Will May’s ‘bas­tards’ risk de­struc­tion?

The Observer - - Focus - An­drew Rawns­ley,

Iwriteto a rum­ble of ru­mours that one or more mem­bers of the cabi­net will quit if the prime min­is­ter tries to make a Brexit deal that is not to their lik­ing. This adds an­other di­a­bol­i­cal di­men­sion to what has been dubbed “hell week” for Theresa May, but the rest of us ought to be able to treat these res­ig­na­tion threats with san­guin­ity. If Bri­tain is de­prived of the ser­vices of An­drea Lead­som as leader of the house, I am sure we will all do our best to cope. The na­tion ought to be able to con­tain its grief if Es­ther McVey quits as work and pen­sions sec­re­tary. It will not re­quire bulk or­ders of tis­sues to mop up the tears shed if Penny Mor­daunt re­signs as in­ter­na­tional de­vel­op­ment sec­re­tary. The pity is that their fel­low Brex­iter, Chris Grayling, is not be­ing talked about as a pos­si­ble cabi­net flounce-out. His res­ig­na­tion as trans­port sec­re­tary would be cel­e­brated by spon­ta­neous street par­ties of joy­ful train trav­ellers.

The self-es­ti­ma­tion of the im­por­tance of pos­si­ble cabi­net re­signees is a great deal higher than the es­teem in which they are held in the coun­try. Most vot­ers would prob­a­bly strug­gle to put a name to their faces. Mrs May’s premier­ship and, with it, her na­tion’s fu­ture, ought not to be held to ran­som by cliques of ju­nior cabi­net min­is­ters threat­en­ing to leave if they don’t get a Brexit to their pre­cise spec­i­fi­ca­tions. Yet these res­ig­na­tion threats will un­doubt­edly have an im­pact on the chances of avoid­ing a disas­ter be­cause they are an­other com­pli­cat­ing chal­lenge for Mrs May as she tries to nav­i­gate her way through this morass.

That is an­other of the dis­tor­tions to the po­lit­i­cal fab­ric you get when a govern­ment with no ma­jor­ity is try­ing to deal with a mas­sively im­por­tant, hugely per­ilous and highly com­bustible ques­tion. Politi­cians who would be very mar­ginal, if not en­tirely ir­rel­e­vant, in any other con­text have gained an in­flated in­flu­ence over the fu­ture of the coun­try. So we have the Demo­cratic Union­ists, a party of just 10 MPs, and one in­ca­pable of form­ing a govern­ment in their own rel­a­tively small corner of the United King­dom, talk­ing about their “blood-red lines” and threat­en­ing to tear down the tem­ple if they don’t get ex­actly what they want. Or con­sider Ja­cob Rees-Mogg. Were it not for the com­bi­na­tion of Brexit and a ma­jor­ity-less prime min­is­ter, the MP for the 18th cen­tury would be lit­tle more than a comedic throw­back, not the mouth­piece of a ca­bal dic­tat­ing de­mands to the prime min­is­ter that cramp her abil­ity to ma­noeu­vre into a vi­able po­si­tion.

Who re­mem­bers Richard Body, Teresa Gor­man and Tony Mar­low, three ec­cen­tric Tory back­benchers of an ear­lier era? Al­most en­tirely for­got­ten now, they gained an ex­ag­ger­ated sway over events when Sir John Ma­jor was try­ing to get the treaty of Maas­tricht through par­lia­ment without a re­li­able ma­jor­ity. When he was caught re­fer­ring to these Euroscep­tics as “bas­tards”, the world was quite shocked. I guess the 1990s was a more in­no­cent age. It wasn’t just the rev­e­la­tion that Sir John could be sweary when he thought the pub­lic wasn’t lis­ten­ing. It was also be­cause that Tory prime min­is­ter in­cluded three of his cabi­net in the bas­tards cat­e­gory.

Asked about it the other day, Sir John said that the Brexit fun­da­men­tal­ists who are threat­en­ing Theresa May are much worse than the Euroscep­tics who en­deav­oured to wreck his premier­ship. He is right and for sev­eral rea­sons. For one thing, there are now many more bas­tards in the Tory party. In Sir John’s day, you didn’t need many fin­gers to count the num­ber of Con­ser­va­tive MPs pre­pared to con­tem­plate the de­struc­tion of their own govern­ment over Europe. The fa­nat­i­cal an­tiEuro­peans are still a mi­nor­ity in the Con­ser­va­tive party and the Con­ser­va­tive party only speaks for a mi­nor­ity of Bri­tain. That’s some­thing that should be al­ways re­mem­bered when the Mog­gites are nois­ily claim­ing to speak for the peo­ple. But they are a much more sub­stan­tial mi­nor­ity than they were and their sense of self-im­por­tance has made them a reck­less one. They strike me as more kamikaze than the Tory MPs who tor­tured Sir John over Maas­tricht. At a crit­i­cal stage in the par­lia­men­tary bat­tle, he even­tu­ally had to re­sort to mak­ing it a con­fi­dence is­sue. The EU-haters of his day liked the idea of a gen­eral election even less than they did the treaty and they backed off. One of Mrs May’s many prob­lems is that she can­not be ab­so­lutely sure that some in her party wouldn’t risk tip­ping the Tories out of of­fice. It still seems to me im­prob­a­ble that any Con­ser­va­tive MP would vote with the op­po­si­tion in a way that might trig­ger a snap gen­eral election that could put Jeremy Cor­byn into Num­ber 10. But some of them are so ad­dled with Brexs­te­ria that I would no longer bet my house on it.

