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Cable able and willing

MICHAEL WHITE on Tory treachery, Lib Dem ambition and a week of serpentine manoeuvring in Westminster

Another momentous week, another object lesson in how events, chance and human agency collide in unpredictable ways to produce profound consequences. Who could have predicted that cautious Angela Merkel’s decent instincts towards refugees – every German family knows first-hand about refugees – would rebound and let far right MPs back into the Bundestag? Or that decent, more fragile Theresa May would ever be the high-wire artiste tasked with leading Britain out of the EU? ‘But not out of Europe,’ May’s Muse reminds me to add. ‘Don’t mention Europe at all,’ pleads Corbynite Momentum’s latest Muse app. So much for being ready for government.

Unseemly and undignified, it was ever thus. As EU summiteers gathered in Florence 21 summers before Theresa May’s flying visit to the city, it emerged that John Major’s Minister for Europe, a loyal party apparatchik during the battle with the Maastricht rebels but frustrated over the ‘beef war’, had written to the prime minister threatening resignation unless he got promotion in the next reshuffle. His feathers were soothed. There were no more reshuffles until Tony Blair’s election landslide reshuffled them all out the door the following May.

It would be Eurosceptic, David Davis’s last ministerial post until he became Theresa May’s DExEU secretary in July 2016, promoted on the basis of his reputation as the most competent big Tory beast in the Leave posse and potentially the most dangerous. Why had he put the arm on Major in 1996? Because he wasn’t being tough enough over British beef. Why did it come out? At gossipy Alan Clark’s memorial service three years later I thought it the right moment to tell Davis that it was his pal, the maverick right-winger and arch-Eurosceptic – more an AfD type really – who had provided that too-rare Mike White scoop. But Clark hadn’t let slip Davis’s embarrassing letter for spite or political advantage. It came out by accident – in sharp contrast to Boris Johnson’s shameless and inept briefing over Florence in the past few days.

But politics, when played seriously, is a long game, as petulant George Osborne fails to understand in his current role as trainee journalist. Who, for example, would have predicted in 1938 that the maverick Churchill and the mild-mannered Attlee would become towering heroes to millions in the 1940s? Very few. Which of us thought David Davis hadn’t whimsically thrown his career away? Ditto.

During his own long march back to power frontrunner Davis survived David Cameron’s unexpected party leadership victory in 2005 after Cameron shamelessly outflanked him from the right over Europe. In 2008 he also made a famously futile civil liberties gesture in resigning as shadow home secretary and staging a by-election (he re-won his own seat), a gesture Peter Mandelson privately described as mere ‘attention-seeking’.

Yet here he is in late 2017, serving in a key post under the woman who took over his shadow portfolio (no civil liberties anguish for Home Secretary May) and would later take Cameron’s job. Davis’s Brexit zigzag has since steered him back towards the reality-based community and a pragmatic response to the challenges of his negotiation with the EU’s Michel Barnier.

Davis’s allies in this struggle against the ‘no deal’ wing of their party and von Farage? Theresa May, the chancellor, Philip Hammond, and the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd. But just three months ago, claims a new book on the general election, the trio were plotting against the prime minister in the pre-dawn hours after exit polls confirmed that she had botched the June 8 campaign.

And whom did they contemplating replace her with as recently as June? Why, with Boris Johnson. The Foreign Secretary faffed around indecisively, as he usually does, and the moment passed, according to Tim Shipman, resourceful political editor of the Sunday Times and author of Fall Out.

After his antics of the past two weeks Johnson is now the common enemy again, protesting his loyalty while trying to undermine the cabinet’s delicate consensus around the Florence text.

Even Liam Fox and Desperate Dan Hannan are doing their best to suppress suspicions that cabinet Remainers want ‘transition’ to be permanent. Matthew Parris calls it ‘slow puncture Brexit’.

I mention all this to remind high-minded readers how the bolder kind of politician tacks like a Sunday sailor to catch the strong winds of Brexit and put them to best use in the national interest, which often coincides with their own.

As everyone knows – and the EU27 certainly don’t forget – Boris the Hard Brexiteer came close to being Boris the Stout Remainer before the 2016 referendum. So did Michael ‘Expert’ Gove. Liam Fox at least has the virtue of consistency as a Brexiteer, though few others. Captain May still has her international trade secretary’s dinghy tied up at the jetty, hoping he will tire before he notices. The big game is being played above his head.

