Fight them on the benches

The New European - - Agenda - MICHAEL WHITE

If Theresa May is poised to lose her ver­sion of a Brexit deal next Tues­day, and pos­si­bly her job, she is go­ing down fight­ing, which is the best way to go. It has barely been pos­si­ble to switch on the tele­vi­sion or open a news­pa­per since she be­gan her ground-to-air war of­fen­sive with­out find­ing a beam­ing and im­mac­u­lately-groomed prime min­is­ter do­ing her mod­est best to show she just loves cam­paign­ing. There is barely a su­per­mar­ket check­out in our four home na­tions that has been spared the at­ten­tion of Waitrose in Twyford’s most fa­mous cus­tomer. At the Com­mons dis­patch box – two days run­ning this week – she was as dogged as her favourite bats­man, Mr Boy­cott. But on Tues­day her side lost three wick­ets.

Whether her suf­fer­ing will do May much good re­mains to be seen – de­spite the blood­shed – al­though her stub­born pluck seems to have im­pressed many vot­ers who won’t have a vote at the end of the five-day de­bate now in progress. She lacks the rhetor­i­cal power to stir hearts and, in any case, had as­signed that task to her at­tor­ney gen­eral. Ge­of­frey Cox – the Bri­tain’s Still Got Po­lit­i­cal Ta­lent hit of the con­fer­ence sea­son – duly turned up on Mon­day af­ter­noon to de­fend the gov­ern­ment’s re­fusal to pub­lish his unredacted le­gal ad­vice on the Brexit With­drawal Agree­ment and that Ge­of­frey Boy­cott back­stop. He failed. Next day min­is­ters lost by 311 to 293. This is the worst cri­sis since the last one.

Opin­ions var­ied as to whether the £1 mil­lion-a-year multi-pur­pose bar­ris­ter and his rich, flam­boy­ant de­ploy­ment of the English lan­guage made him sound Shake­spear­ian, like a rein­car­nated Churchill or just a silly old ham. But that dilemma is eas­ily re­solved. Few politi­cians ever touch the sub­lime heights of Strat­ford Bill, but few have hammed it up as of­ten as Win­ston Churchill. He fre­quently made a fool of him­self, both booed and ig­nored in his wilder­ness decade of the 1930s. Only when things got re­ally se­ri­ous the last time Bri­tain left Europe – via Dunkirk in 1940 – did left-wingers over­come their nat­u­ral an­tipa­thy and ap­plaud.

How West Devon’s Cox looks to the his­tory books – if any are still writ­ten – will de­pend on what hap­pens next, whether we leave, well or badly, leave and re­turn a few years later – like last time – or don’t leave at all. In a hy­dra­headed cri­sis like this one – and most real crises – new twists oc­cur ev­ery day.

Do­minic Grieve’s suc­cess­ful amend­ment, which re­quires May (if her deal falls) to present a new tweaked deal within three weeks – does that mean par­lia­men­tary weeks, not Christ­mas week? – and face amend­ments from all quar­ters, puts MPS in the driv­ing seat. It is the pol­i­tics equiv­a­lent of a Tesla driver­less car.

More than that, Grieve’s tac­ti­cal win came within 24 hours of Chuka Umunna, Jus­tine Green­ing and Caro­line Lu­cas de­liv­er­ing a 1.5 mil­lion sig­na­ture pe­ti­tion de­mand­ing a Peo­ple’s Vote – Refo II – to Down­ing Street. On top of which the Euro­pean Court of Jus­tice’s le­gal ad­viser – its Ge­of­frey Cox – is­sued his for­mal opin­ion that the UK still can re­voke its Ar­ti­cle 50 with­drawal no­tice, and do so with­out the EU27’S ap­proval too. So Scot­tish judges and Lord John Kerr (who claims to have writ­ten A50) were right, and the usual sus­pects wrong. It fu­els the feel­ing that all is still to play for. That must be what the en­er­gised May and her buoy­ant chief whip, Ju­lian Smith, feel too. What are they on?

Back on his scep­tred isle the florid Cox him­self is pro-brexit, but not daft. “It is time they grew up and got real,” the QC told his hard Brexit crit­ics as he urged MPS to take “a cal­cu­lated risk” on the un­sat­is­fac­tory Ir­ish back­stop. He was re­luc­tantly sup­port­ing it “be­cause I do not be­lieve that we’re likely to be en­trapped in it per­ma­nently,” if at all.

