Saturday 17 November 2018

Brexit: things seem slightly less hopeless today

The mistake was putting a Remainer, someone whom David Cameron described as more Europhile than him or George Osborne, in charge of Brexit. 

For this mistake I blame Michael Gove, the only Leave candidate who could have led the country out of the EU when Cameron resigned. Instead he originally chose not to stand for the leadership but to back Boris Johnson, before deciding that Johnson was not up to the job and stabbing him in the front by standing. He did this to save the country from Johnson rather than in the hope of winning and he looked disloyal, Machiavellian and untrustworthy.

Theresa May did not get to where she is by brains. Nor by eloquence, charisma, likeability or intuition. She got where she is by luck, as most Prime Ministers do (Brown, Eden and Chamberlain were the exceptions in modern times), but mostly by persistence. 

I remember the pornographer David Sullivan saying in an interview that intelligence was
not the secret of success. Plenty of intelligent people sweep the streets. The secret is persistence.  He was right. 

Do not discount Mrs May's persistence. Staying power moves mountains. If the 48 Tory MPs are found to call for a leadership election and she wins, if only by one vote, she will stay. And she probably would win.

Being a woman helped her too. She became Home Secretary because of affirmative action. George Osborne told David Cameron that he ought to appoint a woman to one of the three great offices of state. 

Messrs Osborne and Cameron, who are clever and got on because of it, judge people by how brainy they were and found Theresa May wanting. They humiliated her in cabinet. 

Theresa May is an intellectually insecure woman who came completely under the influence of two Svengali-like advisors, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill. They advised her to call the 2016 election. Mr Timothy, who is a Leave supporter, advised her to rule out staying in the customs union or the single market and to reject a deal like the Norwegian or Swiss agreements. 

After the election debacle, the Tory leadership, like indignant barons at the court of King Edward II or King Richard II, insisted that her favourites be banished. Mrs May is probably now under the influence of civil servant Olly Robbins.

Crises always show up structural political problems. This one shows up two vast problems, which were obvious anyway. One is that it is no longer possible to hold a quick election for the Tory (or Labour) leadership among MPs, who are themselves elected and who know the candidates. Letting the Tory party members (described by David Cameron as 'swivel-eyed loons') have the ultimate choice makes the process slower as well as much less democratic. 

However it could be done in three weeks if there is a will.

A bigger problem is the failure of cabinet government - the failure of the cabinet to give orders to and overrule the Prime Minister and civil service. This worked well at the time of the Munich conference, when the cabinet gave Neville Chamberlain very detailed instructions on negotiations with Hitler. Theresa May's cabinet did not give her or civil servant Olly Robbins similarly narrow instructions on negotiating with Michel Barnier, or any instructions so far as I know.

Two cabinet ministers resigned after the Chequers negotiating strategy was adopted in July, the Secretary of State for Brexit and the Foreign Secretary. They both resigned without having opposed the deal in cabinet, which had been sprang on them. Two more cabinet ministers resigned, including the next Secretary of State for Brexit, after the Cabinet meeting on Thursday, where the Prime Minister revealed the agreement she thought she had reached with the EU negotiators. The Brexit Secretary resigned over the deal he was responsible for, the details about the backstop having been kept from him by the Prime Minister and civil service until the cabinet meeting.

Five more cabinet ministers are said to be considering their positions but using the threat of resignation to try to influence events. Many more members of the cabinet disliked the deal, perhaps the majority for all we know, but they were not permitted to vote on it. 

Esther McVeigh was said to have made an emotional outburst demanded a vote and was told by the Cabinet Secretary (a civil servant) that this was not possible. One anonymous source (Miss McVeigh?) said the Cabinet Secretary shouted at her. Another anonymous person denied this. She was the other cabinet minister to resign.

The Prime Minister brings cabinets and cabinet committees to a conclusion by summing up the collective position. This gives her enormous power to ignore views she finds inconvenient but the putative convention that the cabinet does not vote is a new one. There have been plenty of cabinet votes in the past. Gladstone's cabinet voted, as did Tony Blair's.

It is of course for the cabinet to decide if it wants to vote but the Prime Minister decides what is the will of the cabinet.

But the cabinet, fortunately, does not have the last word. That lies with the House of Commons, assuming the House of Lords (how one misses the hereditary peers, all but 92 of whom have been replaced by quangocrats and time-servers) has the wisdom to accept the will of the lower house. If the House of Lords does not it will be abolished.

And in the House of Commons the will of the people and of the genuine conservative MPs has a chance to win against the civil service, the BBC, the legal establishment, Oxford and Cambridge dons and the bishops.

What alternative is there to the deal Mrs. May presented to the cabinet? 

No deal - which could be, and would I think be, an orderly one which could develop into something like the Canada-EU free trade deal. 

Or the Norwegian or Swiss free trade deals would be good interim solutions, though they would permit free movement of people and in the former case keep us in the customs union. 

No deal or a Canadian deal would mean a hard Irish border. This is not a problem.

Mrs May said on Thursday that a promise was made to the people of Northern Ireland during the referendum campaign that there would be no hard border. Who made this promise? 

