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MICHAEL WHITE: Tories unite and implode as Europe welcomes Trump’s calming influence

The Tories are in the Brexit cave, half-in and half-out. Picture: Martin Rowson - Credit: Archant

A look at the state of the Conservative Party as POTUS arrives with his America First wrecking ball.

Ten years ago David Davis showed me a 3-D print-out of what his heart looked like, based on what must have been a CT scan. Bright red with not a sliver of fat in sight, it resembled Wagyu beef of the kind for which you can easily pay £100 a pound. Magnificent. I bet the medics would struggle to find evidence of a heart in Boris. Do egos show up on CT scans?

The former DexEU secretary wasn’t being boastful about his tip-top heart, not as such. He was merely urging me, three years his senior, to take up jogging, karate or knitting, whatever it is that this former SAS reservist does to keep fit enough to strangle most of the cabinet at a single Chequers sitting (though I bet Penny Mordaunt could punch his lights out).

The point is that the Tory Paddy Ashdown does have a heart – in better shape than his head – and can be good fun, albeit noisily pleased with himself. Cocksure even, until the moment comes when he’s yomping his way at night across foggy Barnier Moor, his Brexit rucksack getting no lighter, and realises that he’s lost. Action Man then texts base camp: ‘I’M GOING TO RESIGN.’ Sometimes he sends a second text in case the first didn’t arrive: ‘I’M NOT GOING TO RESIGN.’

We all know Davis is not a resignation virgin. So his latest and last departure from the Tory front bench is hardly a shock. Boris Johnson trailing after him shouting abuse about turds and colonies is not much of one either. It is a far better outcome than Theresa May finally losing her patience and pushing the portly plotter over the Lawson cliff. Johnson has missed his moment – again – though on Irish radio this week I clashed with a learned LSE professor who still thinks ‘Heineken Boris’ can unite the party. If not, Steve Baker, this week’s third resigner, would be brilliant, said the prof.

As usual on these melodramatic occasions, the important issue – still far from resolved – is whether the resigners have done the deed well – or botched it. I’m currently for a botch though I may be wrong before Sunday. ‘May has done the maths and has the numbers,’ is the Westminster wisdom of the moment. But that can change. As regular readers know, this column’s First Law of Brexit is: ‘Gove is always the rascal to watch.’

No.10’s well-planned confrontation at Chequers started well. Senior ministers may have felt they’d been bounced and given too little detail. But hey, any politician who voted for a Yes/No Brexit referendum question without telling voters what exactly would happen next can hardly complain about lack of detail. I also liked No.10’s taxi joke, the media briefing which made it plain that any of them who chose to walk down the long drive for Laura Kuenssberg’s waiting camera wouldn’t find a ministerial car at a discreet distance behind them. Davis says he would have called a limo service and gone in style. Boris might have biked.

Back in 1986, Hezza’s Westland walkout was easier: daytime in Downing St. The gallant Lord Carrington’s dignified departure over his Falklands failure in 1982 – the last resignation by a foreign secretary – is not remotely to be compared with Boris’s ingrained buffoonery (‘Blackadder in a blond wig,’ his former Telegraph editor, Max Hastings calls him) though the comparison was immediately made, hours before Carrington’s death at 99 was announced: the last aristocrat in the top tier of British politics.

On World Cup-distracted Saturday, in Sunday’s papers and on sofa television interviews, May’s luck held. We were told that ministers were reminded that the era of lax enforcement of collective cabinet responsibility was now over: disloyalty was again a sacking offence. About time. Davis apparently warned colleagues ‘I’m the odd one out here’ and Johnson indulged himself in some potty talk before raising a toast to the compromise over dinner.

The 48 hours between Chequers and the Brexit Bulldog’s departure, just before midnight on Sunday, are potentially crucial for what happens now. Like goalkeepers facing a penalty, the Brexit opportunists all dived the wrong way. It allowed May the rare chance to look in charge and to get a decent press from all but the ultras, the Peter Boneheads.

Through grating teeth, Paul Dacre’s Mail stayed on side, though its ageing, fading rival, the Telegraph, did not and cried ‘Betrayal’ (copyright N. Farage). For once Jacob Rees-Mogg, chairman of the Jacobite European Research Group (ERG), was conspicuously cautious. Chris Grayling and Andrea Leadsom steered the ministerial flotsam on a loyalist course. Even Douglas ‘Kamikaze’ Carswell saw the Chequers package as ‘incremental’ progress.