Re­mem­ber, the EU doesn’t much like it ei­ther, fear­ing that it gives the UK un­fair ad­van­tage, Cox adds. Hard Brexit diehards ig­nore that bit, as they must to stay rel­a­tively sane. Guided by the bor­na­gain Daily Mail, Michael Gove, Liam ‘Air Miles’ Fox, fer­vently loyal An­drea Lead­som and oth­ers on Brexit’s prag­matic wing have lined up with

Cox too. Fox has be­come pos­i­tively evan­gel­i­cal. What’s his game?

Of course, with such a mo­men­tous and com­plex de­ci­sion loom­ing – so many brain-hurt­ing op­tions – MPS and the me­dia were ea­ger to en­gage in di­ver­sion­ary, dis­place­ment ac­tiv­ity of a sim­pler, more bi­nary kind. A cross-party coali­tion of MPS – Labour, Lib Dem, as­sorted Nats and Greens – some of whom should have known bet­ter (I mean you, former-di­rec­tor of pub­lic prose­cu­tions, Keir Starmer

QC), whipped up that con­tempt of par­lia­ment cam­paign over the gov­ern­ment’s re­fusal to pub­lish more than a 43-page sum­mary of what Cox QC had told the col­leagues in pri­vate.

There is a long his­tory to this row, not least the ker­fuf­fle over at­tor­ney gen­eral Peter Gold­smith’s re­fusal to pub­lish his ad­vice on the dis­puted le­gal­ity of the 2003 in­va­sion of Iraq. That was a stronger case, but all gov­ern­ments have re­fused to breach ‘the law of­fi­cers’ con­ven­tion’ on the grounds of client con­fi­den­tial­ity and the greater can­dour with which con­fi­den­tial ad­vice can be given. It’s a good rea­son, as lawyer Starmer must know. He’s play­ing with fire and will re­gret it if Labour will even­tu­ally win power again. The Com­mons voted to be child­ish. It is not a good omen.

Per­haps Starmer QC senses that the next party lead­er­ship con­test at West­min­ster will not be Sa­jid Javid (“Sa­jid needs to be ready,” mouthy Liz Truss ap­par­ently bel­lowed in a restau­rant on Mon­day) ver­sus Jeremy Hunt or our Pound­land Churchill, Boris John­son, as tea room sages pre­dict.

It will be Starmer ver­sus JohnMc­don­nell-backed-left-wing-woman. I sense the former DPP was play­ing the tough guy out of char­ac­ter to im­press

Labour’s elec­torate. Some of the loud­est cheers at Labour’s Liver­pool con­fer­ence were for Starmer’s in­sis­tence that a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum must be an op­tion. Real tough guy, Mcdon­nell, has since come round to this view too – to the an­noy­ance of Jeremy Cor­byn’s pro-brexit Prae­to­rian Guard, keep­ers of the leader’s brain.

They have cyn­i­cally parked it on the fence where next week’s votes may fi­nally push it off. If May loses on Tues­day (by how many votes is im­por­tant) and Labour and its tac­ti­cal al­lies make good their threat­ened vote of no con­fi­dence, Tory rebels have to make their minds up: Theresa or the risk of a Cor­byn-stur­geon gov­ern­ment? If May sur­vives – and does not sur­prise us all (es­pe­cially me) by re­sign­ing any­way – then Labour will have to risk hav­ing to please 86% of its mem­ber­ship – but not Labour’s ‘left-be­hind’ Brexit vot­ers – by fi­nally back­ing a Peo­ple’s Vote. If that too fails, as cur­rently seems likely, MPS must co­a­lesce be­hind a com­pro­mise (May’s deal, at a sec­ond mar­ket-spooked at­tempt? Michael Gove’s pref­er­ence, ‘Nor­way-fornow’?) or face that eco­nomic cliff that every­one but Nigel Law­son (he lives in France) can see.

