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MICHAEL WHITE: Theresa May is going down fighting

Prime Minister Theresa May is congratulated by ministers and Conservative MPs in the House of Common. Photograph: PA Wire. - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Theresa May has tried to convince us all she is just like batsman Geoffrey Boycott, but – as MICHAEL WHITE explains – on Tuesday her side lost three wickets.

If Theresa May is poised to lose her version of a Brexit deal next Tuesday, and possibly her job, she is going down fighting, which is the best way to go. It has barely been possible to switch on the television or open a newspaper since she began her ground-to-air war offensive without finding a beaming and immaculately-groomed prime minister doing her modest best to show she just loves campaigning. There is barely a supermarket checkout in our four home nations that has been spared the attention of Waitrose in Twyford’s most famous customer. At the Commons dispatch box – two days running this week – she was as dogged as her favourite batsman, Mr Boycott. But on Tuesday her side lost three wickets.

Whether her suffering will do May much good remains to be seen – despite the bloodshed – although her stubborn pluck seems to have impressed many voters who won’t have a vote at the end of the five-day debate now in progress. She lacks the rhetorical power to stir hearts and, in any case, had assigned that task to her attorney general. Geoffrey Cox – the Britain’s Still Got Political Talent hit of the conference season – duly turned up on Monday afternoon to defend the government’s refusal to publish his unredacted legal advice on the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement and that Geoffrey Boycott backstop. He failed. Next day ministers lost by 311 to 293. This is the worst crisis since the last one.

Opinions varied as to whether the £1 million-a-year multi-purpose barrister and his rich, flamboyant deployment of the English language made him sound Shakespearian, like a reincarnated Churchill or just a silly old ham. But that dilemma is easily resolved. Few politicians ever touch the sublime heights of Stratford Bill, but few have hammed it up as often as Winston Churchill. He frequently made a fool of himself, both booed and ignored in his wilderness decade of the 1930s. Only when things got really serious the last time Britain left Europe – via Dunkirk in 1940 – did left-wingers overcome their natural antipathy and applaud.

How West Devon’s Cox looks to the history books – if any are still written – will depend on what happens next, whether we leave, well or badly, leave and return a few years later – like last time – or don’t leave at all. In a hydra-headed crisis like this one – and most real crises – new twists occur every day.

Martin Rowson’s illustration for The New European (Image: Martin Rowson) – Credit: Archant

Dominic Grieve’s successful amendment, which requires May (if her deal falls) to present a new tweaked deal within three weeks – does that mean parliamentary weeks, not Christmas week? – and face amendments from all quarters, puts MPs in the driving seat. It is the politics equivalent of a Tesla driverless car.

More than that, Grieve’s tactical win came within 24 hours of Chuka Umunna, Justine Greening and Caroline Lucas delivering a 1.5 million signature petition demanding a People’s Vote – Refo II – to Downing Street. On top of which the European Court of Justice’s legal adviser – its Geoffrey Cox – issued his formal opinion that the UK still can revoke its Article 50 withdrawal notice, and do so without the EU27’s approval too. So Scottish judges and Lord John Kerr (who claims to have written A50) were right, and the usual suspects wrong. It fuels the feeling that all is still to play for. That must be what the energised May and her buoyant chief whip, Julian Smith, feel too. What are they on?

Back on his sceptred isle the florid Cox himself is pro-Brexit, but not daft. ‘It is time they grew up and got real,’ the QC told his hard Brexit critics as he urged MPs to take ‘a calculated risk’ on the unsatisfactory Irish backstop. He was reluctantly supporting it ‘because I do not believe that we’re likely to be entrapped in it permanently,’ if at all.

Remember, the EU doesn’t much like it either, fearing that it gives the UK unfair advantage, Cox adds. Hard Brexit diehards ignore that bit, as they must to stay relatively sane. Guided by the born-again Daily Mail, Michael Gove, Liam ‘Air Miles’ Fox, fervently loyal Andrea Leadsom and others on Brexit’s pragmatic wing have lined up with Cox too. Fox has become positively evangelical. What’s his game?

Of course, with such a momentous and complex decision looming – so many brain-hurting options – MPs and the media were eager to engage in diversionary, displacement activity of a simpler, more binary kind. A cross-party coalition of MPs – Labour, Lib Dem, assorted Nats and Greens – some of whom should have known better (I mean you, former-director of public prosecutions, Keir Starmer QC), whipped up that contempt of parliament campaign over the government’s refusal to publish more than a 43-page summary of what Cox QC had told the colleagues in private.

