The Government is weak, divided and drifting towards crisis

PUBLISHED: 15:38 22 July 2017 | UPDATED: 15:38 22 July 2017

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Plot gossip: Leaky lips in the Tory party and a look at the world beyond Brexit sniping

The world goes busily about its business. But British politics has been trivially distracted by Philip Hammond’s suggestion that modern trains no longer require train drivers to possess unusual physical strength to handle a job once seen as the aristocratic pinnacle of the working classes. Women could drive trains nowadays, the chancellor innocently told the cabinet’s public sector pay discussion. Duly leaked by Brexit rivals who wish Hammond harm, the cynical Sun was outraged.

In the world beyond Brexit sniping, two simmering disputes in East Asia risk triggering global conflict. Mosul’s self-styled caliphate falls in Iraq and Qatar bubbles, while a volatile US president lurches towards total repeal of Obamacare. EU negotiator, Michel Barnier, taps his fingers impatiently waiting for David Davis to start Brexit talks (they last 15 minutes). But distracted Brits devote more energy to whether or not Traingate makes our earnest chancellor of the exchequer a sexist.

It was also the week that finally saw publication of the 66-page Not-So-Great Repeal Bill, aka the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, and a bleakly measured essay from Tony Blair on the existential choices facing Brexit Britain. They included no withdrawal at all if Macron-Merkel reform of the EU’s institutions creates sufficient space in Europe’s outer circle for a chastened Britain to pull back from costly folly and curb immigration. Without providing more evidence than pious hope, the former prime minister thinks they might. Though he does not float the second referendum option on this occasion, he shares Vince Cable’s hunch – at 74 the Lib Dem leader-elect – that Brexit may not actually happen. Brexit interruptus? The very thought enrages the Jacobins of the Right.

But Blair’s analysis – printed in full on The New European website – presupposes a rational assessment of the balance of advantage as harsh realities become inescapable, even to Euro-fantasists and fact-dodgers with the escapist talents of Harry Houdini. When assorted medical and nuclear scientists again flagged up the dangers of UK withdrawal from Euratom (supervised by the radioactive European Court of Justice) it alarmed even Brexit stalwarts like knockabout, ex-Trot columnist, Rod Liddle, and Dominic Cummings, harsh Savonarola of Vote Leave, the one who is calling the traitor Davis “thick as mince” and ”lazy as a toad”. With characteristic understatement Cummings declares that ministers would be near-retarded morons to leave Euratom.

Don’t worry. DExEU (Department for Exiting the EU) ministerial newboy and Brexit zealot, Steve Baker, assured Radio 4 listeners such fears are exaggerated and the critics wrong to say leaving Euratom isn’t actually necessary. DExEU’s position paper is blandly reassuring. There will be a “smooth transition” to a new regime of cooperation and safeguards on this – as on so much else. Little wonder that senior civil servants are said to roll their eyes in disbelief at the peaks they are expected to climb between now and March 2019. All on a mountainous expedition whose nominal leaders cannot even agree to rope themselves together, let alone to take orders from the team leader.

In her tent at Base Camp as the perilous ascent begins is Theresa May. As with much else in the British government’s disarray, there are disputed accounts of her state of mind. She was briefly spotted at several of the gossipy summer parties now obligatory in the world of Whitehall departments, think tanks and media. May did not stay long. As the world now knows, the prime minister does not do small talk. Some insist she is slowly recovering from that “little tear” moment when she realised her election gamble had failed dramatically and is determined to deliver what she promised. Others say she is a “dead woman walking” (take a bow, George Osborne) who cannot hope to last much beyond her party conference speech in Manchester on October 4.

Despite the admirable Andrew Marr’s conclusion (after attending gossipy parties I did not) that the plots are more serious than he imagined from New Broadcasting House, I stand by my own hunch that May will stagger on long beyond Manchester. When sensible people read Times headlines like “Tory Plotters to Pounce in October,” sensible people conclude the plotters are not as serious as plot-friendly journalists would like. Hacks are hopeless plotters themselves – too much ego – and reluctant to accept that real plots rarely see much daylight until the bodies are being carted off.

