MICHAEL WHITE on a Tory party as bitterly divided over Europe as they ever were
Let’s sum up the week. Boris and Michael are in love again, but David is cross with both of them for sending an interfering ‘Orwellian’ love letter to Theresa about Philip’s ‘insufficient energy’ in wooing the fair maid, Brexit.
Theresa would love to sack them all (not you, David), but as mere prime minister she lacks the authority. So she settles for sacking Priti who blames Team Boris for briefing against her own foolishness. And Jeremy? Oh, don’t ask.
Is that clear now? No. Then let’s tackle something easier. In a bid to head off imminent defeat by moderate Conservative rebels during 500 amendments to the EU Withdrawal Bill this week, David has dreamed up another bill to fight over. It is called the Withdrawal Agreement and Implementation Bill.
Though presented as a ‘concession’, if MPs vote the new bill down on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, Britain will crash out of the EU at 11pm on March 29 2019 anyway – unless MPs vote down David’s own amendment to the old bill. That would provoke immoderate Conservative rebels to a new bout of ‘we wuz robbed’ paranoia.
None of it sounds a good idea – neither flexible nor pragmatic, as May said in Florence. When Brussels tries the ‘take it or leave it’ approach it is denounced as blackmail. When Downing Street does it the Daily Dacre calls it implementing ‘the will of the people’ and ‘calling the Remain saboteurs bluff’. A test of wills is underway, the mood among Tories is ugly.
I keep whistling in the dark about all this, telling anyone who will listen that Britain will muddle through its Brexit agony. With luck it will stagger into the next decade with less damage than gloomier Remainers fear and more distress than Tooth Fairy Brexiteers admit.
But routine chaos in government makes it ever harder for the Sherpas negotiating with Michel Barnier out of the public view. ‘Tick, tock’ goes Barnier’s clock.
But one of the more ludicrous aspects of the angry war of words between Leave and Remain camps is that both sides constantly demand that the other lot apologise for getting something wrong, while stoutly refusing to admit error or misjudgment of their own. So let me say right away, I was wrong here last week.
Mutual intolerance is what ideological certainty and political zeal does for people, and Britain is currently suffering a very bad outbreak of the disease in which – I sorrowfully concede – some Remainers cherry-pick the data with as much righteous glee as ardent Brexits.
I know which side I’m on, but it does no harm to admit that the evidence points both ways. So do negotiating tactics in Brussels. The apparent stalemate is not all our fault, but we are much more vulnerable to Barnier’s crash scenario if it happens. Bluff? Yes, on both sides.
Certainly no good can come from over-reliance on the habits of confirmation bias, the self-validating loop that streamed social media makes toxic. Bias led me to excess when I raised the suspicion last week that the conspicuous casualties of the sex harassment uproar at Westminster seem to be pro-May Remain ministers: Michael Fallon out, Damian Green tottering, as he still is.
Did circumstantial evidence suggest that Brexit champions – Talk Radio’s Julia Hartley-Brewer, for example, talk cabinet’s Andrea Leadsom or talk idiocy’s Sun – might be using the Harvey Weinstein’s scandal to revive past misdemeanours and purge Remain’s ranks? I thought they might and I might even be a bit right.
But the fall of Brexit’s Priti Patel quickly showed that what matters much more this autumn is an ill-disciplined cabinet populated by people with more ambition than experience, wisdom or loyalty.
They correctly sense weakness in Theresa May. But their blatant attempts to undermine her – Gove and Johnson’s leaked ‘Merlot Memo’ urging a Hard Brexit wins this week’s Sabotage Prize – may have the opposite effect. It certainly did for Gordon Brown’s decade-long ‘Blair Must Go’ campaign.
It may be worth pointing out here that the most obvious conspiracy at work is sometimes the one in plain view. What’s going on when former top copper, Bob Quick, accuses Damian Green of having porn (Quick hadn’t actually seen it himself) on his Commons office computers, computers seized during a controversial 2008 police raid arising from leaks of sensitive Home Office data to the then-shadow immigration minister?
At the time I wrote that the cops had no business raiding a Commons office for a leak inquiry. I find Quick’s latest intervention conveniently timed. Remember, as Home Secretary Theresa May took on the police, not just cutting their budgets but accusing them of bad practices and – in the Police Federation – worse.
The police have their agenda too. They went after Tony Blair over the ‘loans for honours’ controversy which I predicted all along would fail. Wiltshire police shamelessly abused the dead Ted Heath (and others) over the paedophile outcry.
The list is long. When I suggested that the cops were leaking against Blair during the loans inquiry, high-minded colleagues were happier to believe that Team Blair was trying to construct an ‘unfair trial’ defence.
When Scotland Yard’s John Yates – who ran the Blair probe – resigned over the News of the World phone hacking scandal, they changed their tune. Fleet St’s pack is usually chummier with their police contacts than they are with their political adversaries. Watch out as the Green saga unfolds. And by the way, the DPP who decided not to prosecute him in 2008 was, yes, Keir Starmer, now Labour’s Brexit point man.
What was striking about the political obits written for the ex-International Development secretary was their stress on Patel’s naked ambition, the determination of this child of hard-working Ugandan Asian refugees – a Tory HQ press officer when I first knew her – to become prime minister. Nothing wrong with that, you may say. I agree.