In contrast to Johnson-Come-Lately’s subsequent highly personal (‘the dream of Brexit is dying’) attack, Davis himself went out of his way to praise May’s leadership and stress that the issue between them is about the policy (how old-fashioned is that?), not mere ego. As the minister nominally responsible for Brexit, the Bulldog would have had to ‘do something I did not believe in’. Fair enough, I suppose. I told you he has a heart.

More important, The Rascal To Watch (TRTW) took the prime television spot on Andy Marr’s BBC1 sofa to talk up the necessary inevitability of compromise and the need for Tories to rally behind the prime minister. Who was it who said ‘the more Gove talked of his honour, the faster we counted the spoons’? We will count the No.10 silverware later. For the moment what matters to May is that the cabinet’s snake in sheep’s clothing is bleating on her behalf. TRTW must have done the maths too.

But what of the substance of May’s evolving policy? So closely guarded in its detail before this week’s publication of the white paper, few have had time to give it forensic examination – in SW1 or in Brussels – a tactic which prompted the outgoing Steve Baker to protest that DExEU had been deceitfully ‘blindsided’ by No.10. What was immediately clear enough to alarm Leave critics is that May has drifted even further from last year’s red lines.

She and Olly Robbins have conceded a Norway-style arrangement in a free trade area, customs and regulatory rules included, for manufactured goods and agriculture. While the UK courts would operate outside European law, they would share that ‘common rule book’. They would thus become rule takers with ‘due regard’ to ECJ decisions – just like Norway – unless parliament votes otherwise and takes the economic consequences, and potentially the border consequences for Ireland.

Services seem to be left out. They account for 80% of the UK economy, most of which doesn’t export but gets burdened with EU regulation, much of which is unwise, as Brexiters like to point out. But they also account for the UK’s powerful financial and related services which generate so much export success and taxes. My City pal didn’t seem too bothered by the prospect of less market access in return for regulatory flexibility, at least not mid-week. Brexiters think the EU27 needs the City more than it realises (I think they’re right). We’ll see, as details emerge and Brussels engages. Free movement of services has always been a laggard in EU integration – to our disadvantage.

Among many other fudged issues, the conspicuous one seems to be our old friend ‘the facilitated customs arrangement’, which has evolved into a half-in, hybrid model. It all seems part of an attempt to split and even cherry-pick the famous ‘four freedoms’ so that free movement of people is replaced by a ‘mobility framework’ for tourists, students and workers. Hmmm.

It all sounds a bit of a dog’s dinner to me and was obviously not edible to the Brexit Bulldog. Two points are worth stressing here. One is that at Chequers (or elsewhere) the Brexiteers present could not come up with an alternative plan other than the World Trade Organisation (WTO) option which Donald Trump seems to be inconveniently taking an America First wrecking ball to, as soon as this week’s European tour has further disunited NATO and the EU.

The fact that Trump has grounds for complaint over European defence spending and trade surpluses doesn’t justify the wrecking ball. But the White House’s seismic shift does make New York-born Boris’s next moves that much harder: the US no longer looks the safe harbour it has done for the Anglosphere since 1945. Creating the EU was meant to lessen over-dependence on Washington. Remember, Ted Heath, who took us in, was our least pro-American post war-premier. It hasn’t worked out that way.

The second awkward calculation to be made is how Brussels, Paris and embattled Berlin will respond to evidence of new realism in Whitehall – white flag tactics in Brexit Speak – either by squeezing the new DExEU team led by Dominic Raab even harder (both Davis and Johnson voice this fear) or by giving 11th hour rein to their pragmatic need for a deal that minimises mutual damage after March 29 next year. How does the old French joke go: ‘It will work in practice, but will it work in theory?’ Actually it’s not a French joke, is it? It’s a joke about the French.

There are so many moving parts to this bit of the equation that it’s impossible to predict with confidence, though folk do. May did a pre-Chequers whistle stop to seek help in the form of neutral or encouraging noises from across the Channel. By and large she got it, though J-C Juncker is not a man to let a snarky opportunity pass after lunch. But they all have domestic audiences to worry about and the EU public mood – though still very pro-EU according to new polling – is anxious and fractious.

The ominous spectacle of raw Trumpismo, of the immigration showdown, of populism (another bad week in the Polish courts) and uneven growth, all put pressure on elected leaders, an increasing number of which may prefer to exploit rather than calm fears. Is Brexit Britain still to be made an example of – the implicit official line – to discourage the others? Or is that economically risky and politically unwise? Dare they hope in Brussels (some do dare) that Brexit may now be delayed and eventually shelved forever?

