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Tory togetherness and why betrayal is the most poisonous word in politics

The damned, united - Credit: Archant

Trump groupie, Nigel Farage, routinely speaks of ‘Betrayal’ by anyone who pushes back against his simplistic saloon bars slogans for Brexit. But nobody wants to play with Nigel.

As I type this sentence Boris Johnson has not resigned as Theresa May’s Foreign Secretary. May has not cut short her walking holiday in Italy and Switzerland to restore order in the cabinet. And Anthony Scaramucci has not been fired as White House director of communications after just 10 days in the job. It’s all preposterous fake news.

Ah, no: correction. Scaramucci has been fired as White House director of communications after all. ‘Great day for the White House,’ Tweets top source. But the other two gems remain vulgar speculation. The blame for rumours about Johnson’s fragile state of mind are the responsibility of Sir Vince Cable, making the kind of mischievous aside he might sensibly abjure now that the Grown Up tendency has installed him as leader of the Liberal Democrats, complete with shiny new long trousers. May’s return from that holiday – much needed rather than well-deserved – is the idea of over-excitable Tory backbenchers who are unaccustomed to the Fleet St silly season.

But why Johnson be tempted to walk, even in the opinion of Sir Vince? In protest at the way the chancellor of the exchequer, ‘Traitor Hammond’ (copyright, Peter Oborne) has reshaped the terms of Brexit while the Prime Minister is off breathing the clear mountain air of Europe and contemplating what she will say at her party conference on October 4. Hammond’s manoeuvres to soften Britain’s stony path out of Europe is not fake news. It’s very real – thank goodness.

Perhaps Sir Vince is right and the foreign secretary has resigned by the time you read my own ill-informed speculation. But I doubt it: he’s not the resigning type, though he has been sacked twice. It is one thing for Dr Gerard Lyons, Boris’s super-brain of an economic adviser, to signal displeasure in the Sunday papers, personally cost-free, but quite another for an elected politician to chuck in his hand. Especially not when so far from home on a VERY IMPORTANT Asia-Pacific tour. That would require courage as well as mere calculation.

In any case, until the moment when May unexpectedly brought him into her cabinet after the train wreck of his 2016 leadership bid, Boris had been telling pals his mercurial political career was over. It may have been kinder to send him to the Dignitas clinic in Zurich at that point. Instead May sent him to Australasia and distant capitals far from Brussels where he can do little harm except to himself and the occasional Kiwi lizard. BoJo will not risk another career suicide bid any time soon, despite Dr Lyons likening the Brexit Cliff to the Millennium Y2K computer bug.

As you won’t remember the Y2K scare (planes falling out of the sky as the digital clocks all went evaporated as the big day came and quietly passed. This time it’s different. Not so much planes falling out of the sky, as not taking off at all, and lorries queuing from Dover all the way round the M25. Few outside the ranks of Brexit zealotry now share former chancellor Lord ‘Cliff’ Lawson’s belief that a hard departure on World Trade Organisation (WTO) terms will be as easily surmounted as Y2K if the Davis-Barnier negotiations fail. Around here we’re still betting they won’t.

To speed things up a bit Michael Gove (in expert listening mode again) and even Liam Fox now accept the inevitability of some form of ‘transition’ – aka ‘implementation’ – period after March 29 2019, though Dr Fox is also raising difficulties, perhaps seeking to hang on to his Brexiteer’s bonus points by saying ‘No’ when he really means ‘Yes.’ Like Boris the former defence secretary knows he’s lucky to get another ministerial chance – and won’t rush to jump off the bus.

The inevitable fact is that, outside the rival ranks of Remain and Leave zealotry, pretty much everyone with half a brain has changed their mind on the terms and timetable of Brexit. As Keynes supposedly said ‘When the facts change, I change my mind – what do you do, Sir?’ In Boris’s case we can substitute the words ‘self-interested calculation’ for ‘facts’ (such an old-fashioned word, Mr President) but the idea is much the same. In a fast-moving world – what price another credit bubble bust? – Brexit is the ultimate moving target. Not so long ago even Dr Lyons, incidentally one of few Leave experts accurately to predict a short-term Brexit hit on the economy, was also more relaxed about a ‘transition’ lasting more than two years.

