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MICHAEL WHITE: Theresa May’s jungle warfare

Prime Minister Theresa May makes a statement outside 10 Downing Street Photo: PA / Victoria Jones - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Michael White on a week which brought both a people’s vote and a no-deal Brexit closer.

Watching BBC1’s Dynasties, David Attenborough’s documentary about the unending struggle for dominance among chimpanzees in the forests of Senegal, I couldn’t help thinking of the Johnson family. The comparison is not meant to be offensive, certainly not to the chimps, who were impeccably well behaved by Brexit standards, though periodically violent during critical stages of group negotiation. At times I could have sworn it was one against 27.

If you watched Dynasties before Peter Jackson’s Armistice Day film, They Shall Not Grow Old, on Sunday night you will know that KL is the wise old chimpanzee who is recruited by the group’s embattled leader, David, as he fends off a challenge from younger rivals, noisy Luther and Jumpkin. We can all play this game. You may prefer to see Theresa May as David, Brexit negotiator Olly Robbins as her loyal KL, and her cabinet scourges as the boisterous young rivals. I see Stanley, the Johnson family patriarch, as KL and Remain’s Jo Johnson as David. Boris is the over-excited Luther who gets seen off. KL tries to be loyal to both.

Don’t laugh. It was Jo who once joked ‘I’m the ambitious one’. He’s the one with the Oxford First, not Boris, the former head of David Cameron’s No.10 policy unit, the one chiefly responsible for the 2015 Tory manifesto which won his party its first Commons majority since John Major’s in 1992. ‘Jo’s the clever one, uniquely blessed with principle, but clever enough to conceal his ambition,’ says a pal who knows him well (as I do not). Unhappy though the outcome was, we should remember the Milibands.

I’m sorry there’s no part here for our New European columnar colleague, sister Rachel, but, if Attenborough’s film is any guide, she’s far too assertive to be a passive Senegalese chimp housewife. Indeed, none of the cabinet women in this drama are that type either: think Andrea Leadsom, Esther McVey and Penny Mordaunt. All are noisy Brexiteers, not-so-patiently biding their time. Mordaunt this week called for the UK to follow Trump’s lead and leave UNESCO, which is way above her pay grade. As for Phil Hammond’s deputy, the reliably lightweight Liz Truss, vice-chair of Opportunists for Brexit (Boris is chairman for life), she has reportedly been excluded from Treasury Brexit planning meetings as unTrussworthy.

Back in the concrete jungle of London SW1, May told Monday’s Lord Mayor’s Banquet that there negotiations had finally reached the ‘endgame’. I write a ‘don’t hold your breath’ version of this here every other Groundhog Week. But wonders never cease. On Tuesday afternoon RTE radio rang me from Dublin to say a draft had been signed. As you know, May briefed her cabinet one by one and let them speed-read the draft, but not take it away and leak. Margaret Thatcher once tried that divide-and-rule trick and was forced to resign within 24 hours.

The drama shifted the focus away from Friday’s unexpected resignation of thoughtful Remainer Jo Johnson (46) from his modest perch as junior transport minister but only temporarily. If the cabinet bites May’s ‘as good as it gets’ bullet parliament becomes the battleground. Will JJ’s departure prove more destabilising to No.10’s chances of winning the crucial ‘meaningful vote’ in the Commons than the chest-beating performance of his big brother, Boris (54), who swung noisily out of the cabinet jungle in July for the opposite reason?

The resignation certainly felt a significant development on Day One, as JJ issued his measured statement and did a little media, but not much. Some ex-journalists (Johnson Junior was a correspondent on the FT) are wise enough to steer clear of fellow-hacks and cease to measure their career in terms of headlines and column inches. He described the current state of play as ‘a failure of British statecraft on a scale unseen since the Suez crisis’ of 1956, which ended British delusions of imperial power – at least it did for a while. I realise the phrase is not as snappy as Boris J’s ‘absolute stinker’, a ‘suicide vest’ or an ‘inverted pyramid of piffle’, the phrase Boris used to bluster his way out of the adultery scandal for which Michael Howard sacked him.

But his sibling’s historical analogy has the virtue of being true. In addition to which JJ’s breaking point this month was what he sees as No.10’s drive to organise a comparable deception now. William Hague’s emollient deployment on Radio 4’s Today on Wednesday is a sign the ‘keep calm’ plan has started. The Mail and even the Express (!!) were supportive.