There is a long history to this row, not least the kerfuffle over attorney general Peter Goldsmith’s refusal to publish his advice on the disputed legality of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. That was a stronger case, but all governments have refused to breach ‘the law officers’ convention’ on the grounds of client confidentiality and the greater candour with which confidential advice can be given. It’s a good reason, as lawyer Starmer must know. He’s playing with fire and will regret it if Labour will eventually win power again. The Commons voted to be childish. It is not a good omen.

Perhaps Starmer QC senses that the next party leadership contest at Westminster will not be Sajid Javid (‘Sajid needs to be ready,’ mouthy Liz Truss apparently bellowed in a restaurant on Monday) versus Jeremy Hunt or our Poundland Churchill, Boris Johnson, as tea room sages predict.

It will be Starmer versus John-McDonnell-backed-left-wing-woman. I sense the former DPP was playing the tough guy out of character to impress Labour’s electorate. Some of the loudest cheers at Labour’s Liverpool conference were for Starmer’s insistence that a second referendum must be an option. Real tough guy, McDonnell, has since come round to this view too – to the annoyance of Jeremy Corbyn’s pro-Brexit Praetorian Guard, keepers of the leader’s brain.

They have cynically parked it on the fence where next week’s votes may finally push it off. If May loses on Tuesday (by how many votes is important) and Labour and its tactical allies make good their threatened vote of no confidence, Tory rebels have to make their minds up: Theresa or the risk of a Corbyn-Sturgeon government? If May survives – and does not surprise us all (especially me) by resigning anyway – then Labour will have to risk having to please 86% of its membership – but not Labour’s ‘left-behind’ Brexit voters – by finally backing a People’s Vote. If that too fails, as currently seems likely, MPs must coalesce behind a compromise (May’s deal, at a second market-spooked attempt? Michael Gove’s preference, ‘Norway-for-now’?) or face that economic cliff that everyone but Nigel Lawson (he lives in France) can see.

No wonder some prefer displacement activity, which has not been confined to alleged contempt over Cox’s advice. It is 50 years since I first realised, when reporting meetings of ancient Berkshire’s county council (since abolished with the support of Berkshire MPs like John Redwood), that councillors were much happier discussing the colour of park benches than they were the education budget. By the same token the parties have been locked in an absurd, undignified row about the format for Sunday night’s TV debate between May and Corbyn, possibly other interested parties too if a compromise can be stuck, as I assume it will after the BBC blinked first. The spat is trivial and demeaning, but easier to strike poses over than a customs deal. The Electoral Commission should have the authority to bang heads together, as it should to police politics’ dark web and the sinister money behind it.

As the lead item on BBC news bulletins pointlessly keep reminding us, it is not remotely clear how the cards will fall in the week ahead (I have unfortunately booked a distant family holiday), nor even the order in which those cards will be played. To the agitation of pro-Brexit MPs who suspect he is actively hostile to their side, a crucial role will be played by Commons speaker, John Bercow, who has moved from right-wing student hooligan to what sometimes sounds like centre-leftist. What the Brexits choose to forget is that they owe this misfortune to one of their own. It was Douglas Carswell, former Tory-turned-UKIP-MP for Clacton, turned Tory again, who drove the campaign in 2009 to scapegoat Labour speaker Mick Martin for MPs’ collective sin over their own expenses.

Short-sighted and unfair. The then-Labour majority duly elected Bercow, a reformer but a chippy one, in retaliation. It was Bercow who allowed Starmer’s motion on Tuesday. So the speakership is another example of Brexit self-harm. Who knew that UK science gets a great deal of research money from EU budgets? Or that Scottish or Cornish fisherfolk sell most of their catch to EU members states and will have to trade access to UK waters for access to EU markets? Who knew that most of these islands’ just-in-time spare parts and perishable food comes through the Channel port of Dover? Not Boris the compulsive bridge-builder to anywhere, not Dominic Raab or Jake O’Mogg, it seems.

But at this dangerous juncture scorn is also a weapon to be deployed economically and with care if we are ever to bind up the wounds which Brexit has exposed. Brexit attacks on ‘metropolitan liberal elites’ as remote and uncaring are as superficial in Britain as they are in all the other countries in which populists and nationalists trot them out, fondly imagining they have grasped a truth, not an old and clichéd tactic beloved of demagogues and dictators. But in a globalised world where markets sometimes distribute rewards with gross unfairness there is usually a germ of truth in the jibe which so effectively marshals left-behind or excluded voters under the ‘take back control’ banner.