In the struggle to fashion a vaguely consistent narrative out of the twists and turns of a political career, Vince Cable has better claims than most. During Gordon Brown’s boom chancellorship, he warned repeatedly against the credit bubble which burst in 2008 and the lax bank regulation which allowed it. Unlike both Labour and the Tories, his party opposed the Iraq war (after an early wobble) and Brexit – the three great disasters of recent years, he reminded his party conference audience in Bournemouth last week, though you may have missed it.

It was the coalition – entered in the national interest, he said, rightly in my view – which softened the Cameron era, but saddled the Lib Dems with fatal blame for tuition fees at a crippling £9,000 a year. Voters were unforgiving. Like Jeremy Corbyn, Cable promises a review to fix it. As a serious Keynesian economist, but one not naïve about the perils of debt, he is better placed to think hard than most.

Late to elective politics, Cable was days short of 54 when first elected an MP in 1997, after a solid and varied career. Deemed ‘too old’ to be Lib Dem leader in 2007, in 2017 he won back the Twickenham seat he lost in 2015 and was chosen unopposed at 74. That’s politics. Asked about Boris’s prospects of succeeding May on Radio 4’s Today programme he mistook the question for his own prospects. ‘We’ll come to that,’ said Mishal Hussein.

It transpires that Sir Vince, who is not without vanity, fancies his own chances better than treacherous Johnson’s – ‘I am a very credible potential PM,’ he told his party activists, moreover one with 10 ex-ministers waiting to serve too, the PM-in-waiting added. It is probably all too late for him, but in our present febrile state, who knows?

Party conferences are not the full-blooded autumn events they were, with wall-to-wall television coverage and pages of detailed analysis of backstairs manoeuvres. The years when Labour conference delegates tried twice daily to storm the Czar’s Winter Palace (their target was actually Jim Callaghan’s cabinet) in Blackpool’s Empress Ballroom were mesmerising theatre, but bad retail politics. Voters hate divided parties. Tory conference skirmishes with the League of Empire Loyalists – nostalgic forerunners of the Hard Brexit crew and always blokes – could be almost as exciting as a Thatcher speech.

In centralising control in the leader’s hands and making conference ‘safe’ for TV, the party apparatchiks killed them. As a result, TV lost interest. The machinery of central control refined in the Thatcher/Blair years to make the conference a showcase for the leadership has now fallen into the hands of real ‘democratic centralists’ of the hard left, the clique who run Jeremy Corbyn and tell their leader what to do.

For all their talk of giving more power to delegates, their refusal to countenance a proper debate and vote on Britain’s single market option at their Brighton conference – the divisive immigration/free movement issue lurking in the background – has been revealing to anyone who cares to notice.

It confirms that Labour’s ‘principled’ and ‘honest’ left wing is as adept at manipulation as the Blairite Red Tory scum it so despises, with one important difference. Blair’s focus was always outward-facing, looking beyond his party base towards the wider electorate whose votes matter even more than Len McCluskey’s.

Corbynite energy and Momentum’s organisational skills this summer have been largely focussed on the internal party battle and the effort to secure the succession to Corbyn whenever he eventually decides to give way to a younger woman, preferably a Northern and working class one (sorry, Emily) according to current mastermind thinking.

Who needs to discuss Brexit when larger issues like the composition of Labour’s NEC are at stake? Older voters who remember the turbulent Bennite 1980s will not be surprised by that introverted focus at a time when the ‘siege economy’ was in vogue on the left, though France’s Francois Mitterrand had recently tried and failed on the road. Even older voters (my Bevanite former boss, Ian Aitken, was 90 last week) still recall the damaging Gaitskell-Bevan split of the 1950s (Benn then supported Gaitskell), though the rivals came together at the end.

Are the Tories – so long self-promoted as the natural party of government – doing much better, if at all? Not really, apart from keeping the lights on. Corbyn and John McDonnell claim credit for modifying Theresa May’s Lancaster House speech ahead of her Flying Florence Foray, as does the Foreign Secretary whose spurious new ‘red lines’ were briefed to the Sunday Telegraph where there has been much self-centred excitement about his manoeuvres.

They are not shared at the Daily Mail which remains loyal – so far – to May, as the embodiment of provincial conservatism extolled (in theory) by Paul Dacre, though not by his raunchy website. But the Mail hedges its Boris Bet by channelling its compulsive rage at Hammond for offering to back Johnson after June 8.

