many of the negotiations subsequent difficulties flow. The mood in the chamber was noisy, but the atmosphere about as tense as an episode of Peppa Pig.
As so often with ‘crucial vote’ dramas at Westminster, it was all over, virtually before it had started. The resignation of Dr Phillip Lee as a junior justice minister – unable to support the government’s ‘detrimental’ Brexit strategy with a clear conscience – was enough to reinforce Remain determination, despite the weekend decision of Amber Rudd to put loyalty before rebellion. Strange that Bracknell’s Lee sees his constituents best interests so differently from his neighbour in prosperous Berkshire, Wokingham’s John Redwood.
Tuesday had started with media pundits still warning readers, listeners and viewers that defeats by a cross-party coalition of Remain Tories and Labour, plus the smaller pro-EU parties (not absent Sinn Féin, of course), were still in prospect. Most likely was one on former head of the Foreign Office, Lord (John) Kerr’s amendment to keep the whole UK inside an EU customs union. Either that or on the beefed up Lords version of Dominic Grieve’s successful amendment last November to give the Commons a ‘meaningful vote’ on whatever the final deal is (or not).
But the customs union can was kicked further down the road by way of a re-drafting of the text devised by Sir Oliver ‘Three Brains’ Letwin, prime minister Cameron’s intellectual bagman. It substituted a customs ‘arrangement’ for a customs ‘union’. That managed to satisfy Nicky Morgan and Stephen Hammond on one side, Bill Cash and Jake Mogg on the other.
What will it mean in practice? Who can tell? Fresh from denying he had threatened to resign (only a white lie, his ‘friends’ did it for him in the newspapers), the Brexit secretary, ever-flexible David Davis, gave the change his blessing. Who knows what progress with North Korea might have been achieved if a draughtsman of Sir Oliver’s subtlety had been at peacemaker (‘think of it from a real estate perspective’) Trump’s elbow in Singapore.
Political reporters live by ‘what if?’ speculation and sometimes die by it too. Voters do not have to be as laid-back as the beauties taking part in ITV’s summer hit, Love Island (‘Brexit? What’s that?… I seriously don’t have a clue what that is’), to take most media hype with a pinch of salt. They know that in long-running battles there will be always another occasion for one side or the other to achieve a serious advantage. The best are done with no publicity at all, certainly no showbiz.
The ‘meaningful vote’ tussle behind the scenes on Monday and Tuesday did attract some front-of scenes attention. The Lords had passed over 100 amendments to the bill, some welcomed by ministers, some initiated by them, that’s a routine part of tidying up. May’s 21 defeats by the ‘unelected crooks, cronies, has-beens and Remoaner fanatics’ (copyright Fleet St) included several which were merely symbolic, including that March 29 exit date. If it has to be extended, it will be extended, amendments or not. Even Brussels concedes that.
Environmental standards and obligations? Wearing his new cloak of green, Michael Gove, promises to keep us all up to the EU mark. Abiding by the Good Friday Agreement in any border deal that Dublin must also accept? May promised in December she’ll do that anyway. Necessity nudges her that way. Brexiters suspect a Remain plot because they think the Irish dimension is bogus, the tail wagging the dog, as Boris Johnson put it.
As for the Lords endorsement of the Norway/EEA model of future trade arrangements – inside the single market and free movement zone, a fee-paying, rule taker – even some Brexiters play footsie with that option (as they did during the referendum campaign). But Labour scuppered any prospect of defeat for May when Keir Starmer put forward a version of his own. He did so to preserve party unity at the price of making it a poisoned pill for Tory rebels. Fancy talk of this being the most important Commons vote since the Norway debate of May 1940 put Churchill into power was very wide of the mark. This was not Labour’s finest hour.
But Grieve’s ‘meaningful vote’ campaign gained serious traction because the numbers were there to threaten May’s fragile coalition. Eleven determined rebels became a potential 14, enough to neutralise the DUP contingent. Lawyer Grieve – too few MPs have his brains, unflashy courage and integrity in the modern Commons – put up a ‘bridging’ amendment to reconcile the Lords demand (that MPs should take control of the Brexit process if May screws up) with government concerns that peers were handing a new negotiating weapon to Michel (‘Tick Tock’) Barnier.
It was rejected by No 10. But Julian Smith’s maths confirmed that further concessions were unavoidable. Hence solicitor general Robert Buckland’s public haggling with Grieve – in full view of the chamber – on which bits of the text might be further tweaked. For all their huffing and puffing in the Sunday papers, not many Tories want to precipitate an uncertain leadership contest, let alone an even more perilous general election. They are not as confident as some pretend that we have witnessed ‘Peak Corbyn’, though competent Labour moderates are.