No won­der some pre­fer dis­place­ment ac­tiv­ity, which has not been con­fined to al­leged con­tempt over Cox’s ad­vice. It is 50 years since I first re­alised, when re­port­ing meet­ings of an­cient Berk­shire’s county coun­cil (since abol­ished with the sup­port of Berk­shire

MPS like John Red­wood), that coun­cil­lors were much hap­pier dis­cussing the colour of park benches than they were the ed­u­ca­tion bud­get. By the same to­ken the par­ties have been locked in an ab­surd, undig­ni­fied row about the for­mat for Sun­day night’s TV de­bate be­tween May and Cor­byn, pos­si­bly other in­ter­ested par­ties too if a com­pro­mise can be stuck, as I as­sume it will after the BBC blinked first. The spat is triv­ial and de­mean­ing, but eas­ier to strike poses over than a cus­toms deal. The Elec­toral Com­mis­sion should have the au­thor­ity to bang heads to­gether, as it should to po­lice pol­i­tics’ dark web and the sin­is­ter money be­hind it.

As the lead item on BBC news bul­letins point­lessly keep re­mind­ing us, it is not re­motely clear how the cards will fall in the week ahead (I have un­for­tu­nately booked a dis­tant fam­ily hol­i­day), nor even the or­der in which those cards will be played. To the ag­i­ta­tion of pro-brexit MPS who sus­pect he is ac­tively hos­tile to their side, a cru­cial role will be played by Com­mons speaker, John Ber­cow, who has moved from right-wing stu­dent hooli­gan to what some­times sounds like cen­tre-left­ist. What the Brex­its choose to for­get is that they owe this mis­for­tune to one of their own. It was Dou­glas Car­swell, former Tory-turned-ukip-mp for Clac­ton, turned Tory again, who drove the cam­paign in 2009 to scape­goat Labour speaker Mick Mar­tin for MPS’ col­lec­tive sin over their own ex­penses. Short-sighted and un­fair. The thenLabour ma­jor­ity duly elected Ber­cow, a re­former but a chippy one, in re­tal­i­a­tion. It was Ber­cow who al­lowed Starmer’s mo­tion on Tues­day. So the speak­er­ship is an­other ex­am­ple of

Brexit self-harm. Who knew that UK science gets a great deal of re­search money from EU bud­gets? Or that Scot­tish or Cor­nish fish­er­folk sell most of their catch to EU mem­bers states and will have to trade ac­cess to UK waters for ac­cess to EU mar­kets? Who knew that most of these is­lands’ just-in-time spare parts and per­ish­able food comes through the Chan­nel port of Dover? Not Boris the com­pul­sive bridge-builder to any­where, not Do­minic Raab or Jake O’mogg, it seems.

But at this dan­ger­ous junc­ture scorn is also a weapon to be de­ployed eco­nom­i­cally and with care if we are ever to bind up the wounds which Brexit has ex­posed. Brexit at­tacks on ‘metropoli­tan lib­eral elites’ as re­mote and un­car­ing are as su­per­fi­cial in Bri­tain as they are in all the other coun­tries in which pop­ulists and na­tion­al­ists trot them out, fondly imag­in­ing they have grasped a truth, not an old and clichéd tac­tic beloved of dem­a­gogues and dic­ta­tors. But in a glob­alised world where mar­kets some­times dis­trib­ute re­wards with gross un­fair­ness there is usu­ally a germ of truth in the jibe which so ef­fec­tively mar­shals left-be­hind or ex­cluded vot­ers un­der the ‘take back con­trol’ ban­ner.

I was again struck by this on Mon­day when I braved the win­ter rain to at­tend a ‘Brexit: the Endgame?’ brief­ing or­gan­ised by the ar­dently pro-eu Fed­eral Trust. It was a pretty lack­lus­tre oc­ca­sion in which an EX-MEP, Anita Pol­lack, and learned schol­ars – a Dr An­drew Blick and a Dr An­drew Black – told a 50-strong, mainly-el­derly au­di­ence, one which seemed on first name terms, things they prob­a­bly knew al­ready about next week’s op­tions and the prac­ti­cal ob­jec­tions to most of them. There was a nat­u­ral dis­po­si­tion to­wards a halt to the Ar­ti­cle 50 process fol­lowed by the Refo II sce­nario with hard Brexit vs Re­main as the bi­nary choice, rather than mul­ti­ple op­tions that might not pro­duce a clear man­date to MPS.

