MICHAEL WHITE: Brexit's naked truth has been laid bare

PUBLISHED: 18:00 04 April 2019

Prime Minister Theresa May speaks during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons. Picture: House of Commons/PA Wire

Prime Minister Theresa May speaks during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons. Picture: House of Commons/PA Wire

Michael White takes a look back at the week when the naked truth was laid bare and May turned to Corbyn.

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Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn leaves his home in north London. Picture: David Mirzoeff/PA WireLabour Leader Jeremy Corbyn leaves his home in north London. Picture: David Mirzoeff/PA Wire

As my wife remarked, the news in every direction it often so weird nowadays it was hard to spot the annual April 1st spoofs lurking among the regular stories in Monday’s newspapers. First time around I completely missed the Daily Mail’s yarn about a cat flap being installed in No.10’s big black door for Larry the Downing St moggie (no relation, Jacob). Then I got halfway through the Guardian report on plans to appoint a Brexit “healing czar” before realising that bruiser Bob Geldof might not be the best person for the job. You might as sensibly appoint Mark (“Up yours”) Francois, the Essex Brexit bovver boy.

The same day’s papers reported a television comedian with no political experience topping Ukraine’s real-life presidential poll, a tragic farce. Almost as surreal, former home secretary, Theresa May, belatedly found time for an initiative against knife crime, but not the backstabbing inside her own cabinet. Both events made those frantic manoeuvres over Brexit and the Tory leadership seem relatively normal.

Bare bum climate change protesters in the Commons public gallery? It’s the new normal. New normal has now taken us all through so many Crunch Tuesdays that we took our first Crunch Friday – defeat for a stripped-down version of May’s Meaningful Vote 3 (MV3) – in our stride. Down from a 230-vote majority against her to 149, now a mere 58. The “bloody difficult woman” is not one to take a hint. Who knows, Stubborn Theresa may yet prevail.

Clearly that’s what she hoped when she emerged from No.10 on Tuesday night to announce her latest overture to Jeremy Corbyn to “break the logjam” via a cross-party deal that could put the customs union and even a form of single market into the future trade relationship. Jaw-dropping stuff which pleased self-appointed fixer, the mild-mannered Oliver Letwin (Corbyn is “a man we can do business with”), but infuriated hard Brexiteers, including half the cabinet. Boris went back into tantrum mode.

Brussels signalled cautious relief. But her abandonment of those red lines was a huge risk for both leaders. Will the Tory party split over the prospect of a soft Brexit with Labour support? Will Team Corbyn risk their fingerprints on a deal when they too have repeatedly put party interest before the national one. The difference between the substance of Labour and Tory positions has always been exaggerated by posturing. Will a People’s Vote have to be part of the settlement? Can it be done by May 22? What a rollercoaster week.

On Monday it fell to speaker Bercow to pick and mix four remaining options from last week’s eight defeats on which the Commons should try again. Amid predictable cries of “Betrayal” from the usual Leave suspects (they no longer know any other emotion), he did pick and mix.

We all now know how that went. All four were voted down: Ken Clarke’s customs union (276-273); common market 2.0 (as Norway+ has been rebranded) by 282-261; a ‘confirmatory public vote’ (as the People’s Vote and Referendum II have been renamed) by 292-280; and the SNP’s plan to head off the no-deal cliff by allowing MPs to vote instead for revocation of Article 50 withdrawal in favour of a pause and three-month inquiry in search of an acceptable compromise, the sort of thing May could have done in 2016.

That lost by 292 to 191. It was reported that an unofficial Tory whips operation was deployed to secure abstentions and keep all Project Letwin votes below the 286 votes May’s deal attracted on Friday.

In the process thoughtful Tory MP, Nick Boles, co-sponsor with Labour’s Steve Kinnock of the CM2.0 plan, reproached his colleagues for failing to accept the need for compromise and resigned the party whip on a note of high emotion. “Nick, don’t go,” an MP could be heard to shout, rightly in my view. “Stick to your party,” as Disraeli used to say.

After the initial adrenalin rush of freedom an MP is rarely much use as a wandering ‘independent’. The Independent Group (TIG), itself rebranded as Change UK, already has a chocolate teapot feel to it: purity over power is not a weakness confined to Brexiteers. Such defections leave both main parties stupider and more intractable than before, making the process of recovery that much harder.

So what was left? May’s overture to Corbyn effectively killed the ‘managed no-deal’ fantasy for which 160 Tory hardliners had persuaded themselves to vote (but not the 400 MPs who voted against) a few days earlier. More indicative votes, this time with government approval? A general election even, though it would probably produce another hung parliament and a broken-backed government of left or right, dependent on regional warlords: House of Cards meets Game of Thrones? May’s staff kept stoking up that improbable election scenario too. Who would lead the Tories? What Brexit policy could either big party unite around? Don’t ask. The more real threat of having to take part in the European elections would be divisive enough.