Plot gossip is damaging all the same. It strengthens the belief that May is so weak that she cannot impose order on leaky ministers. Tim Shipman of the Sunday Times took to Twitter to deny that Michael Gove had anything to do with stabbing Hammond, thereby pointing an inky finger at Boris (“most trusted”) Johnson. May told Conservative backbenchers on Monday night that they must not leak – go away from Westminster and have a good rest, she said – and told her cabinet the same on Tuesday. But is she strong enough to sack miscreants? The wisdom of the moment says No. But don’t bank on that lasting if May recovers some of her equilibrium.

In any case, it cannot be said too often that May’s strongest card is the alternative candidates to replace her. Davis and Hammond are the only remotely credible cabinet choices and both are hemmed in by their day jobs. Davis may not be as thick – or lazy – as mince, but his reputation is not so Stakhanovite that it will survive many 15 minutes coffees with Barnier. Hammond lacks the extrovert temperament for No 10 and, as chancellor, is the designated fall-guy for unpopular tax-and-spending decisions. That was what his “sexist” row with economically illiterate colleagues was about. He was right about public sector pensions too (most of us don’t understand our pensions), but it’s not a vote-winner.

Johnson? Leadsom? Priti Patel? Dominic (who he?) Raab? Jake Mogg, the worker’s friend? Even he got odds last week from bookies keen to make some easy money. They must all be joking, they are all joking. It’s July and it’s hotter than most British Julys were before we voted to take back control of our weather. In their hearts, Tory MPs – all but the Jacobins who have helped wreck four Conservative premierships over Europe – know that too and have been urging ministers to get roped up and start climbing Mount Barnier.

So “the choice is me or Jeremy Corbyn – and nobody wants him,” was May’s crude but effective message to the backbenches. Blair’s online essay for his self-funded Global Institute for Change gathered headlines for acknowledging that Corbyn’s “remarkable result” on June 8 showed that he could become prime minister. But that was damning with faint praise, implicitly the same as May’s.

Labour’s calculated ambiguity over Brexit can’t last much longer, he also said. And Corbyn’s economic policies will get far greater scrutiny next time unless experienced hands are brought in to make them more credible to anyone likely to still be picking up the bill long after Jeremy has stopped giving Barnier Arsenal football strips (was that in the manifesto?).

“If a right wing populist punch in the form of Brexit was followed by a left wing populist punch in the form of unreconstructed hard left economics, Britain would hit the canvas, flat on our back and be out for a long count,” wrote Blair

That’s still about right, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) tactfully said as much in a report last week. So when such a seasoned commentator as Steve Richards attempts to describe a swing back to the left and to state intervention in leading economies across the globe – he does in the current edition of Prospect – he falls flat on his back too. To portray Donald Trump as an agent of state power, except in the most negative ways, is a stretch. Trump is an agent of unbridled corporate power.

Here’s where backbench power at Westminster and on Capitol Hill in Washington – its Julys far steamier than London’s but better air-conditioned – acquire rare convergence in 2017. It has long been a familiar complaint that the federal American system of government, a brilliantly devised compromise for an agrarian society in its infancy in 1787, now lends itself to ineffectual deadlock between its three sharply segregated branches: the executive presidency, the log-rolling legislature (elections every two years) in Congress and the judicial Supreme Court located round the corner on First St NE. By way of contrast a British prime minister with a working Commons majority could do pretty well anything – “except turn a man into a woman” as constitutional experts used to tell students.

Even that remark that sounds old-fashioned now. But the growth of judicial review and the Blair-created Supreme Court (with a self-expanding mission just like those hated European courts) have cramped ministers style by calling their decisions to account. Just look at the “Enemies of the People” rage of the Daily Beast when the justices upheld Gina Miller’s assertion that parliament must have a say in the Brexit process. The rage came from the same newspapers now campaigning against vicious left-wing trolling of (mostly) Tory politicians – while relegating to later pages the jailing of Viscount St Davids for inciting social media followers to run their cars (British-made but Japanese) over Miller.