So Team Grieve forced No 10 to the negotiating table, contrary to earlier statements. They duly met May in her suite of rooms in the maze of corridors behind Mr Speaker’s chair and got enough personal reassurance (‘it’s a matter of trust,’ she told them) to pull back. Back in the Commons chamber, the government’s amendment was carried by 324 votes to 298.
What did the rebels get exactly? As with the Trump-Kim communiqué in distant Singapore, it wasn’t entirely clear, not least because ambiguity is often vital to an agreement, a vital word goes missing from the final text to seal the deal. At the start of the day David Davis had told the House he had three sticking points: not to undermine the Brexit negotiations; not to change and enhance parliament’s role in treaty making; and not to renege on the referendum result.
Grieve’s text set out three strands. In the event of parliament rejecting the deal which Davis says is still on course for November, the government would have seven days to come up with fresh proposals. If the negotiation breaks down, ministers would have until November 30. If there has been no deal by February 15 – a mere six weeks from Brexit day – then the Commons would take over the negotiation or – at least – require her to ‘follow any direction’ it might give.
How much of this blueprint May has actually agreed to re-examine in the next few days was still a matter of dispute long after the vote. Obviously the third point is the tricky one. Just as Remainers believe it will make a ‘no deal’ crash less likely, Brexiteers fear it would put the UK negotiators over a Barnier barrel. Equally obviously, 650 MPs cannot literally negotiate anything, they can barely agree the way to the loo. Time, more haggling and unforeseen twists of events on the road to Brexit will determine how significant these textual concessions turn out to be.
But former attorney general Grieve, sacked by Cameron for not showing enough zeal for populist anti-European stunts over human rights, has had a good Brexit war. The bespectacled QC is not a sugar rush politician either, about as charismatic as an uncooked Dover sole on its slab. But he is much more articulate than the Downing St submarine, you know where you stand as you rarely do with May. He doesn’t play to the gallery as Jacob Rees-Mogg can’t resist doing, with his Bertie Wooster old fogey’s routine. Being much more of a backbench free agent than Keir Starmer QC, he does what Starmer tries to do but better. No boasting either.
All of which leads us back to where we started this column, with the showbusiness, sugar rush crowd, with serial resigner Davis, with Boris Johnson, the poor man’s Berlusconi, and with the man I now refer to as the late Paul Dacre. Editor of the Daily Mail until his 70th birthday on November 14 (a twinned birthday he shares with Prince Charles) he must already feel his power ebbing away as executives, leader writers and columnists, even the chap who wrote that deplorable ‘Enemies of the People’ headline about the judges, quietly start making adjustments to the known views of a new editor. Punches will be pulled.
Old Etonian smoothie, Geordie Grieg, won’t do anything drastic. You might say Not-Sir-Paul (surely a greater honour not to get a knighthood?) has already done his Brexit worst. But Grieg ran the Mail on Sunday as an actively pro-EU paper, not just to annoy Dacre either. By background and outlook he is a Cameroon. He will modify the tone, there will be no more squashing of saboteurs and many fewer traitors to the mythical England of Dacre’s tortured imagination. On Wednesday morning ‘Remoaners Rebels’ Brexit Blackmail’ was relegated to page eight. How pathetic is that?
Where does that leave Brexit champions who have danced to Dacre’s tune for so long? Last week Davis played shamelessly to the gallery, demanding his own rewording of the Irish ‘backstop’ text and noisily proclaiming his meaningless victory (through his ‘friends’, of course) after seeing May twice. Boris Johnson went one worse, making shallow and disloyal remarks in private which were conveniently taped and promptly leaked. Don’t sack the cad, Theresa. It’s what he wants. Leave the fat fraudster swinging gently in the summer heat. Turn the air-con off.
I cannot imagine the new editor of the Mail will have been impressed by the foreign secretary’s suggestion that Donald Trump would make a better job of the Brexit negotiation. Even Dacre felt conflicted about the disrupter-in-chief’s performance. At the G7 he took another swing at the rules-based global order, embodied in the fragile World Trade Organisation (WTO) on which the Moggs and Redwoods place such store.
Italy joins Hungary and other EU populists – plus Brexit moneybags, Arron ‘Six-Hour Lunch’ Banks – in the pro-Russian corner. The world changes in scary ways. But Dacre is retiring. Rupert Murdoch cannot live for ever and some of his henchmen are having second thoughts about Brexit. The economy is faltering (except in the tabloids) and the outgoing president of the CBI berates the government for putting the politics of Brexit before the economics – exactly what Team Brexit has always done. Don’t get your hopes up, but anything could happen. Kim may even not be playing Donald Trump for a sucker.
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