Nothing wrong with copying Keynes’s (alleged) advice. Plenty of EU27 leaders have been changing their minds too, on Brexit and much else, including Emmanuel Macron, the brevity of whose presidential honeymoon makes Donald (‘No WH Chaos’) Trump’s look like a golden wedding anniversary. Italian leaders are reported to regard him as more of a mini-de Gaulle so far, not another Euro-statesman, a new Robert Schuman. More and more French voters regard him as Louis XIV without the wig. The political cycle is becoming like the news cycle: ever faster. It is very dangerous.

Philip Hammond has also been caught changing his mind this week, at least to those journalists who contrasted his conciliatory Le Monde interview with the pre-election warnings he gave to Germany’s Welt am Sonntag in January. Then he said that if Britain’s is denied post-Brexit access to the single market ‘we could be forced to change our economic model’. But he loftily explained to Le Monde that, although ‘I often hear it said’ – does he talk to himself while shaving? – that unfair competition in regulation and tax might be an option, ‘that is neither our plan nor our vision for the future’. Britain will remain ‘a country with a social, economic and a cultural model that is recognisably European’.

No more vaguely menacing talk of an offshore Singapore on the north west coast of Europe – always a fantasy to anyone who knows dirigiste Singapore, warts and all – or of moving towards the US model, wall-to-wall chlorinated chicken and collateralised loan obligations (the new junk bond) from Maine to California. The inevitable Jacob Rees-Mogg, new chairman of the Renta-Quote crowd, will be distressed. In response to Hammond’s acknowledgment of the geographical imperative he insisted that ‘culturally, constitutionally and linguistically the Atlantic is narrower than the Channel’. That’s where Jake’s heart lies.

Margaret Thatcher would have said the same – but she would also have spotted how the big pond is getting wider again 100 years after the US entered the First World War. Obama was born in Hawaii (it’s in the Pacific, Jake), Trump lives in his own head. As a fund manager Rees-Mogg ought to know that Singapore is far more heavily state-regulated and patronage-heavy than light-regulation Britain. Does he? It’s hard to tell. Does it matter? Not much, though it might have done if MPs had been daft enough to elect him chairman of the Treasury select committee.

Two issues arise from the Hammond Initiative. The short-term one is, ‘will he prevail and will the cabinet remain united as the provisional Brexit agreement solidifies?’ No 10 moved on Monday to slap down ideas floated by or on behalf of the chancellor and his ally in Soft Brexitism, Home Secretary, Amber Rudd. Not so much Amber as Green last week, she launched an inquiry into UK labour market needs after Brexit (cries of ‘about bloody time’) and spoke of continuing access to properly-documented EU workers after 2019 (cries of ‘if any of them still want to come’). It was sensible enough to provoke angry Faragiste denunciation.

The Downing St spokesman duly insisted (as immigration minister, Brandon Lewis did on Radio 4’s Today programme) that free movement will end when Britain leaves and that talk of an ‘off the shelf’ version of Norway’s EEA/Efta deal – a trade version of the Efta court model discussed here last week – is not what May’s government is seeking. But I suspect that my old Guardian colleague, Anushka Asthana, is right when she wrote on Tuesday that much of this is ‘smoke and mirrors’ designed to buy the cabinet time and space from the encircling wolf pack.

On that calculation we will end up in 2019 with some variant of the pragmatic arrangements that Hammond and Rudd are floating in mid-summer 2017. No 10 says May is sticking to her Lancaster House script, the one on which she fought – and lost – the June election. ‘Nothing has changed,’ she said of one campaign U-turn. But it has. Hard Brexit lost its claims to an electoral mandate.

The absent May slaps down uppity colleagues to assert her vestigial authority – quite right too, Theresa – but few are deceived unless they wish to be. The cabinet’s herbivorous health secretary, mild-but-decent Jeremy Hunt (on R4 Today to defend equally implausible target numbers for mental health nurses in the NHS) denies any cabinet splits (‘No DS Chaos’ as Trump would have tweeted) because those who matter in the cabinet has inspected the cliff’s edge and stepped back. Events, not Theresa, should enforce some semblance of unity.