The stalemate again reduced the know-all political class to telling friends and family: “I still haven’t a clue how this will end.” Michel Barnier’s clock ticks on to April 12, May 22 – or a long extension date (forever)? As May’s ramshackled cabinet – its discipline the worst in British history, so chief whip, Julian Smith, told the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg – met for that seven-hour session on Tuesday, veteran resigner, David Davis, went on Radio 4 to spook them with talk of a revived Malthouse Compromise. We’re more likely to be talking about a McDonnell Compromise now.

Twenty-eight hard Brexit Tories (plus six Grieve-led ‘Remainiacs’) voted against May on Friday. On Monday Richard Drax was not alone in openly repenting supporting his party leader three days earlier and joined the hardcore in messianic purity. Compare them with those who swerved away from the cliff edge – and it’s hard not to agree that the clever ones, the Rees-Moggs and Boris Johnsons, finally blinked and followed Davis’ u-turn, taking Dominic Raab and Iain Duncan-Smith with them. They backed May’s flawed deal as the least worst option still realistically available if they were to avoid their Three R’s nightmare of Revocation, Referendum and Remain.

It left the self-flatteringly-described European Research Group (ERG) reduced to a rump, the European Remedial Group where poverty of persuasive argument is masked by increasingly apocalyptic and violent language from the likes of Mark (“gun in my mouth”) Francois and bumptious novice, Steve Baker, who wants to “bulldoze parliament” rather than surrender to vassalage. Interviewed for Kuenssberg’s timely BBC2 Brexit documentary, Baker came across as an excited schoolboy with a new video game. Grand Theft Auto Industry perhaps.

In more normal times such MPs would be given a knighthood to please the wife and quietly put out to grass after a word with the constituency chairman. But constituency chairmen are now part of the problem – as they are in Corbynite Labour’s ranks too. Who was it who said “the most dangerous thing about fanatics is their sincerity”? So in our present frenzy it is Remain’s Dominic Grieve, cerebral and brave, who is threatened with deselection in prosperous Beaconsfield amid cries of “traitor” at the back of the hall.

Meanwhile Bill Cash, Bernard Jenkins, John Redwood, Andrea Jenkyns, Theresa Villiers etc etc are solemnly applauded as Brexit “heavyweights” and “big hitters.” Those among them who own more than three clean shirts (and don’t live with the in-laws like IDS) are dubbed ‘grandees’ by the admiring Sunday Telegraph, whose own stable of pundits echoes their shrill, contradictory certainties.

Not that business and the TUC have much of a Brexit record to boast about. Both sides of industry belatedly complained this week that the political class has botched David Cameron’s referendum strategy and botched Brexit. Siemens UK CEO, Juergen Maier, took to the airwaves to protest that Britain’s indecision has made it “a laughing stock” as hopeless as when he first arrived here in 1974. His company’s investment in wind farm blades (Hull) and railways (Goole) is at risk.

There will be some truth in that. But business and the TUC were divided and timid during the 2016 campaign. Too little, too late from people who think they can pay their taxes (most of them) and watch the show from the sidelines like doctors during unpopular-but-necessary NHS reforms. When did you last hear a consultant say a hospital should close or a business leader put his/her head on the block for continued European engagement?

But credit where it is due. The financial markets have not yet panicked as this column predicted they would have done to help push May’s deal over the line by now. There have been no riots by angry Leave voters, no arson on expensive streets – not yet – as there have been on successive Crunch Saturdays in neighbouring countries we are too kind to mention by name.

The People’s Vote march made its substantial presence felt in London (one million or 600,000, you decide) without any middle class hooligans looting Waitrose for extra virgin olive oil. The following weekend the People’s Farage led a somewhat smaller, angrier crowd into the same Parliament Square to celebrate their shared sense of betrayal. No branch of Waterstones had its windows smashed on the way. This week’s trial of neo-Nazi Jack Renshaw, 23, who plotted to kill Rosie Cooper, his local Labour MP, points to darker alternatives.

As I wrote here before last week’s Will Self edition of The New European, the despised British constitution – vaguer than a Chris Grayling ferry contract – has again proved adaptably flexible enough to accommodate the most protracted political crisis since the Second World War. The 33-month drama has lasted longer than successive miners’ strikes and the IMF crisis of 1976, longer than the Suez deception (1956) or the 1982 Falklands War. Not as long as those largely-forgotten decolonisation crises in Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus or Aden, but more intense and much more personal because the Brexit debate strikes at the nature of the state and wider society.

Some progress was made in the past painful week, though not enough or fast enough. This has been a party political crisis, the product of divided parties, weakened by regional breakaways and the temporary ascendancy of ideological zeal over ‘politics is the art of the possible’ pragmatism.