As May’s gofer, David Lidington, candidly put it during his own appearance on Today: ‘Most people want us to get on with it and deliver a good deal.’ Loyalists are counting on war-weariness to carry them over the line. Short-termist, though it’s not hard to see why. We are on the edge of having to commit billions to no-deal planning and hoarding panics. Hague played up the no-Brexit, hard Brexit and Corbyn-for-PM alternatives.

Back in 1956 Anthony Eden’s clandestine plot with France and Israel to seize the newly-nationalised Suez Canal was underhand, dishonourable and inept. Angry and deceived, the US torpedoed sterling and we withdrew the invasion force. Hold that thought. One theory doing the Westminster rounds today is the ‘TARP scenario’, by which MPs mean that – as with the US Congress’s rejection of the bank-bailout in 2008 – the Commons will reject May’s deal, but cave in after the ensuing financial panic sinks the pound. Johnson Junior wants to head off that risk by speaking up before the Whitehall machine cranks up. Will it work with MPs? The sums are impossible to calculate.

How to head it off exactly? Well, he’s a second referendum man. New European readers, who bellowed ‘People’s Vote’ outside parliament on Tuesday night, need no further explanation. How to bring one about in a mutually acceptable way, what questions (and wording) to put on the ballot paper to achieve a healing outcome, big questions remain to be answered. But it’s finally mainstream. Gordon Brown made a weighty contribution on Monday – to which I will return. This week, MPs have also been discussing procedural options – can the crucial approve motion be amended? – as well as forcing (without a vote) publication of the attorney general’s legal advice on the deal.

What Johnson’s departure has done is to make it respectable for moderate, pro-Remain Tory MPs to reject the narrative so obviously being constructed for the ‘meaningful vote’: May’s compromise deal or the no-deal hard Brexit alternative endorsed – at least in theory – by the 60 or so right-wing Tory MPs in the European Not Much Research Group (ERG). JJ does not deploy tabloid slang or bluster; he’s no grandstander. But he can pack a verbal punch. ‘Can the choice being offered us between vassalage and chaos truly represent the national interest?’ he asked in Tuesday’s Times.

Note that variation on ‘vassal state’, the phrase beloved of hard Brexiteers, whom I must refrain from calling wingnuts because one day we must all live together again in harmony again. What’s more, as Big Bro was quick to notice, the fraternal conclusions were not a million miles apart. JJ’s talk of ‘vassalage’ (not a term I like) and of May’s proposed ‘fake Brexit’ package being the worst of both worlds is like his brother’s admission that Britain would be better off staying inside the EU than being a rule-taker locked for the foreseeable future inside a customs union.

On Twitter some even speculated this convergence proves it was a collusive, family double act. Some people do love a plot, don’t they? But I don’t think so. JJ didn’t show his brother his own resignation letter, he told the Evening Standard. His constituency party in Brexit-voting suburban Orpington seems to back him. He and they have intimate knowledge of tailbacks on the M2 and M20 roads to Dover which – DExEU minister, Dominc Raab, has just discovered – is quite important to an island’s trade. Somerset’s Jacob Rees-Mogg who spoke airily of using Southampton’s alternative port (Ramsgate is a better bet, Jake) remains impervious to geography. Perhaps he doesn’t eat soft fruit, 70% of which comes from Europe and is highly perishable. On Tuesday afternoon he joined forces with the DUP, as useless as it is self-important, and the likes of Mark Francois to demand a cabinet mutiny. Is he panicking?

Assuming the EU accepts the putative May-Barnier package (I was wrong here to say it will require unanimity, not a qualified majority; unanimity is reserved for that future trade deal), where might Labour fit into the parliamentary phase of the May endgame? Half-hearted Jeremy Corbyn told Der Spiegel – it means ‘the mirror’ – last week that ‘we can’t stop’ Brexit. But that’s because he remains a Bennite Brexit man at heart. Emily Thornberry contradicted her leader on the People’s Vote option and Keir Starmer contradicted him on Article 50, reminding Jeremy of Labour’s conference vote to keep all options open. ‘Jeremy used to remind me that we should be bound by conference motions,’ Brown recalled in a speech at the Institute for Government this week. Indeed. Tony Blair launched a scornful attack on Corbyn’s craven passivity.

