MICHAEL WHITE: The harmful developments ripping apart British politics
- Credit: PA
MICHAEL WHITE on the tory chainsaw strategy that is ripping British politics apart right under our noses.
Before we get back to the week's turmoil, the chaotic drama of a dodgy prorogation with MPs singing the Red Flag and other anthems, let us acknowledge a wholesome moment. At the start of Monday's business warring politicians united to thank John Bercow for his turbulent decade as speaker of the Commons - even Brexit Spartan, Steve Baker. He happens to be a fellow-Bucks MP, along with Cheryl Gillan and - wait for it - both the new Sir David Lidington and the fastidious Dominic Grieve.
What shared car rides home that motley Tory crew must have shared - with Bercow driving, I expect. Of course, the 90 minutes of wholesome tributes gave way to resumed conflict of which the outgoing speaker has become such a symbol. So much so that MPs later made a show of trying to keep him in his chair to prevent the prorogation ceremony, a self-conscious echo of members' action against speaker Finch when he moved to adjourn the House on King Charles I's orders in March 1629. What followed is what Whig historians dubbed a royal "11 years tyranny" though Tory historians have usually preferred to dwell on the 11-year Cromwellian tyranny between the Civil War and the Stuart Restoration in 1660. They do again today, when ancient fault-lines are reappearing.
So Tuesday's toady press joined his Tory critics in tearing into Bercow. Rashly partisan, rudely self-centred, effortlessly inappropriate, he is an easy target. But if history continues to be written - far from certain in the Age of Silicon Valley - posterity will applaud him on what matters more: his role in consistently promoting parliamentary power against over-mighty governments.
Even in his resignation timing that lets the current 2017-19 parliament elect his successor, not a bunch of novices pick a patsy, Bercow loads the dice against No.10. Jeremy Corbyn praised him, but the Labour leader is not a Cromwellian man of power. He did well this week precisely because it was political street theatre, albeit staged indoors.
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How this crisis is resolved is all for the future, after parliament returns on October 14. I first worked in the Commons press gallery in 1976 when Jim Callaghan's minority Labour government was struggling to stay afloat in very stormy seas. Amid charges of vote cheating, young Michael Heseltine seized the Mace (I saw him do it), the Red Flag was sung, at home and abroad the outside world looked very threatening. Thanks to today's televised chamber we can now all see that Monday's shenanigans were much more dramatic - and far weightier in their implications: parliament vs the executive, both sides claiming to speak for the people. The outside world still threatening.
"Get Brexit done and things will settle down within a year," say Tory old sweats like Michael Howard and Ken Baker. Let's hope they're right, but I doubt it unless the economy picks up and we are competently governed to concentrate on other much-neglected reforms.
In the here and now we face an autumn of exceptional uncertainty which extremists - inside parliament as well as on the streets and in conspiratorial basements - will seek to exploit. So will party conferences in shrill campaign mode. Unlike 1976, the amplifier of social media will add to our distress. Some high-minded liberals will prove themselves as foolish as the neo-fascists and Momentum agitators.
They will have plenty of material to work with. By my calculations Boris Johnson's justification for trying to "chainsaw" (copyright D Cummings) his way to that "do or die" Halloween Brexit rests on three lies which stand out from all the other half-truths and evasions emanating from our transitional government as it has engineered prorogation by "executive fiat" (copyright J Bercow) and scrambles for a loophole in the No-to-No-Deal Law, otherwise known as the EU (Withdrawal (No.2) Agreement) Act. Contrary to justified suspicions of a fix voiced here last week, the Queen signed it on Monday. Boris didn't steal her pen after all.
One prime porkie is that all MPs trying to prevent that no-deal Brexit are really trying to keep Britain inside the EU. The second is that Labour's refusal to step into the elephant trap of an October 15 general election is motivated by fear of defeat (cries of "Chicken" from the Eton scholar), not legitimate fear of a no-deal double-cross. Third and most important, are Johnson's protestations that he is sincerely working to avoid the no-deal break with the EU27 for which his Svengali, Dominic 'Fonzie' Cummings is working even harder.
Of course, sensible people of goodwill have to concede right away that partisans on the other side of Brexit's Grand Canyon harbour passionate mistrust and worse of their opponents too. It is important that both sides try to acknowledge that. Such is the mess we find ourselves in after three years of floundering political leadership in Britain and almost as painful a "failure of statesmanship" (copyright B. Johnson) in Paris, Brussels and Berlin. The flood waters of populist, authoritarian nationalism are rising around them too. There is no monopoly of virtue in this crisis.