Nowhere is the dilemma more acute or the stakes higher than in Dublin. Whichever way one looks the observer cannot help but be struck by the sheer inexperience of most of those whose task it is to navigate these choppy waters or – to adapt the week’s bleakest image, albeit one with an unexpectedly cheery outcome in Thailand – to lead trapped and frightened colleagues out of a dark flooded cave to sunshine and safety. In the gloom, Angela Merkel stands head and shoulders above the rest, but she is tiring, nearing journey’s end.

Raised on a council estate by a single mother, David Davis (69) first became an MP in 1987 and has a lot of varied and useful experience. His lawyer successor, Mr Raab (44), son of a Jewish refugee, has packed in a lot, but was first elected an MP as recently as 2010, the same year as the new health secretary, Matt Hancock (39). Both are bright, fast-track types, good appointments. Hancock survived his links to George Osborne. But look what happened to their Blairite equivalents and to Class of 2010’s Amber Rudd (54) when the going got tough.

It serves to remind us that, above most qualities except character and judgement, politics is about resilience and adaptability. Johnson (54) has the latter qualities, not the former. His FCO successor, the unflashy Jeremy Hunt (51), scores better, albeit as the proverbial safe pair of hands running a killer department (health) for six difficult years. Hunt trimmed from Remain to pragmatic Brexit after June 23, but he was not alone in doing so. They are all Oxbridge, mostly southern, PPE types, another missing dimension of their shared experience.

Raab’s departure from housing – the sixth minister in this crucial domestic post since 2010 – underlines the huge opportunity cost of Brexit. ‘Sorry, millennials, we don’t have time to fix the housing shortage. We’re too busy trying to fix Brexit, a policy most of you didn’t vote for.’ It does not sound like a Tory party on the front foot, does it? Part of ‘Submarine Theresa’s’ luck is the lacklustre state of Brexit ambiguity in the Corbyn-led opposition which she can largely ignore, except when she needs to frighten the headless chickens on her backbenches. Amazingly, she remains ahead in most polls despite the collapsing scenery.

Backbench rebels (since the Chequers peace treaty the ‘rebels’ are now on the Tory Brexit wing) have been gathering votes to force a leadership contest amid the usual off-the-record declarations of defiance (‘you’re not quoting me, old boy’). May has felt strong enough to indicate that she will fight on even if she loses a party confidence vote. On current evidence she won’t. Unless you believe in the Cult of St Jacob of Dublin (his business has set up an office there), Team Brexit lacks a plausible candidate as conspicuously as it lacks a policy.

But the mood is volatile enough for a Downing Street own goal or post-prandial sarcasm from Commissioner Juncker to change the weather and Michael (‘Trust me’) Gove’s calculations with it. Team Brexit met before Chequers, Steve Baker thinks he had a draft alternate plan, but it all fell apart at the first sound of gunfire. The resigners couldn’t even manage to do it in sync. Tory activists are cross, but they are even less typical of voters than Momentum.

Does this guarantee a soft and relatively sensible Brexit, the least-worst outcome likely this mid-July, backed by big business, to which May has belatedly been listening? No. The best explanation for the fake news declarations of loyalty by the silent Liam Foxes and the compliant Andrea Leadsoms, for O’Mogg’s caution and much else, is that they calculate that intransigence in Brussels will rescue them by forcing the prime minister into a ‘no deal’ corner. They can sign up to Chequers now because they know it isn’t going anywhere.

By midweek, the pro-May Mail was hedging its bets, its columnists generous to Davis and Johnson, sharp with ‘ambitious’ Hunt, its courtly sketchwriter daring to be snippy with May’s Commons performance. The paper’s editorial backed May to stay and amend a messy Brexit later, but declared she must ‘not give one more inch to the strutting martinets in Brussels’.

That’s quite emollient by the strutting standard of Fleet St martinets. After all, anti-Brexit campaigners don’t much like the Chequers package either because it looks worse to them than the deal Britain currently has inside the EU. It is worse. ‘We were only half in before June 23 and now we’re going to be only half out,’ as the wits have long warned. Worth the trouble? Of course not.

It’s not the ‘colonial status’ of overheated Johnsonian imaginings or the ‘vassal state’ feared by O’Mogg. But it’s not the ‘sovereign’ Britain of Faragiste fantasy and is never going to feel like a knock-out stage win in the World Cup with flags draped over every window. So May was right to warn against premature ‘triumphalism’. Is she listening to Gareth Southgate?

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