‘Brexit can be stopped,’ insists lawyer Starmer. He’s right, though the European Court of Justice is posed to give its own legal opinion because there are two sides to any negotiation. More interesting is whether the EU27 would let us withdraw our withdrawal or even extend the A50 process, as Brits assume if MPs vote down May’s package.

Remember, Brexit is not the 27’s number one (economic) or even number two (immigration) policy headache. They face a populist tide in next year’s European parliament elections, which concessions on the Brexit talks might well exacerbate. Then there’s Italy’s Corbyn-esque budget challenge – more spending, lower taxes – from the left/right populist coalition in Rome.

Italy’s draft budget has already been rejected by Brussels, but Rome won’t back down unless there’s a market meltdown (TARP again?). Populists want headlines, not answers, they like to drive wedges between their rivals, preferably cultural ones.

Incidentally, that is the best explanation why right-wing Brits who usually don’t care much what happens to Pakistani villagers are demanding that Britain grant asylum to Asia Bibi, the horribly persecuted Christian mother accused of blasphemy by angry mobs. Boris Johnson, more famous for helping keep mothers locked up, has joined in. It’s an orgy of self-righteous populism on which Donald Trump must surely weigh in soon.

No one can accuse Gordon Brown of populism, he was always too weighed down by brains and scruples (except where Tony Blair was concerned). I heard him talk on Brexit at the Institute for Government on Monday. He was characteristically high-minded and lucid to the point of being scary.

All the strategic questions about the sort of country Britain wants to become have been ducked during Brexit, he said. None are resolved. Instead of establishing the government’s objectives beforehand, the negotiation has been dictated by short-term, party-led imperatives. ‘A decision has been made not to have a decision.’ The process of withdrawal has also been defective: inward-looking, partisan, piecemeal, lacking in any inclusivity by way of dialogue with industry, business and the wider community. The former PM and chancellor contrasted the hasty rush into Article 50 with Harold Macmillan’s ‘Future of Britain’ study in the wake of the Suez fiasco which propelled him into No.10 and (eventually) propelled post-imperial Britain into Europe.

‘I don’t make this point boastfully,’ he added (it’s the Calvinist in him), but his own 23 studies on the impact of sterling joining the euro were also pretty solid. And so they were, they wisely kept us out. But if May’s plans – the ones that alarm JJ – prevail there will still be at least two more years of turmoil negotiating the future economic partnership (FEP) of which we spoke here last week. Imagine the impact of that on the ‘poisonous and toxic atmosphere’ which the deepening collapse of public confidence has created. That will provide an opening for ‘the kind of politician who does not argue for positive solutions, but whose single stock in trade is to articulate anger’.

Brown’s own remedies are positive, but not wholly persuasive. He wants ‘a new kind of royal commission’ to tour the country, take evidence, listen to alienated voters, not least Scots who (he notes) should be getting some of those EU powers which May is repatriating but keeping in Whitehall. The ex-PM also favours a second referendum, albeit vague as to how to proceed. He’s a party loyalist. But Starmer says that, if MPs vote down May’s deal and (we must assume) the hard Brexit option – even Liam Fox now says that would be damaging – then a general election is the next option.

Dream on, Keir. Tory MPs won’t vote for one and only a minority of voters think a Corbyn government would do a better job of delivering the six Starmer points, including a customs union and market access. That leads Labour to ‘all options of the table’ – including a second referendum. At this point Jo J says he favours a three option question: May’s deal, a hard Brexit or Remain. That’s what I favour too, but am acutely aware that my ideas are usually shot down by practical politicians who have to get re-elected. A three way 33:33:33% split wouldn’t solve much. So more work is still needed as the clock ticks.

Intriguingly, listening to Brown talking repeatedly about the need for ‘the opportunity to renegotiate terms’ made me suspect the practical politician in him has settled not for Remain, but for the Norway option – single market access in return for paying in and taking rules. It is widely shared across the spectrum. When I questioned GB he was more circumspect, keen to avoid telling Brexit voters that they were wrong in 2016. 
It’s a good point, so he prefers to explain that the facts have changed: we now know what the options are and all 
should be considered. That includes 
the option that ‘if we leave the EU we must leave the door open so we can come back, there is a chance that we can come back’.

Tricky stuff. The night before Jo Johnson’s resignation I was much too emphatic in assuring members of my book club that, with Corbyn the only visible alternative to May, most Tory Brexiteers and the DUP would bottle it and allow May’s package to pass. I won’t be so confident when we meet next month.

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