‘Can there be a serpent as slithering, as coiling, as Philip Hammond?’ asked hitman, Quentin Letts, no mean slitherer himself. Relentlessly briefed against by May’s control-freak chiefs of staff, Hammond took the precaution of moving to prevent his predicted dismissal. Yet he is the one singled out as the treacherous serpent in DacreLand, as Letts’s vain and cadaverous oiler.

Neither Corbyn nor Johnson’s claim to have trimmed May’s sails – in opposite directions – is very credible. Davis openly dismissed Johnson’s surrogate boast. Labour activists still send me leaflets to ‘prove’ Jeremy was pro-Remain.

But Corbyn’s ambiguity on the EU is rooted in his long-held hostility to what Tony Benn taught him was a capitalist and bosses’ plot. That much was confirmed during the Labour leader’s interview on Andy Marr’s Sunday sofa when he wriggled over Keir Starmer’s campaign to protect British workers jobs (copyright J. Corbyn) by staying in the EU single market, or something like it.

‘That has within it restrictions on state aid and state spending. That has pressure on it, through the EU, to privatise rail, for example, and other services,’ Corbyn explained. Oh dear. Isn’t a routine Labour complaint meant to be that railways across the EU are state-owned and managed, they buy up our privatised railways too because we let them? The issue is about management of overdue rail modernisation, and about regulation, not about ownership. Even Boris probably knows that when he concentrates. In his battle with the global tech bully, Uber, Sadiq Khan certainly does. Expect the bully to protest but capitulate.

All the same, at lunch last weekend a sensible Labour-voting woman told me: ‘But surely, the railways couldn’t be much worse, could they?’ This was before a pal heading towards Labour’s conference was tipped off a broken train at midnight on Saturday and forced to take a hotel in Peterborough. The answer is still: ‘Oh yes, they could. You can’t remember what British Rail used to be like.’ I might have added: ‘No late trains to break down at Peterborough then.’

The sensible woman and I went on to discuss how Labour would finance rail nationalisation, let alone manage it or the RTM union. Labour’s would-be water nationalisers seem to want some form of confiscation. Oh dear again. Bringing costly (£2bn a year to the NHS?) PFI contracts ‘back in house’, as John (‘iPad socialist’) McDonnell promised on Monday, is a legitimate public policy goal. But it ain’t easy or cheap, as voters will discover. There won’t be much cash to spare. Read the small print.

In any case, notwithstanding talk of election-readiness in Brighton this week, we are stuck with May for the foreseeable future. How did she do in Florence? The political and media reaction both in Britain and the 27 EU capitals has been underwhelming – May is a wounded, underwhelming leader – but more positive than her minders must have feared.

Ahead of his renewed talks with Brexit Bulldog Davis on Monday, Barnier spoke of May’s ‘constructive spirit’, as did others. There was no immediate sign that the relatively small policy shifts she signalled – over Britain’s payments (£20bn or the EU’s £50bn net?) during the ‘around two year’ transition she envisages and the rights of EU citizens – will be enough to unblock trade talks. On Monday night Barnier was still demanding more detail.

Personally I thought May’s speech was the one she might better have made at Lancaster House in January, more emollient in tone and substance, more generous to Europe’s different experience and traditions than her ‘no deal better than bad deal’ remark, let alone her veiled threat, now withdrawn, to cut up rough over intelligence-sharing and defence.

In dangerous times – when a US president’s exchange of personal abuse with a petty or potty dictator in North Korea can be relegated to the foot of page 14 – such language benefits no one but our shared enemies.

Contrary to what some outraged Remainers protested on Twitter and in print, she was surely entitled to suggest that many, if not most, British people have seen EU membership in more transactional terms than their war-ravaged neighbours. Of the EU28 in the 20th century only Britain and Sweden were not occupied by brutal domestic dictators, foreign or imperial armies – or permutations of all three. That is a pretty formative experience, but as a pub quiz question is rarely answered right (in Britain).

It explains greater popular compliance with the integrationist drive which Jean-Claude Juncker’s State of the Union speech extolled – and Sunday’s 13% vote for the AfD in Germany pushed against, as rising nationalism now does against globalisation elsewhere. In his Sunday Telegraph column (it replaces the Brexit-purged Christopher Booker) free market zealot, Dan Hannan MEP, conceded this week that cheaper global steel helps us all in general, but hurts Port Talbot steel in particular. That’s progress. Fingers crossed for the Tata/Thyssenkrupp merger which the SPD’s Martin Schulz slammed in Germany’s election. Job cuts are better than closure.

