5 things about this week (2 April 2019)

by Stephen Tall on April 2, 2019

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Since I last wrote, the Prime Minister, Theresa May, has pre-announced her resignation to the Conservative parliamentary party in a last-ditch, desperate effort to win enough votes for Brexit deal. Ordinarily, that news alone would dominate the headlines.

But these are not normal times. Partly, because Theresa May has reneged so often on her promises that no-one quite believes this one either. And partly, of course, because it got lost in the ongoing Brexit maelstrom of a government drowning in front of our eyes.

Her demi-resignation was symbolic of her failed premiership. She committed to going once her deal was delivered, hoping that would persuade a critical mass of the ERG Euro-headbangers to switch.

In this, she was partially successful: “only” 34 Conservative MPs rebelled against her government, the fewest yet. But it did nothing to win over the DUP, who rightly suspect that her ultra-Brexiter successor would be quite happy to cut Northern Ireland loose of the UK if it secures them their longed-for Canada-plus free trade deal in the Euro-negotiations to follow. And it made voting for her deal even more toxic to Labour backbenchers, nervous both of the backlash of their members as well as the prospect of Boris Johnson as prime minister.

So, by appeasing the Euro-obsessives on her own side, she lost the chance to win over the persuadables on the other side. How very Theresa May.

Perhaps one day, when we are distanced enough from the disaster she has overseen, I’ll conjure up some sympathy for Theresa May’s position. After all, I remember how despised (not too strong a word) was John Major and his government in the mid-1990s; now they seem simpler, happier times.

But at the moment I can’t get past contempt for her actions. She has failed every step of the way: failed to ready the country for the tough choices any Brexit would have required; failed to reach out to Remain voters; failed to sort out a government position before triggering Article 50; failed to win over sympathetic European leaders; failed to understand the emptiness of her own no-deal “threat”; failed to win an election; failed to realise she’d need to compromise her (utterly unrealistic) red-lines; failed to communicate her deal; failed to get her cabinet or parliament on side; failed to realise you cannot bulldoze your way to acceptance; and, worst of all, failed to accept any responsibility for any of these failures.

So small wonder her deferred resignation barely registered: her’s is a record of failure, a promise of more.

(PS: I wrote this before her latest speak-from-the-podium-direct-to-the-people-like-a-demagogue act, apparently reaching out to Labour to deliver Brexit. My instant reaction, based on the PM’s record to date, is this is merely a ruse to spread the blame around, and that, in reality, she’s no more willing to compromise on her red-lines than before. I will be delighted to be proven wrong.)

**

Talking of failure, last night the House of Commons didn’t manage to pass a vote in favour of any alternative to Theresa May’s deal; though both Ken Clarke’s proposal of a Customs Union and Nick Boles’ long-touted Common Market 2.0 lost by narrow margins.

My insta-take on this (which I think still stands) is that this was (1) good news for no-deal Leavers, as Theresa May’s attempts to squeeze ERG refusniks will be much harder if they see there’s no soft Brexit deal capable of gaining a majority; (2) good news for revoke/People’s Vote Remainers, as these escape clauses may be the only ones capable of preventing no-deal come the 12 April deadline; and (3) bad news for any deal, as it’s hard to see any one capable of securing the support of 320+ MPs.

My Twitter timeline has been full of flak between/against the various opposition parties for failing to coalesce around one soft-Brexit alternative to Mrs May’s deal. While understandable in the heat of the moment, much of it seems unfair to me.

Labour has actually compromised a lot, whipping in favour of both Common Market 2.0 and a second referendum; so did the SNP. The Lib Dems and TIG, for (to my mind) totally rational reasons of self-preservation, refused to back any form of Brexit.

But, whatever your view of the merit of maintaining purity, the Remainer sniping is mis-directed. Even if the 22 MPs of the two fourth parties, Lib Dems and TIG / Change UK, had all voted for the alternatives, they were a long way short of that critical 320+ threshold. And, unless you think it can be viably reached, there is no sensible reason for them to commit potential electoral suicide in non-binding indicative votes.