Only slowly dawning on us all is that parliament – for whose untrammelled sovereignty the Brexit crew supposedly battled so long – is starting to take that rhetoric at face value. The backbench Awkward Squad has always known how to make trouble, especially sophisticated proceduralists like Labour’s Tam Dalyell, Tory Robin Maxwell-Hyslop or (still very much alive) Dennis Skinner, who once outfoxed no less an operator than Enoch Powell on a procedural manoeuvre. Most MPs now are too inexperienced and in too much of a hurry to learn such arcane tactics. Besides cross-party whips collusion has closed many of the rebel options, leaving only existential votes in the division lobbies, symbolic but usually ineffectual. Ask Jeremy Corbyn. With his 533 votes against the government of the day (1997-2015) he made a nice little career of it until disaster struck and he became leader.

But the expenses scandal of 2009, brilliantly orchestrated to benefit David Cameron by the Daily Telegraph, forced reforms which weakened the power of the whips offices. MPs showed it again last week when they elected select committee chairmen on a cross-party basis (a post 2009 power) and picked independent-minded ones, not whips’ narks. Most conspicuous was Remain’s Nicky Morgan’s victory over Jake Mogg to succeed the estimable Andrew Tyrie as chair of the Treasury select. Remain MPs did well across the board.

The reforms also emboldened growing habits of rebellion, so lovingly charted by Professor Phil Cowley of the LSE. Loyalty is like virginity, once it’s gone it’s gone. First-time rebels find they enjoy the thrill and do it again. John Major’s precarious 1992-97 majority allowed the Europhobic Jacobins in his own party – and cabinet – to wreck his authority and secure Blair’s 1997 landslide. Slow “Save the pound” learners granted his repeat performance in 2001. In 2010-15 Nick Clegg sacrificed his party to spare Cameron that terror, a kindness which Cameron foolishly repaid by targeting his MPs so successfully that he won a slim majority in 2015. In consequence his referendum bluff was called and lost. No more Cameron.

May’s own folly in calling her gratuitous Hard Brexit election in 2017 – a near repeat of Stanley Baldwin’s free trade election mistake in 1923 – has unintentionally delivered maths that entrench a sovereign parliament if it so decides to act and do so effectively. It is already one that demands more attention than Downing St is accustomed to giving backbench MPs, let alone peers. What’s more, the angry, demanding world of social media and e-petitions force MPs to behave more like members of the House of Representatives, who face voters every other year and focus on constituency needs. As parochial as Americans can sometimes be – a large country surrounded by large oceans – Candidate Trump capitalised on “America First” sentiment. But President Trump is finding that even a Republican Congress can be as self-absorbed as he is.

Likewise British MPs, albeit with the added complication that they have the power to vote down the government. It rarely happens, though it did to defeat Labour in 1979. This option is one which Congress lacks, short of the nuclear choice of formal impeachment for “high crimes and misdemeanours”, a practice which 18th century Brits discarded when they were still colonies. What the two legislatures now have in common is sharper ideological divisions between the main parties – much sharper now that the Corbynistas are in charge – but also within them, chiefly over Brexit but also over management of the economy and social issues. Buying off the DUP, as May was forced to do, revealed how it works in terms of both substance and process.

Fissures are like rebellions. As tempers fray calmer voices get drowned out by zealots on both sides. A cursory knowledge of French Revolutionary politics detects the moderate Girondins overwhelmed and destroyed by the Montagnards of the Jacobin Club – themselves deeply divided and doomed also to destroy each other in the frenzy of 1793. We are a long way from that, but such fantasies are no longer unthinkable as a weak, divided government drifts into the most serious crisis of the state since 1940 without direction. When Andrew Adonis compared the Brexit vote with the misguided popularity of appeasement in the 1930s he was accused of likening Brexit voters with pro-Nazis by the very newspapers which support Brexit, as many of them did appeasement. It is another example of the sleep of reason.