Which impulse – trade or protectionism – will prevail in a world where Donald Trump extols ‘America First’ nationalism from the podium at the UN and gets applause from ambassadors of states which could do with a spot of Uber treatment from Sadiq Khan? May did better than Juncker when she acknowledged what he ignored: namely that liberal internationalism and free trade are under threat.

On the challenges of immigration and of terrorism, on the Russian threat and the ‘loss of popular support’ for the liberal, globalising order, on action to curb climate change and nuclear proliferation, she also insisted that solo Britain (‘charting our own way in the world’) and the EU must still work – ‘side by side’ – to achieve shared success.

Best friends forever after the divorce? Some ex-married couples do manage to stay civil. But May said nothing fresh about the Irish border, which the 27 regard as our problem, one we really can fix if we try harder.

She said nothing specific about the post-transition relationship with our nearest neighbours and major trading bloc. She rejected both the Canadian (loose) trading model for Britain and the much-fancied Norway/EEA model, the option which Boris Johnson claims to have had deleted from her Florentine text. Surely such intimate partners can manage better than these ‘stark and unimaginative’ options, she ventured.

Well, maybe. But the Barnier clock is ticking and few think a bespoke trade deal (plus a ‘strong disputes mechanism’) will be that easy. Bound up inside it – as well as the means of protection for EU citizens rights – is the sensitive matter of rival jurisdictions, British courts vs the ECJ which so many Brexiteers confuse with the ECHR.

UK ministers are still dancing around soft words like ‘taking into account’ in deference to the sovereignty lobby and the expressed desire of Brexit voters to ‘take more direct control’. As the Labour conference should have reminded us, such rhetoric is often a mask for centralising impulses, sometimes orchestrated by the likes of slick Uber or Rupert Murdoch.

All such talk masks the wider reality that much of these apparent choices are beyond our control or even – since Sunday night’s significant setback – Angela Merkel’s as the four-times winner struggles to put together a new coalition with awkward partners, Greens and pro-market Free Democrats.

That puts Brexit further down her agenda and strengthens those fragile EU leaders for whom the integrity of single market cohesion overrides any pragmatic instinct to help what they see as the self-harming ‘cake-and-eat-it’ Brits over a trade deal.

Germany’s need for tighter border controls may work in May’s favour. Emmanuel Macron could live with that too. But Mutti Merkel’s domestic focus will also stall the Franco-German motor and King Emmanuel’s plans for financial EU integration. Is it a diesel motor, by chance?

Even more distracting and debilitating would a major crisis in East Asia or the Middle East. The ratings agency, Moody’s, may have downgraded the UK’s credit worthiness by one notch, to Aa2, and blame Brexit uncertainty. Coinciding with May’s date with Dante its timing was politically suspect and its play-it-safe herd instinct made all clear by its failure (like its rivals) to spot the bank crash of 2008-9 until after it happened. It was much the same in the complacent run-up to the First World War, but rating tweaks will be trivial if anything nasty happens out there.

In the spine-tingling circumstances of the AfD’s rapid rise in just four years, it may be comforting to note that the party immediately showed signs of emulating other fringe parties in their moment of apparent triumph by splitting. ‘We have some very big egos,’ confesses one. Indeed, it is confirmed by Nigel Farage’s renewed threat to start a new post-UKIP party if activists elect a leader he doesn’t like. This is how ‘take back control’ works in practice.

But temperamentally moderates of all persuasions, who instinctively flinch when the White House starts picking divisive fights with football stars too, should refrain from reaching for a celebratory sherry. The centre is in poor shape too. Mutti Merkel is barely more likely than May to last four years. There is no guarantee that Boris the Bounder will get his just desserts, let alone that Trump will.

Meanwhile David Davis’s DExEU team is bleeding staff it can’t afford to lose, 20% depleted in barely a year, according to Bloomberg News. One of the defectors, mild Lord (George) Bridges, proposes urgent preparatory work on the ‘no deal’ scenario, an idea endorsed by Michael Gove’s clever, disruptive acolyte, Dominic Cummings, director of the Vote Leave campaign.

Cummings goes further (he always does) to argue that DExEU has failed and should be replaced by a small inter-departmental Brexit task force headed by Victoria Woodcock, a cabinet office civil servant turned Vote Leave director of operations.

Woodcock is credited with saving the Vote Leave campaign when it was at risk from losing the battle with Brexit’s Faragiste provisional wing for official status and funding. No, I hadn’t heard of her either. But that’s how life works: events, chance and human agency. Or as PM-in-waiting Cable puts it: ‘I don’t want a second referendum. I want a first referendum on the facts.’

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