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MICHAEL WHITE: Tory unity trumps all again

The Tragic Boomerang. Photo: Martin Rowson - Credit: Archant

MICHAEL WHITE on May’s mission impossible as Tory unit trumps all again.

Things must be getting serious when the Queen intervenes to call for more civility and common ground in the Brexit debate, followed shortly afterwards by a move from that other constitutional figurehead, the prime minister’s husband, Philip May. Sure enough, on this week’s Crunch Tuesday, MPs voted to bang heads together, their own. They told Theresa May to ask the EU27 politely to rewrite the Irish backstop, but also to remove the bullet marked no-deal from the menacing pistol she was supposed to be carrying to Brussels in her handbag.

Oh yes, and they gave her two weeks – 14 days out of the 59 left before B-Day – to come back with Plan A++ or report progress (lack of). With masterful under-statement May immediately responded to her latest renegotiation mandate by calling it ‘a move for which I know there is limited appetite among our European partners’. It’s a phrase which could catch on. But she pluckily promised to do her Girl Guide best – as usual. Within minutes, Brussels blew a predictable, pre-prepared raspberry. We shall see who blinks first.

What a colourful night of drama, brilliant political theatre, live on the telly! Most voters are, I suspect, both disaffected and baffled by arcane procedure and opaque substance in equal measure, further irritated by the obvious fact that the television reporters appeared to understand what was happening and enjoying the fun at the licence payer’s expense. Me, I found it more entertaining than a dull Premier League game or the emotionally idiotic behaviour on Corrie. But each to their own.

What was striking was that most politicians seemed quite pleased with themselves. Obviously Dominic Grieve lost his indicative votes amendment (321-301), as did Yvette Cooper with her bid to postpone Brexit by legislation (321-298), despite getting 11th hour backing from Jeremy Corbyn – a decision at last, Jez. Some 14 Labour MPs voted against it and others from the Brexit heartlands abstained. ‘What do we want? BREXIT,’ the Brexit crowd roared outside in Parliament Square.

But Tory Caroline Spelman and Labour’s Jack Dromey, neighbours from the manufacturing Midlands, were happy to have got their No-no-deal amendment narrowly passed (318-310) though it lacks the force of law or gravity. No-deal still looms. As for the newly-dubbed Graham Brady amendment – carried by 317-301 – Tory Brexiteers were thrilled, admittedly more by their relative unity than the prospect of a one-sided mandate to renegotiate with a room full of people who say they won’t.

A more-than-usually-dishevelled Boris Johnson (is he going bald?) said several times that Tory unity for Brady was ‘something really rather wonderful’, opening the road to a sunset clause on the backstop and the prospect of a unilateral exit from it. That is the usual Johnsonian baloney, even in UK terms. ‘Theresa’s Triumph’ thundered the newly-loyal Daily Mail. Nonsense. This is a Phoney Truce on the Conservative benches.

May’s tactical tilt towards hardliners in the European Research Group and the DUP won their support, but it is very tentative, a boomerang which may fly off if those ‘alternative arrangements’ can’t be found. Double-breasted, 18th century Mogg puts his faith in high tech border solutions: how quaint! The CBI was less impressed. Nothing has changed to stop us halting business’s no-deal planning for this throw of the dice, said Carolyn Fairbairn, its CEO.

None of this was certain even 24 hours before. First Bloke, Phil May, had apparently been doing just the opposite to Her Emollient Majesty when he reportedly warned Her Indoors against seeking a more centrist deal involving MPs from other parties as well as Amber Rudd and Unite’s Len McCluskey, who was photographed entering No.10 wearing his best suit and tie but without Mr Corbyn as an accessory. The Labour leader only agreed to talks after the votes.

Lifelong European enthusiast, Phil, apparently had a shouting match over tactics with Gavin Barwell, No.10 chief of staff, and even more impressively endured dinner with top DUP powerbrokers and their spouses as part of Theresa’s new courtship. When the Times reported this week that ‘Loyalists threaten to desert May’, it didn’t mean Ulster loyalists, dear me, no. It meant Remain and soft Brexit Tories. In the event few did – Nicky Morgan fell into line – though plucky Sarah Wollaston denounced the plan as fantasy – like voting to stop the tide coming in.

The Queen’s anodyne remarks to the Sandringham WI had been both praised and chided. Phil May’s reward for his own contribution was to be promoted to membership of ‘Team Freedom’ by Boris Johnson. He did so in his £5-a-word Telegraph column, the one in which he called May’s willingness to try and escape the Irish backstop ‘the first piece of unadulterated piece of good Brexit news’ for ages. It was also the first time Boris has been associated with unadultery for even longer.