No, responsibility for the mess we’re in does not lie with Parliament (for failing in a single week to arrive at a coherent, negotiable position), nor with the opposition parties (who — the clue’s in the name — do not have the numbers to defeat the government), but with the governing party and its leader.

The first rule of politics, LBJ famously said, is to be able to add up; and for two years, since losing her majority, Theresa May has ignored it. That is why we are where we are.

**

So who’s had a good Brexit, then? Looking at the green benches my list is a bit thin. Folk who’ve gone up in my estimation, who appear to have grasped the seriousness of the situation (even if their solutions may have been found wanting) and some of whom have put their careers on the line, include Hilary Benn, Yvette Cooper, Nick Boles, Oliver Letwin, Ken Clarke and the TIGgers. [EDIT: I forgot Dominic Grieve!]

Some journalist-commentators, too, have contributed impressive analyses, too. I’m thinking The Guardian’s Rafael Behr and John Harris, The Times’s Rachel Sylvester, New Statesman’s Stephen Bush, Politico’s Jack Blanchard, FT’s David Allan Green, Politics.co.uk’s Ian Dunt, and the Telegraph’s Peter Foster. And from think-tank world British Future’s Sunder Katwala, Institute for Government’s Jill Rutter and UK and EU’s Anand Menon. (I’m sure I’ve missed many others — and am aware of the female imbalance.)

Brexit has also converted me to podcasts: the BBC’s Brexitcast has become my The Archers. And a particular shout-out to this Remainiacs’ episode featuring recusant Leaver Roland Smith, which is an incredibly personal, thoughtful, analytical dissection of what’s motivated the Euroscpetic cause since 1992’s Maastricht treaty, and why its believers have descended into this no-deal frenzy we now see before us.

**

One thing Brexit has revealed, as if it needed revealing, is the introversion of British politics: for the past six months, the Conservative party has been negotiating with itself, with occasional, ineffectual inputs from parliament.

Yet unless Theresa May’s deal does, somehow, squeeze through, the UK will be reliant on the goodwill of the EU if we are to avoid no-deal.

The working assumption of (many, not all) our politicians and media appears to be it’s up to us to decide what happens next, and that the EU is bound to agree to an extension once we’ve made up our minds what to tell them.

Well, maybe they will, but it’s within their gift and not all are in a generous mood, according to Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform:

The mood in Brussels is pessimistic. Most of those closely involved in the Brexit talks think the likeliest outcome is for the UK to leave without a deal. There is also tremendous frustration with what EU officials see as the incompetence, ignorance and irresponsibility of swaths of the British political class. Over the past three years much of the goodwill that people held towards the UK has evaporated.

The EU expects no deal because it does not trust British politicians not to screw up. There is not much faith that “indicative votes” among MPs will produce a coherent way forward. “We don’t see the transmission mechanism that forces the executive to bend to parliament’s will,” said one EU official. “We cannot negotiate with a parliament.”

They’re right: responsibility lies with the executive and its chief. Theresa May and her cabinet have a few days (maybe longer, if the EU agrees) to avoid the infamy of a no-deal Brexit. Will they — can they? — manage it?

**

I said in my first 5 things about this week blog that “having kids has utterly destroyed my interest in music”. This is true. My tastes are stuck in 1993-2010.

One of my all-time favourites, though, is Scott Walker, who died last week. I discovered him courtesy my lifelong love band, The Divine Comedy, whose creator Neil Hannon has sometimes been likened to him. I have fond memories of cranking up the stereo in my early 20s listening to what would undoubtedly be one of my desert island tracks, The Plague:

A fleeting work visit to Oxford resulted in me visiting the Bodleian’s revamped Weston Library (I spent three years raising money for it) and its latest exhibition Thinking 3D, “tell[ing] the story of the development of three-dimensional communication over the last 500 years”. Fascinating stuff.

PS: as ever when I get the chance to re-visit the city of dreaming spires, my hometown for 18 years, umbilical whiplash propelled me towards Blackwells bookshop:

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Ah the Norrington Room, this is where I'd choose to have a lock-in

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