Can the moderate centre coalesce in some form and hold the line against a “no deal is better than a bad deal” Hard Brexit fantasy – no proper access to the single market or customs union and the compromises they entail? That was Blair’s challenge. For what it’s worth Corbyn wants a Brexit that puts jobs and workers right first, but John McDonnell keeps insisting that Labour’s mandate is to leave both. Apart from the immigration question – key driver behind that 52% vote – of which the Labour leader is still backbench Jez, that puts the official Opposition closer to May and Johnson than to Hammond, let alone to Soft Brexit Tory MPs, to the SNP/Plaid Cymru and Lib Dems, soon to be led by Cable, his show of reluctance overcome. If only Ed Balls had also been persuaded to forsake the pleasures of the dance floor as Vince has been.

Then there is Chuka Umunna, leading the breakaway Labour Soft Brexit faction, presumably in close touch with the Labour mayoral baronies of London and Manchester as well as with sympathetic MPs in other parties. He is working openly with Tory ex-business minister, Anna Soubry, a politician with whom I would happily go on a tiger shoot. Along with Ken Clarke (of course), Heidi Allen, Claire Perry, Antoinette Sandbach and Bob Neill, Soubry defied the whips in February to demand a Commons vote on the Brexit deal (if there is one). Then there are the peers in all parties, most of them Remain or Soft Brexiteers by instinct and worldly experience.

May has been calling for wider cross-party input as she seeks the mechanism by which she can survive long enough to deliver viable terms for a Brexit that will not damage and divide the country. Corbynite sectarians, some convinced they are poised on the edge of a transformative election victory, will not be reliable friends or even foes. The leader’s record of reaching out all points in one direction, so does McDonnell’s. Their backroom boys, so I am told, think they can square the deficiencies in their manifesto spending maths by hitting the elusive “rich” even harder. That’s bad news for the middle classes.

But can the Cables, Soubrys and Umunnas, working with Keir Starmer and other Remainers – they chose to remain within the Corbyn tent – coalesce effectively this winter in the series of votes over the withdrawal bill? It is Brexit’s aircraft carrier and its legislative support frigates, designed to repatriate swathes of EU rules and regulations in a bureaucratic Dunkirk. They dare not sink it but can honourably try significantly to soften its hard edges, as they must the wider Brexit process. The Washington experience is not encouraging: Obama was thwarted for eight years by Republican obstruction on Capitol Hill. Now headless Republican chickens are obstructing themselves. On tax reform, Obamacare and infrastructure investment, the ideological ultras block compromise.

Assigned with his officials to do much of the hard work, David Davis is showing signs of flexibility, though he left it to his junior minister, Baroness Anelay, to slip out the admission that Britain will pay its legal obligations to Brussels before and after Brexit, at least for the 2021 budget cycle. So much for Boris Johnson’s “go whistle” idiocy. On greater realism over immigration, William Hague is waving, not drowning. Ed Vaizey, sacked culture minister, is rallying support to airbrush May’s inflexible “red line” on vestigial ECJ authority. That might solve the Euroatom problem for Dominic Cummings. David Cameron also intervened but sensibly confined himself to platitudes about the need for “inspiring vision”.

The opportunities to use May’s election knock-back to soften Brexit all depend on big ifs that require leadership not evident at the centre of events as drift accelerates. Even more authoritative and impressive than ex-cabinet secretary Gus O’Donnell’s warning – Brexit chaos looms unless ministers get their act together to become more realistic – was the intervention from Sir Amyas Morse. The head of the National Audit Office (NAO) is so grand and so discreet that not even the Daily Brute had a black bag full of dirt on him as a prospective enemy of the people. But Morse likened the current state of Britain’s negotiating stance to a chocolate orange – likely to fall apart at the first tap.

When negotiator Davis met negotiator Barnier for this week’s photo-call he didn’t even bring a chocolate orange to put on the table.

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