I was again struck by this on Monday when I braved the winter rain to attend a ‘Brexit: the Endgame?’ briefing organised by the ardently pro-EU Federal Trust. It was a pretty lacklustre occasion in which an ex-MEP, Anita Pollack, and learned scholars – a Dr Andrew Blick and a Dr Andrew Black – told a 50-strong, mainly-elderly audience, one which seemed on first name terms, things they probably knew already about next week’s options and the practical objections to most of them. There was a natural disposition towards a halt to the Article 50 process followed by the Refo II scenario with hard Brexit vs Remain as the binary choice, rather than multiple options that might not produce a clear mandate to MPs.

A wishful quality as to the speed at which this could be done – the experts’ 22 weeks of preparation was dismissed by one speaker as unduly pessimistic – was itself underpinned by a fatalism which made me think of all those other well-meaning middle class citizens who agonised ineffectually as a perfect storm threatened to engulf their lives. ‘We need to think about this,’ said one speaker, as if the storm was not imminent. PowerPoint facts were produced to show how much economic damage would be done, under any form of Brexit and to suggest that it’s being done to save a net UK contribution to EU budgets (after the rebate) of around four billion euros. Oh yes, and Turkish lorries still have a long wait getting into Bulgaria despite their customs union.

Melancholy stuff, but apart from a plea for more tolerance and reconciliation, attributed to the Archbishop of York, nowhere did I hear any sound of imaginative sympathy for the possibility of some legitimacy for Brexit points of view. They were very ‘othered’ – bad people whose foolish mistake in 2016 needed to be reversed by a second vote in which, said someone, EU UK residents and 16-17-year-olds should get a vote this time, despite accusations of vote-rigging. ‘We’re going to be denounced by Leave anyway, so we might as well do what we want.’

That sort of thinking is surely both unwise and unhelpful, product of a mindset that helped Remain lose in 2016. The Guardian’s Matthew d’Ancona, clever and thoughtful, penned a despairing column that told us all to admit that xenophobia, not sovereignty or the economy, drove that result. That strikes me as being as crude as the ‘liberal elite’ jibe and worryingly dismissive of legitimate concerns about stagnant pay rates, pressure on housing and public services, and the displacement of traditional communities by new ones. D’Ancona’s Guardian colleague Polly Toynbee framed it better when she highlighted the neglect of further education and the technical skills agenda which further disadvantages poorer social groups. These are the kind of voters who tend to back Brexit out of sheer disaffection from a system they see as failing them.

It should hardly be a secret, but many seem to close their eyes. And it’s not just us. The Orban government in Hungary goes from populist strength to strength. In the south Spanish province of Andalucia, the far-right got an electoral toe-hold this week. And France’s unstructured ‘yellow vest’ protests forced Emmanuel (‘I’m not for turning’) Macron into a damaging U-turn over fuel hike prices that hit the car-dependant provinces hardest. The sentiments are pure Brexit. Xenophobia is certainly likely to be part of the mix, just as violent agitators, both left and right, will have seized the excuse to burn and beat in Paris. But it feeds on a wider sense of exclusion that should be at the centre of political debate – not afterthoughts on the television news.

That’s what May promised when she first entered Downing Street. But almost everything has been subsumed by the Brexit negotiations and the attendant political whirlwind. Almost everything, but not quite. The one red line which has survived her Lancaster House and later EU speeches has been an end of free movement of EU citizens. On a practical level it is quite bonkers, not least because the UK economy needs semi-skilled and low wage labour as well as bankers and computer game programmers, or that new data shows non-EU migration still rising as the European arrivals shrink.

May’s cabinet colleagues know this. That’s why home secretary Javid confirmed that the post-Brexit immigration white paper is being postponed again because the ‘bloody difficult woman’ (copyright K Clarke) has dug in her kitten heels. Candidate Javid, son of a Pakistani bus driver whose clever sons did very well, makes plain the opposition which May also gets from Philip Hammond, Greg Clarke and others. Immigration has been good for him. Yet the vicar’s daughter from rural Oxfordshire, who failed as home secretary to deliver David Cameron’s ‘tens of thousands’ pledge, persists in her ‘citizens of nowhere’ and ‘jumping the queue’ talk. She is hardly a Farage or aka ‘Tommy Robinson’. Is she just trying to deliver the one Brexit promise she thinks – against much evidence – that a sovereign government can deliver? Or is border control an illusion too?

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