In contrast to Kool Aid kids like Dominic Raab, Wollaston’s wary comments are worth noting. The GP/MP was the Tory candidate picked in Totnes, a mixture of Devon well-off and rural, via an open primary – anyone there could vote – which cost the party £40,000 and was not repeated. She is not tribal. The party had put its own unity ahead of the national interest again, Wollaston protested.

It was also one of the Labour ‘lines to take’ with the media, though the party leadership has done exactly the same throughout this baleful saga. Yet Barry Gardiner got sniffy with the BBC’s Nick Robinson when he pointed it out. If May has ‘caved in’ to her right wing – the Sun’s complaint, aping language used in the parallel US drama over Donald Trump’s Mexican Wall – Corbyn has also put party unity first. During the debate he studiously avoided taking an intervention from Labour’s Angela Smith, who is pro-People’s Vote. ‘Put the country first,’ she says.

Westminster’s internal poker game, itself a qualifying round before the Brexit Poker title fight it seeks in Brussels (if the other side turns up), took place against an intensifying background of mostly lurid predictions about what might happen– no, would happen – if Britain were to stagger out of the without some form of deal, by accident or design, on March 29.

The latest round had been launched by Sir James Dyson, the hugely talented designer and equally untalented politician, who has shifted from canvassing for UK membership of the eurozone a few years ago, to Brexit enthusiasm in 2016, and now to offshoring much of his business to Singapore because it’s the hub of the south east Asian market. A hub, incidentally, not to be confused with either India (economically smaller) or China (fewer people), but better managed and governed than either.

Dyson took a lot of stick – including two colourful hatchet jobs in the post-Dacre Mail – for bailing out, especially over the tax implications, corporate and personal. When you’re worth a self-made £9.5 billion and paid £128 million in tax last year (No.3 in the Sunday Times new Rich Tax List) it’s probably a less important factor than the lure of the 21st century’s economic epicentre. At 71, Dyson is still busy inventing, so legal tax avoidance, which some rich people engage in just to show themselves they’re still smart, is probably just a hobby.

But in politics, if you say one thing and do another voters may turn nasty. You may be right about Singapore, Jim, but most of us can’t up sticks and join you, our economy just loses more of your UK jobs and tax revenues. It comes at a time when no day passes without stories in the press about another bank moving 200 jobs ‘irreversibly’ to Europe, alarming predictions about manufacturing supply chains and the vulnerability of perishable supermarket food, 30% of which comes from you-know-where in late March.

That concern may be what finally pushed most of the big UK chains – not Tesco or Waitrose – off the fence to warn against a hard Brexit. Following the car makers, Airbus had belatedly done the same a few days earlier, not threatening to pull out of Britain – the UK government foolishly sold its stake in Airbus years back – but to explain that plenty of other countries with workers as skilled as ours are eager to bid for future contracts.

Who was it who said the Better in Europe campaign had been wrong to predict a Brexit ‘car crash’ in 2016 because it’s proving more of a slow puncture? The accountants EY estimated this week that financial services have already moved £800 billion worth of staff and assets out of the UK – and it ain’t coming back, whatever we eventually decide.

No wonder the high-end housing market is 20% off in prime London districts – no tragedy, except it’s bad for fragile confidence and ripples down the chain. The UK’s GDP is already 2.3% lower than it would have been if Remain had won, the Centre for European Research claimed this week.

Campaigners for a second referendum – knocked back by Grieve’s defeat – or a softer Brexit than May’s fluid-but-inflexible plan envisage can’t win on mere evidence when it is opposed by fervour and faith. Thus Sunday’s Telegraph complained that the Electoral Commission is engaged in a plot to ‘award itself’ powers comparable to other regulators whereby it will be able to launch its own prosecutions of alleged election miscreants rather than rely on the police. This is proof of intended bias against Leave campaigners in any future referendum, the Telegraph report suggested.

Think about that for a moment. Evidence is treated as proof of bias. Donald Trump could not have put it better. These are the times we inhabit, times which elevate emotions over reason and facts. So no sooner had an Airbus spokesman admitted on Sky that the government had encouraged the firm to speak out than the familiar chorus denounced its testimony as propaganda designed to swing Tuesday’s vote. But the government has long begged big firms to speak out and found many wary of offending pro-Brexit sentiment.

In that respect large corporations are little better than Team Corbyn, which still wants him to be seen as pro-Brexit north of the M1’s Watford Gap service station and a Remainer in Islington N1. They put their own interest before the national interest, just like those big US banks in London which watched the referendum result with dismay and now want to get back to the business of making money on whatever terms we can get. Our democracy does not interest them. ‘Rule taking? Hey, why not.’ It’s not their national interest at stake, is it.