But it simply isn't true that most MPs - or even peers - who backed the Benn-Letwin No-No-Deal bill are still "do or die" Remainers. Plenty, including many loyal TNE readers, are convinced that a People's Vote referendum would reverse the ill-considered verdict on June 23, 2016. They are what agitator Farage calls "Remain agitators". Ex-minister Oliver Letwin, who voted three times for Theresa May's deal, is among those committed to a healing second referendum, but no longer to Remain. Letwin says he'd vote for any deal to get it done, not for no-deal. There is now a pragmatic 'MPs for a Deal' group at Westminster.
That must be because the deep shift in public opinion - a willingness by substantial numbers of Leave voters to admit their misjudgment - hasn't materialised. I hoped it might happen after pro-Brexit Donald Trump's election, his aggressively America First trade and security policies, showed what risks we all face. But it didn't. Mailman Peter Oborne's "I was wrong" article, published on the Open Democracy website in April, was not the first swallow of a Remain spring. Instead the Mail, which declined to publish it, has started backsliding into its old sectarian habits, though its better columnists have struggled to justify Johnson's recent manoeuvres, as they have not struggled at the rival Daily Borisgraph.
In the real world - the one Telegraph columnists claim to know so well - a significant wodge of voters has moved at varying speeds to accept the necessity of leaving, albeit on the least damaging terms possible. There's room for honest disagreement about the precise terms too, of course. The Norway model - single market, rule-taking and cash-paying - appals many pro-Europeans. "Better to stay in," as Nigel Farage says in those self-pitying moments he so loves. Better to repeal Article 50, agrees Jo Swinson, determined to capitalise on Labour's fence-sitting tactics. At the TUC on Tuesday, Corbyn put one foot on the ground when he committed - finally and firmly - to a referendum, but not the other foot: he still wants Remain/Leave options. Too little, too late? Tom Watson clearly thinks so. He promptly broke ranks to argue that a referendum, with Labour unambiguously backing Remain, should precede any election.
In pretending few such dilemmas exist, and pushing for the misleading simplicity of a Halloween No-Deal which just postpones hard choices, it is the Leave champions who are engaged in duplicity, not Dominic Grieve. He succeeded on Monday night - by 311 votes to 302 - in passing a motion (a Humble Address in the jargon) to extract Whitehall's Operation Yellowhammer assessment of no-deal's immediate impact from the grasp of furtive minsters.
Even more alarming, Grieve's motion also won MPs' backing to obtain the email and other social media communications of nine key officials in Johnson's inner circle, notably those of super-cool Fonzie Cummings, master of chaos.
That is seriously intrusive on the ability of officials to give ministers candid but securely private advice, and governments from Tony Blair's onward (Blair later regretted the sweeping powers in the Freedom of Information Act he passed) have resisted it. But like much of the beating meted out to the Johnson administration - six votes, six defeats - it was done with a stick the PM fashioned himself.
He could have sought the usual formal vote to prorogue parliament, instead of using the royal prerogative. Grieve says no public official in assorted legal departments could be found willing to sign the routine affidavit and that he has been told privately by some that they regard it as a "scandal". Remember, I wrote here last week that some civil servants have been seeking legal advice on their duty. So trust has been weakened and further weakened by steady briefings by and on behalf of Dominic Cummings about chainsawing his way to that Halloween Brexit, sacking aides, bullying ministers and talking of a "sham" renegotiation with Brussels. Shifty Johnson himself has given a variety of explanations.
I have to concede that May special advisers Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy (rewarded for failure with CBEs in this week's honours list) were bullies. So was Gordon Brown's hitman, Damian McBride. Alastair Campbell, of this parish, could cut up rough; he modelled some of his operation on Bernard Ingham, though Bernard would deny it. Such tactics rarely end well. But Dom is something else. When I dealt with him regularly, I thought he was just a rather intense young man who channelled his testosterone into promoting Michael Gove's career because he probably wasn't getting enough sex. Wrong. Now happily married, our pocket Bismarck - just like the battleship, eh - is even more out of control and our rudderless prime minister seems to be his creature.