So, leaving aside the ever-present possibility that a cabinet member will experience a ‘moment of madness’ on Clapham Common or hire Adam Werritty, the cabinet will split only if one of them thinks the time ripe to finish off May and reach for the crown. By their recent actions both Hammond and Rudd have shown both leadership and potential ambition. But both play the long game and neither is in any kind of rush.

The still-inexperienced Rudd was only 54 on Tuesday, Hammond (61) looks set to use his autumn statement to push back the promised date for balancing the budget from 2025 to 2027, 12 years after callow George Osborne’s initial target date back in 2010. In democratic politics assassins rarely inherit the crown (ask Michael Heseltine) and party activists will be even less inclined to risk an accidental Corbyn premiership after watching ever more alarming news unfold in Corbynista Venezuela on Sky News this week. They are all for Brexit, but not for petrol bombs in Purley.

The larger longer-term issue is whether or not activists and the wider Brexit electorate can be persuaded to embrace the necessary compromises if Britain is to leave the EU – and it will leave the EU – with reasonable prospects for a relatively stable and prosperous future. By 2019 pragmatists in both Leave and Remain camps – we must assume that ‘most trusted’ Boris is a supreme pragmatist on the major issue of the day (himself) – will calculate that the economic damage pre-Brexit is already causing will be evident to all but the blind, of whom there are many.

It’s terrific that BMW is to assemble its new electric Mini in low-wage Oxford, but those all-important electric motors will be imported from Bavaria, always assuming we have enough electricity to power them. On the debit side the UK is quietly losing jobs while banks predict a 4% rise in costs and a 30% rise in capital requirements. Thanks, Jake. Those tasty, chlorinated chickens will have to be really cheap to make up the loss.

The pragmatists best argument for cutting a viable deal may be events in the world beyond our narrow, naïve Brexit perspective. Even if the new credit bubble can be deflated gently before it bursts in Britain or the US – signs are ominous in both – and China’s credit stresses can be contained (Greece’s pain is awful, but is too local to affect the big picture except via contagion), there’s plenty that could go wrong and sober the public mood. As we ‘celebrate’ the carnage at Passchendaele, a ‘Wag the Dog’ moment in the distant Pacific (sorry, Jake), triggered by a beleaguered Washington must rank highly. We may come to be grateful to have all those cautious generals reining in their armchair civilian colleagues.

Even in darker times one lethal word remains to be challenged in open combat, defeated and sent fleeing from the field. It is ‘betrayal.’ There are few more poisonous accusations in history, a charge that lingers and seeps into public consciousness, sometimes staying there and corrupting otherwise sensible minds for generations, its tentacles spreading far beyond the original grievance – real or imagined. Yes, Guido Fawkes was the Fall-Guy for a Catholic plot against the Stuart monarchy in 1605, but Catholics did not get the vote in Britain until 1829 as a paranoid result. The practice of burning foolish Fawkes in effigy on November 5 is only now fading away, mostly thanks to ‘elf ‘n safety, not tolerance, or what passes for it when it is only the flip side of indifference.

Tolerance is hard work which has to be defended every day against intolerance, even liberal intolerance and the Remainer’s scorn for the honest-but-misguided Brexit voter. In parochial Britain the anti-Catholicism of the pre-war era has been replaced by new intolerances. Even so Charles Kennedy, IDS and Tony Blair – 2.5 Catholics – were the first of their faith to lead major political parties. And Blair kept his quasi-conversion a secret just in case.

Every country has social or cultural fissures, reinforced by class and economics, capable of flaring up in times of acute distress and the search for scapegoats. The shadow of anti-semitism still hangs over much of Europe – even over sophisticated France – there was even a sighting in Ireland last week. Nihilistic acts of Islamist terror stoke fire of resentment and division, as they are meant to, so that blandly decent Angela Merkel can be accused of betrayal too. Comparing Macron to Louis XIV or even to Napoleon cracks open ancient fissures between right and left, church and republicanism.