It is a crisis of inadequate leaders, May and Corbyn, lacking the skills or raw force of personality – either seductive, intellectual or menacing – to lead their followers to places that their silliness or inexperience resists going. Last Friday’s split within the ERG camp exposes the feeble calibre of the Mogg and Boris leadership every bit as cruelly as May’s or Jezza’s ‘present but not involved’ style.

Mogg botched the ERG’s own anti-May coup in December, thereby hampering efforts to topple her now. Did he really expect IDS’s defection to her deal, coupled with May’s conditional offer to resign, would bring across the preening Bakers and Francois just because IDS is “a former party leader?” Captain Duncan Smith was a hopeless chieftan, chosen by the very same, rheumy-eyed party rank-and-file (average age 72, according to a Bow Group survey) who had picked William (“foreign land”) Hague over the public’s preference for Ken Clarke in 1997, IDS himself over Clarke in 2001, Michael (“something of the night”) Howard in 2005.

In this week’s drama it has been Clarke, more experienced in government than May’s callow cabinet put together, who proved himself still the substantial player – a heavyweight, big-hitting grandee if you prefer – as they are not. In Tuesday’s Telegraph, Hague, who pandered to the right himself as leader, feebly protested the party is in a worse state now than when he inherited it from Europe-wrecked John Major in 1997. Thanks, Billy. Labour’s Margaret Beckett (76 and first an MP in 1973) has also pulled her considerable political weight.

Contrast Hague’s spotty record with Clarke. Born in August 1940 at the height of the German invasion scare, an MP since 1970 when the average current MP (50.5 years old) was still in nappies, Ken Bloke made a lucid pitch for a customs union on Monday afternoon. Unlike May in her ERG/DUP obsession, he reached out, urging colleagues on all sides to back his (and Yvette Cooper/Hilary Benn/Oliver Letwin’s) soft Brexit motion – defeated by only 265-271 the previous Wednesday.

In return he promised to back common market 2.0. The People’s Vote option (“I am not very fond of referendums myself”) is a procedural issue which need not prevent PV advocates voting for his proposal, which concerns the substance of those future negotiations on UK/EU trade relations.

Mostly Clarke spoke in vain. Second referendum supporters did what he feared. The Liberal Democrats, TIG MPs and many Labour PV supporters voted against Clarke, the SNP abstained. After the defeat Clarke explained to Green MP Caroline Lucas that her idea of harnessing his motion to a referendum would be self-defeating because the combination would lose more votes than it gained. “That’s politics,” he said. “But parliament isn’t very political at the moment.” May’s Tuesday night overture was a vindication of his One Nation credo.

Barely half Clarke’s age, Labour’s Stephen Kinnock, a common market 2.0 man, did get Clarke’s point – and voted for it. He told the television cameras on College Green (the BBC’s News Channel’s rolling Brexit show has been picking up big viewing figures) that a 52:48% referendum gives a mandate “to move house, but stay in the same neighbourhood”. Nicely put.

That should mean leaving the EU’s political project but staying in a close economic relationship of the kind Brexit campaigners would once have happily accepted. Lots of people – including the BBC’s ever-fluent Brexit facts guru, Chris Morris, were making that point. Hard Brexit types had hardened up their demands as their original ‘easy deal’ nirvana collided with reality. Even slippery Farage had once sounded content to settle for a Swiss or Norwegian arrangement.

Far from being intransigent and arrogant plotters to thwart Brexit – as the Sunday Telegraph’s conspiracy columnists like to proclaim – most Remain leaders, Labour’s Keir Starmer among them, have been willing to negotiate a compromise which will take the UK out of the political EU but minimise economic harm.

Even Team Corbyn retreated from its opposition to free movement of citizens – a key issue in Labour-held pro-Brexit seats – to back the CM2.0 motion. It would create problems. So would Clarke’s proposed customs union, not least that half a dozen cabinet ministers are allegedly threatening to resign and split the party.

But at least such options engage with the real world, as seen beyond Westminster. It is the Brexit squad which has moved the goalposts, those flighty cabinet lightweights among them. As for Nigel (“vote against it 1,000 times”) Dodd and his DUP colleagues they are so much in hock to their rural voters – as elsewhere, cities and business are more pragmatic – that they are willing to risk an election which Sinn Féin’s pen pal, Jeremy Corbyn, just might win, according to the latest polls.

How daft is that? How daft is armchair gunman Mark Francois to threaten to vote against May on a no-confidence motion when the eventual outcome of such behaviour could be the reverse of what he supposedly stands for – a soft Brexit, no Brexit at all or the break-up of Essex’s historic Union with Scotland and Ireland? Dodd actually said this week that Remain would be a better outcome than May’s deal. Is he Dublin’s double agent?

May is sacrificing herself, beyond forgiveness now. Her overture gives Corbyn a serious opportunity, both to show leadership and accept responsibility for compromise. Can he rise to the dangerous challenge?

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