So Cummings is fair game and Tory pundit Oborne is not alone in saying this champion of Bismarck's cynical Prussian realpolitik must go. "Sink the Pocket Bismarck" is the perfect slogan to cut through to Brexit voters nostalgic for war-time heroics. And how about "Take Back Control From Your Own Staff, Boris" as well? After all, it is Cummings, the burner of bridges and poisoner of wells, who is blamed for sacking 21 Tory MPs, destroying Boris's own power base, for alienating Ruth Davidson, Hammer of the SNP, whose loss may yet doom him. Privately worse, he bears much blame for also hacking off Brother Jo (cue for tears) and driving out his friend Amber Rudd (more tears) after she became increasingly convinced that No.10 is not serious about trying to prevent a no-deal Brexit. It made her fragile position impossible. Break the law? Nicky Morgan says sense will prevail. Other cabinet colleagues are uneasy. Jeremy Hunt is silent.
If true, the "sham" negotiation is the biggest porkie basking in the Johnson Pie Shop's window. Let's hope it isn't true and that reports from Paris, Brussels, Berlin and - on Monday - from Dublin are just spin when they say that, far from promoting new compromises, London is unpicking existing ones. The EU priesthood and EU27 ministers, unhappily bound in mutual self-defence, are capable of spin. They are politicians too, able to make enough concessions at the 11th hour-plus to get Johnson off the hook of his own "dead in a ditch" making, whatever they may have said in the past. Whose unemployment is still falling? Ours, not theirs. The problem selling any retweaked version of May's deal would be Steve Baker and the DUP, not Grieve or Letwin. Might the arch-betrayer betray them?
More urgent, is Johnson's morbid, hyperbolic language, the ready resort to "big girl's blouse" abuse, the periodic incoherence, all a sign, not that he is a calculating demagogue, but just subject to depression, I keep wondering?
But many voters, fed up with Brexit and preoccupied with their own lives, will probably register only one of this week's controversies, my third prime porkie. Were the opposition parties hypocritical or just cowardly ("Corbyn's Yellow Bellies") in twice denying the necessary two-thirds majority to Johnson's call for an October 15 general election under the terms of the half-baked 2011 Fixed Term Parliament Act (FTPA)? A third such election since 2015 is one which Brenda from Bristol is not alone in not wanting. But surely Team Corbyn wants one? Well, yes and no. They abstained in the 298-46 vote.
But Labour, Nats and Greens are surely entitled to resist a divisive and dishonest 'Brexit or Death' campaign purely to suit Johnson/Cummings strategy, one where an untrustworthy PM retains the power to switch the date to a post-Halloween fait accompli? If the World King had been straight, he could have tabled a bill to amend the FTPA and carried it by simple majority. Ah, but such a bill would itself be amendable to tie him down on a date, say critics. In a few hectic weeks his team's evasive conduct has earned their mistrust. Boris is no longer the unifying 'winner' of backbench pipe dreams. At best he is a divisive winner.
The sight of Jacobin Rees-Mogg, eyes closed and horizontal on the front bench, says more than any speech could about supercilious Etonian entitlement, more even than Nigel Farage telling the Sunday Times he'd love to get his hands on the Washington embassy's wine cellar or Sajid Javid's refusal to rule out an election pact with Thirsty Nigel. Pollsters warily chew over the numbers and most conclude that only such a pact to give Farage's pop-up candidates a free run in Labour's northern Brexit strongholds (and Lord John Mann's Bassetlaw seat?) would safely offset anti-Brexit losses in Scotland and the south where the People's Vote is organising tactical voting advice. Cummings says he is against a pact, so it may well happen as Farage's flagging leverage is restored because Brexit is again postponed.
Bewildered pundits are offering various options by which the World King may escape the prison parliament has built around his own reckless folly. Ignore the WA (No 2) Act and lose more ministers. Accept it, seek a three-month Article 50 extension if there is no-deal by October 17 and lose different ministers. Send the A50 letter along with one saying "I don't mean it". Declare a national emergency to override the Act or try to get the courts to do it. Persuade or bribe an EU27 PM to veto an A50 extension if the French won't do it for free. Try that simple majority route to get round the FTPA. Table a vote of no confidence in his own government to get round it. Or resign as PM and let Magic Grandpa Corbyn carry the Brexit can for a while.
Obviously there are more holes in most of the above than there are in Dominic Cummings's jeans. Forced to choose I'd bet (not much) on the explosive option of resignation, but even that would require the WK to ask the poor Queen to send for Corbyn, confident that he will quickly screw up and pave the way for the World King's Restoration.
Some serious people think he's cornered enough to risk it. Serious pro-Brexit historians like Cambridge's Bob Tombs as well as courtier historians like Andrew Roberts and the ever-hysterical David Starkey would support him, though Lord Jonathan Sumption QC, chronicler of late medieval England, certainly would not. But the Tory nightmare is this: If Boris's tactics or Farage's ego let in Corbyn, would they ever get him out? Not dull, is it?
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