With the dearth of evident experience and/or talent to fill senior vacancies across the developed world we should all be slightly grateful for pushy volunteers like Patel, Boris Johnson and ‘No Experts’ Gove, his new Best Friend Forever (again). I do not detect such any ambition in Hammond or Green, even in May, though Amber Rudd is not trying very hard to control her well-meaning fan club.
All of which makes the details of Patel’s Israel ‘summer holiday’ the more extraordinary. That she should hold a string of freelance meetings on sensitive off-piste subjects in sensitive places without telling the FCO or – fatal error – when the PM gave her the chance, shows arrogance as well as innocent folly. What was Lord Polak, Patel’s influence-peddling fixer thinking? As a supposedly experienced lobbyist he might just as well have shot her and got it over with.
Putting aside suspicions that Patel might have been courting a future donor network, the paradox is that she was getting to be well regarded as a minister, albeit one starting from an aid-sceptic stance.
She proved willing to challenge ways in which the Department for International Development’s bloated budget is allocated, spent and mis-spent, as even its former champion, Labour’s Clare Short now concedes.
She got the aid definition changed to allow help to be sent to the hurricane-stricken British Virgin Islands whose wealthy ‘residents’ seem unwilling to pony up. She worked to align aid better with UK foreign policy goals. Good.
‘Patel was one of only four cabinet ministers my civil service pals rate as competent,’ a Labour veteran grudgingly confides. Make that three. No, Boris Johnson was not on my friend’s list.
The foreign secretary’s patently unsuitable appointment was a misjudged act of political expediency, never credible to allies and one which has now gone rancid in an unusually horrible way.
British-Iranian, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, already a pawn in Tehran’s theocratic political cesspool, faces more time in jail thanks to the so-called foreign secretary’s ‘teaching journalists’ carelessness. Gove’s evident indifference on Sunday sofa TV (why wasn’t he properly briefed?) has compounded crass ineptitude. Narcissist Boris, who never takes responsibility, needed two tries before he admitted his wrong-doing to MPs.
Awful. But lack of heavyweight talent or moral compass among Team Brexit is what keeps the beleaguered May in office (‘but not in power,’ as Norman Lamont said of John Major). Thus John Redwood was in hot water this week after suggesting investors ‘look further afield’ than the UK, whose chancellor, he regularly hints, is still committed to an austerity that rival central banks and finance ministers – even the hated ECB – are abandoning in favour of growth. Redwood is a well-paid ‘global strategist’ to the private City investment firm of Charles Stanley (founded 1792) which has been through stormy times lately. How does he parse his loyalties?
After all, veteran Brexiteer, Bill Cash, can solemnly write that – because of the referendum – Maastricht rebels like him cannot be compared with today’s Remain wreckers whose resistance threatens both a 1911-style constitutional crisis over the House of Lords and ‘the danger of a Corbynista government’.
Cash’s hero, John Bright, would not agree with him that an MP’s role is to suspend his/her own judgement. But Cash, Redwood and Team Brexit – who offer conflicting roads to Brexit by faith alone and no maps – are all burdens for Chancellor Hammond to juggle in next week’s budget.
I wish I could follow the advice of armchair generals in Fleet St who are urging May to clean out the cabinet’s deadwood and promote the thrusting youngsters first elected in 2010 or even 2015. Mostly they mean purging ministers they dislike – Brexit is the litmus paper – and mostly they avoid naming names for fear of being laughed at. If few voters have heard of Fallon or Patel – the May apologists jibe, mean but fair – who outside their constituencies has heard of Philip Dunne, Guto Bebb or other second-tier ministers of state? ‘Damian Hinds for DFID’ is not a slogan to shift opinion polls where, incidentally, Labour’s lead over the Tory shambles (so Tony Blair was tactless enough to point out) is not the 20% it should be – but just 3%.
The minister of state (armed forces, later disability) who did emerge from the ruck with the ball last week was Penny Mordaunt, who is quite well known, not least for her TV appearance in a swim suit and her mildly risqué line in naval reserve officer’s jokes. Hers is as upwardly mobile and lively a CV as Patel’s, her ambition better hidden perhaps.
The first of her family to attend university – philosophy at Reading – and a distant descendant of early Labour grandees Philip Snowden (Ramsay MacDonald’s chancellor of the exchequer) and George Lansbury (Ramsay Mac’s Corbynite successor), she has done lots of things – and done them in confident style too.
It all looks promising until the shadow of Brexit falls upon her. It is perfectly OK for a Portsmouth paratrooper’s daughter to support Brexit, especially an ambitious one keen to catch the prevailing political wind in Portsmouth’s patriotic harbour. Ambitious politicians usually start out on the wing and tack towards the centre.
But Mordaunt may find it harder to overcome two black marks against her judgement; one her support for Andrea Leadsom’s leadership bid in 2016, the other her insistence during the referendum – against Cameron’s express (‘absolutely wrong’) contradiction – that Britain would not be able to veto Turkish accession to the EU. ‘These countries are going to join, it is a matter of when.’
Wrong in every particular, so Minister Morduant has work to do, perhaps as a cabinet conciliator rather than a partisan.
This week an EU business delegation warned May that the risks to Europe’s economy of a Hard Brexit are getting worse. She told them she needs to know more of what Brussels wants from Britain. At the Lord Mayor’s Banquet she then changed the subject and attacked Russian cyber-warfare.
The media lapped it up. Wag the dog, anyone?