An­other cru­cial dif­fer­ence is the cabi­net. The Ma­jor govern­ment in­cluded the pas­sion­ately Europhile Ken Clarke and the in­tensely Euroscep­tic John Red­wood. His cabi­net was hor­ri­bly split over Europe, but no one quit be­cause of Maas­tricht. Mrs May has al­ready lost two cabi­net min­is­ters over Brexit. There are only so many res­ig­na­tions that any prime min­is­ter can en­dure. That is one thought in the heads of those min­is­ters men­ac­ing her with this threat. An­other thought is about a fu­ture Tory lead­er­ship con­test. Boris John­son is not the only one to have cal­cu­lated that quit­ting on the grounds that Mrs May is “be­tray­ing” Brexit might well please the Tories’ ex­tremely Brex­ity mem­ber­ship.

There is one more cru­cial dif­fer­ence be­tween the ag­o­nies suf­fered by Sir John and those be­set­ting Mrs May. That is the state of the op­po­si­tion. Dur­ing the strug­gles over Maas­tricht, Labour was led by John Smith, the most pro-Eu­ro­pean leader in the party’s his­tory. Mr Smith was a per­son­able and guile­ful lawyer. His com­mit­ment to Europe did not pre­vent him from en­gag­ing in sly par­lia­men­tary tac­tics to try to de­feat the govern­ment, but in the end Labour had a leader who wanted Bri­tain to have a good re­la­tion­ship with its neigh­bours. Jeremy Cor­byn is an en­tirely dif­fer­ent species. He voted against Maas­tricht, as he did against ev­ery other EU treaty that has come be­fore the Com­mons dur­ing his par­lia­men­tary ca­reer. What­ever deal Mrs May man­ages to come up with, it will not pass Labour’s “six tests” be­cause those tests were de­signed not to be pass­able. So she would be sen­si­ble to as­sume that Mr Cor­byn will at­tempt to whip Labour MPs to vote against what­ever deal emerges in the hope that this will trig­ger what he re­ally wants: the col­lapse of the govern­ment and a snap gen­eral election.

On­the face of it, this makes it very hard to see how Mrs May can strike any agree­ment with the EU for which there will be par­lia­men­tary ap­proval. The op­po­si­tion has no in­cen­tive to help her out of a swamp of the Tory party’s own mak­ing. The Demo­cratic Union­ists say they will cut off their life­sup­port. The DUP are co-or­di­nat­ing with the Tory Brex­trem­ists. The par­lia­men­tary maths is a hor­ror. Do­minic Raab, the Brexit sec­re­tary, likes to tell friends that he has “the sec­ond worst job in govern­ment”, the worst be­ing that of chief whip, the man who is sup­posed to magic to­gether a ma­jor­ity for Mrs May.

The fragility of her po­si­tion will be both help and hand­i­cap when she meets Eu­ro­pean lead­ers in Brus­sels this week. It as­sists her a bit be­cause they fear that the ter­mi­na­tion of her premier­ship could leave them fac­ing some­one even harder to deal with or, worse, a Bri­tain so chaotic that it is in­ca­pable of con­clud­ing the ne­go­ti­a­tions at all. Her weak­ness doesn’t help Mrs May be­cause there is less in­cen­tive for Eu­ro­pean lead­ers to make con­ces­sions and, in the process, spend some of their own po­lit­i­cal cap­i­tal, if any agree­ment is just go­ing to be voted down by the Bri­tish par­lia­ment any­way.

The dif­fi­culty from the very be­gin­ning has been how to find an ar­range­ment that si­mul­ta­ne­ously worked with the EU, sat­is­fied the Con­ser­va­tive party and was ca­pa­ble of com­mand­ing a ma­jor­ity in the Com­mons. One way of look­ing at the last 28 months of Brexit tor­ture is as a pro­tracted and painful ed­u­ca­tion in the im­pos­si­bil­ity of find­ing a sat­is­fac­tory so­lu­tion to this co­nun­drum. An­other way of look­ing at the last 28 months is as a long and ex­pen­sive ed­u­ca­tion for Bri­tain that any deal is go­ing to be subop­ti­mal, be­cause there is no deal with the EU that is bet­ter than the terms we cur­rently en­joy as mem­bers. Any num­ber of cabi­net res­ig­na­tions are not go­ing to change that.

Will Oliver/EPA

John Ma­jor’s cabi­net was hor­ri­bly split, but no one quit over Maas­tricht.

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