In Turkey the Kurds, like the Armenians (‘not massacred at all’) before them, and the secular army of Ataturk, provide Recep Tayyip Erdogan with easy targets, as enemies of the people. Post-war Germans are mostly still inoculated against such modern Grimm’s Fairy Tales, but before 1945 lived happily with the myth that the Kaiser’s armies were not collapsing fast on Armistice Day in 1918 when they were unwisely allowed to march home under their own colours – thus able to claim they had been ‘betrayed’ by republican politicians. Today’s Russians are encouraged to nurture a similar resentment over the collapse of the USSR in 1991 – the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century according to You Know Who.

Donald Trump, of course, lives and Tweets by the lexicon of betrayal and treason. He demands loyalty but gives none in return, he fails through his own malign ineptitude and vanity, but shuffles all blame off on to others. Out there in Rust Belt America – and in wealthy suburbs which should know better – its denizens are happy to accept the deluded notion that he is an honest man betrayed by the Swamp that is political Washington. Yesterday’s friend becomes an enemy of the people. Just look at Jeff Sessions, the first senator to back Trump, now hung out to dry.

In much of the US this frenzy of accusation feeds into the older narrative of the Civil War betrayal of the Garden of Eden that was supposedly the slave-owning Confederacy. The most spine-tingling flag I ever saw was in a shop in Dixieland. Superimposed over the diagonal Confederate cross was the face of Elvis Presley, a poor white from Mississippi who could sing black. Beneath it was the ominous slogan: ‘The South Will Rise Again.’ Richard Nixon harvested such nostalgia. Trump calls it ‘taking back control’.

But what about us? Trump groupie, Nigel Farage, routinely speaks of ‘Betrayal’ by anyone who pushes back against his simplistic saloon bars slogans for Brexit. But nobody wants to play with Nigel. It is much more serious when ‘betrayal’ and ‘traitor’ enter the mainstream discourse of respectable politicians and pundits. This week, the Mail’s Peter Oborne – a boldly, romantic cavalier fresh from defeat by the Roundheads at the Battle of Naseby (1645) – disparaged ‘Spreadsheet Phil’ as ‘the dimmest chancellor since the Second World War, accusing him of personal ambition above his station.

Ambitious Hammond and the ambitious Rudd (charged with writing an immigration article for ‘the achingly Europhile FT’) want the Brexit ‘transition’ to slip from three years to four, then five, until, guess what there is no Brexit,’ wrote Oborne. That’s fair enough, plenty of Remainers hope that’s how things will turn out, though personally, I think we will have to leave and do some sort of Norway if we can. But Oborne goes further. ‘No wonder Tory supporters of a Hard Brexit are calling him Traitor Hammond.’ Easy words to write, but harder to unsay.

Over-fond of self-dramatisation though he is, Oborne is an honest man, who resigned from the Daily Telegraph when he felt it compromised editorial independence to curry favour with a bank whose advertising spend it needed. If Oborne says the chancellor is the ‘voice of the anti-democratic British establishment’ he is daft enough to believe it, though I have not spotted in decades any network so coherent that it could remotely be called a ‘British Establishment’.

But Oborne’s sally was not enough for Mail editor Paul (‘Enemies of the People’) Dacre. Two editions later Quentin Letts, another of his hired assassins and – how shall we put this? – a tad less fastidious than Peter the Cavalier Commander, was prevailed upon to give ‘vain Hammond’ both barrels of his shotgun, a volley that also sprayed ‘Remainer Rudd’ and a prominent peer – Archbishop Welby – with lead. Denying Britain ‘the greatest opportunity Britain has had in 100 years’ they are determined to make Brexit fail, he wrote on Tuesday.

‘Given that it can only harm our nation’s sovereign interest, you could call it treasonous, were such a word still in use, which sadly it is not.’ Wow! Where’s old Lettsy been lately? Certainly not at the editor’s morning conference, I suspect. But such Francis Urquhart-style weasel words from the other side are not merely inflammatory, as they are meant to be. They are also a trap, into which Remainers and Soft Brexiteers should not fall by retaliating in offensive kind.

I know, I know. I fail the test myself. Even the saintly New European occasionally carries intemperate articles which fan the flames of intolerance and mutual distain. But we must all try harder, even if it means respecting Peter Oborne’s motives, just as he regularly declares his own respect the purity and sincerity of Jeremy Corbyn’s. So say after me ‘most Brexiteers are patriotic too, in their own way.’ No, Nigel, I don’t mean you.

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