David Cameron, who now sits in his luxury shed writing his memoirs. Whom does this promise bind? No-one.

Mrs May very foolishly later gave the same assurance of no hard Irish border and it was used by the EU negotiators and by Eire to lock us into the unacceptable deal that Mrs May now proposes. She should go and her assurance should go with her.

In any case, both the UK and Eire have said that they do not intend to put customs officers along the border. If the EU wants Southern Ireland to collect customs that is a matter for the EU and Southern Ireland, not the UK.


  1. I just cant see what the fuss about the Irish border is?Surely if the EU and Rep of Ireland place a hard border then they will be the ones who have broken the Good Friday Agreement not the UK?They have just tried too find a reason to fail and this is it.

  2. The diaries of the Liberal Democrat cabinet minister David Laws supply a vignette from 2012 when the cabinet discussed Chinese visas and George Osborne launched what turned into "a full-frontal attack on the home secretary. Theresa May remained very quiet, seething with anger, while the chancellor, sitting right next to her on her left, launched his scathing attack.”

    Mrs May defended herself at length but it soon became clear that she “had very little of substance to say.... Cameron got visibly angry and began to go through all the points on the chancellor’s list, one by one. Theresa stuttered and stumbled and looked desperately through her briefing notes for the answers that she needed — but without finding any. Other ministers looked embarrassed at seeing the home secretary squirm so badly.”

  3. Of course there is a third alternative as outlined by May herself, and omitted by you in error I am sure. No Brexit.


    1. This is interesting. And answers you.

  4. all no it doesn't actually it just takes the stand that the conservatives would crash the country rather than either split party or backtrack. Without the DUP on side, and she does not have that we are already in a minority government situation. It always amuses me that Brexiteers who fought for so many years for a government by mob are so scared of letting it loose again.

  5. Cameron pursued years of austerity that leave Britain in a very vulnerable position now. He destroyed his own political career with the referendum. So perhaps not as clever as his fellow males give him credit for.

  6. By the way, under British nationality law, there is nothing to prevent a Commonwealth citizen sitting in the UK parliament, and many have done so. Granted, it has been a while since one of Her Majesty's overseas subjects served as Conservative leader and prime minister (my compatriot Bonar Law in 1922), but the Tories could do far worse than install Tony Abbott in Downing Street on a drive-thru no-deal platform.

    1. Yes I know he is a British subject and therefore could be a minister, yes he is therefore my compatriot too, or so I think - and yes he would be perfect.

    2. I couldn't see anything truly conservative in Mrs Thatcher - she did nothing to make it easier for mothers to stay at home, for instance, and let her civil servants talk her out of abolishing the sex equality quango. But seeing how the Thatcherites were so very right about Europe makes me think I got her wrong.

    3. She overcame the unions by unemployment but at least she did overcome them, I suppose - the same with inflation - and she governed without a prices and income policy which in 1979 seemed absurdly unlikely. Thatcherism was economic Powellism. I still blame her for letting British industry go to the wall but by force of will she won what seemed a permanent victory over the left - but nothing is permanent and the left has conquered in the end.

    4. I love Mark Steyn, of course, and am sorry he seems to write less these days. Like him I am of course hoping (against hope) for a hard Brexit. But I can't help fearing it will not happen.

    5. ' will not happen'

      I bet you a fifth of Stoli that it will.
      May can't ram this through (Thank God for a hung Parliament) and she's neither willing nor able to get a better deal. Nobody will... The EU hubris will take care of that.

    6. I do hope you are right. Yes the DUP are the positive part of the picture - an odd thing for me as a Catholic to say. I used to like the Official Unionists and (very foolishly) the SDP - but both those parties were for Remain, as is Sinn Fein-IRA.

  7. Much more likely is that Eurosceptic hubris " We won get over it", will lead to another referendum. Brits do so hate being told what to think.The three way hokey dokey question will split the lead camp. A threshold of 60% will ensure the question is not asked again for another couple of decades. The break up of the union will be averted and the right will chew only with gums, even within the party, except those that pervert to UKIP. Thus the Conservative party will follow the liberals into the annals.

    1. "Eurosceptic hubris... will lead to another referendum"

      Second referendum

      As it stands, the Labour party’s official policy is essentially to try everything else short of another referendum and then, in extremis, to go for that. I am dubious about two parts of this: firstly, I am sceptical that Jeremy Corbyn would ever want to get to this position outside of an election or coalition negotiation. In order to get Labour through an election campaign or into government supported by the smaller parties of the left, sure. But imperil Brexit and potentially prop up a Conservative government? I can’t see it.

      But even if Corbyn were to decide to back another referendum, there is no button in the Labour leader’s office to compel every Labour MP to vote for the deal. Don’t forget that 25 Labour MPs have broken the whip to harden Brexit, including the seven committed Brexiteers – so we are realistically talking about a situation where two highly unlikely things happen:

      1) Jeremy Corbyn decides to risk his own electoral coalition in support of a cause that is not his own, and

      2) around 30 Conservative MPs decide to vote with him.

      I’m not saying these two things definitely can’t happen, but they are both individually pretty unlikely, let alone together.

      Stephen Bush