As unease grows louder who better placed to put his hands over his ears and shout ‘Nah, nah’ than the People’s Boris for whom Jake O’Mogg, the Dyson of asset management, is reportedly holding private dinners to boost the ruffian’s flickering leadership hopes among MPs. In his ‘Team Freedom’ column Johnson warned against an ‘incalculable backlash’ if Brexit is betrayed. Vague but menacing language, it would be deplored if Dominic Grieve used it. Warning against the perils of over-optimism, he blandly proceeded to assert: ‘the closer we get to no-deal the less terrifying it has become.’

From whatever angle we examine it, Airbus, Venezuela-style supermarket shelves and dwindling pharmacy stocks, traffic jams from Dover to Sidcup, that’s quite a statement, shared by very few with any knowledge of the issues. By comparison even Liam Fox, a hard Brexiteer by instinct, is sounding unexpectedly sensible, possibly because he’s finally been persuaded that airy talk of global free trade deals is wildly misplaced.

We’re nowhere near ready to trade under WTO terms from March 29 – even if the 163 WTO member states admit us. The WTO doesn’t cover many aspects of Britain’s trade with the outer world. So the man in the news whom Boris increasingly reminds me of is on-the-run Jack Shepherd, the over-entitled posh boy and convicted speedboat killer.

Currently cornered in Georgia, young Jack comes up with increasingly preposterous explanations as to why nothing he has said or done is his fault, while keeping a supply of impressionable young lovelies within easy reach. By official (ie No.10 leaked) accounts, the Uxbridge Love Rat pushed his luck with May at Monday night’s private meeting of Tory MPs – ‘what DO you want, prime minister?’ – and was slapped down. But how much more vacuous idiocy does Jake the pious Catholic have to witness before he rumbles Boris?

Or is Rees-Mogg’s piety just an act too? In the run-up to Crunch Tuesday’s votes both he and the Love Rat were suspiciously helpful. Are they preparing their supporters for the mucky compromises they have so long rejected? Boris’s talk of a cash ‘price worth paying’ sounded so. Or do they really think they are suckering May as a way to a ‘managed’ no-deal in which an extended ‘transition’ (what transition would that be?) would allow time to organise some version of a free trade deal? That remains a real fear. But Ken Clarke used his speech on Tuesday to insist that an EU/UK customs union – it happens to be Labour’s policy too – is the only way to square the circle. Is he voting to stop the tide too?

Wilful and selective misrepresentation of the facts is hardly confined to denizens of the European Not Too Much Research Group. Not when president Trump is denying he has ‘caved’ and been forced to climb off his make-believe Mexican wall by Nancy Pelosi – she’s a woman too – or that he’s worried by the Mueller squad’s arrest of his scary dirty tricks pal, Roger Stone. He duly started a diversionary campaign against the Corbyn-friendly Maduro regime in stricken Venezuela.

Nor when the new Franco-German Treaty of Aachen, signed in the historic border city on January 22, was so quickly denounced as a plot by Europe-wide conspiracy theorists of both of both left and right. You may not have read much about this in the self-absorbed British press. It is a Merkel-Macron update of the ground-breaking 1963 treaty (the Elysee Treaty) of cooperation signed just 18 years after the Second World War by Konrad Adenauer and Charles de Gaulle.

European integrationists are much encouraged by its promise of closer efforts on a range of activities, military, economic, culture and the environment, not least on cross-border travel-to-work, always a sensitive issue. Sceptics say it is mostly warm words at a time when the eurozone economy is faltering, France and populist Italy are fighting like washerwomen over paintings, fugitives and other touchy ‘sovereignty’ issues. In Davos the chancellor, Philip Hammond, felt moved to single out Paris as the noisiest obstruction on the road to a smooth Brexit.

But the social media conspiracy network pumped out fake news that Macron has secretly promised to hand back Alsace-Lorraine to Germany (again) and to defend Berlin against Russian attack (which Nato already commits it to do). Dark forces thrive on disinformation, which weakens social solidarity. So expect more hysteria off the back of Crunch Tuesday as May flies to Brussels and tries one more time.

The omens for a revised deal are not good. EU officials and politicians are saying that if they have to chose between no-deal damage to Britain’s neighbours and a breach in the British-inspired single market, the 27 will choose ‘the lesser evil’ of no-deal. If you want to re-open the Withdrawal Agreement, so might we, they say – over fishing, Gibraltar and the divorce bill. Dublin breathes defiance, but the Irish fear being ‘thrown under the bus’ of an expedient backstop stitch-up at the top table. Brussels never likes taking the blame for failure. Jittery times.

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