A wish­ful qual­ity as to the speed at which this could be done – the ex­perts’ 22 weeks of prepa­ra­tion was dis­missed by one speaker as un­duly pes­simistic – was it­self un­der­pinned by a fa­tal­ism which made me think of all those other well-mean­ing mid­dle class ci­ti­zens who ag­o­nised in­ef­fec­tu­ally as a per­fect storm threat­ened to en­gulf their lives. “We need to think about this,” said one speaker, as if the storm was not im­mi­nent. Pow­er­point facts were pro­duced to show how much eco­nomic dam­age would be done, un­der any form of Brexit and to sug­gest that it’s be­ing done to save a net UK con­tri­bu­tion to EU bud­gets (after the re­bate) of around four bil­lion eu­ros. Oh yes, and Turk­ish lor­ries still have a long wait get­ting into Bul­garia de­spite their cus­toms union.

Melan­choly stuff, but apart from a plea for more tol­er­ance and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, at­trib­uted to the Arch­bishop of York, nowhere did I hear any sound of imag­i­na­tive sym­pa­thy for the pos­si­bil­ity of some le­git­i­macy for Brexit points of view. They were very ‘oth­ered’ – bad peo­ple whose fool­ish mis­take in 2016 needed to be re­versed by a sec­ond vote in which, said some­one, EU UK res­i­dents and 16-17-year-olds should get a vote this time, de­spite ac­cu­sa­tions of vote-rig­ging. “We’re go­ing to be de­nounced by Leave any­way, so we might as well do what we want.”

That sort of think­ing is surely both un­wise and un­help­ful, prod­uct of a mind­set that helped Re­main lose in

2016. The Guardian’s Matthew d’an­cona, clever and thought­ful, penned a de­spair­ing col­umn that told us all to ad­mit that xeno­pho­bia, not sovereignty or the econ­omy, drove that re­sult. That strikes me as be­ing as crude as the ‘lib­eral elite’ jibe and wor­ry­ingly dis­mis­sive of le­git­i­mate con­cerns about stag­nant pay rates, pres­sure on hous­ing and pub­lic ser­vices, and the dis­place­ment of tra­di­tional com­mu­ni­ties by new ones. D’an­cona’s Guardian col­league Polly Toyn­bee framed it bet­ter when she high­lighted the ne­glect of fur­ther ed­u­ca­tion and the tech­ni­cal skills agenda which fur­ther dis­ad­van­tages poorer so­cial groups. These are the kind of vot­ers who tend to back Brexit out of sheer dis­af­fec­tion from a sys­tem they see as fail­ing them.

It should hardly be a se­cret, but many seem to close their eyes. And it’s not just us. The Or­ban gov­ern­ment in Hun­gary goes from pop­ulist strength to strength. In the south Span­ish prov­ince of An­dalu­cia, the far-right got an elec­toral toe-hold this week. And France’s un­struc­tured ‘yel­low vest’ protests forced Em­manuel (“I’m not for turn­ing”) Macron into a dam­ag­ing U-turn over fuel hike prices that hit the car-de­pen­dant prov­inces hard­est. The sen­ti­ments are pure Brexit. Xeno­pho­bia is cer­tainly likely to be part of the mix, just as vi­o­lent ag­i­ta­tors, both left and right, will have seized the ex­cuse to burn and beat in Paris. But it feeds on a wider sense of ex­clu­sion that should be at the cen­tre of po­lit­i­cal de­bate – not af­ter­thoughts on the tele­vi­sion news.

That’s what May promised when she first en­tered Down­ing Street. But al­most ev­ery­thing has been sub­sumed by the Brexit ne­go­ti­a­tions and the at­ten­dant po­lit­i­cal whirl­wind. Al­most ev­ery­thing, but not quite. The one red line which has sur­vived her Lan­caster House and later EU speeches has been an end of free move­ment of EU ci­ti­zens. On a prac­ti­cal level it is quite bonkers, not least be­cause the UK econ­omy needs semi-skilled and low wage labour as well as bankers and com­puter game pro­gram­mers, or that new data shows non-eu mi­gra­tion still ris­ing as the Euro­pean ar­rivals shrink.

May’s cab­i­net col­leagues know this. That’s why home sec­re­tary Javid con­firmed that the post-brexit im­mi­gra­tion white pa­per is be­ing post­poned again be­cause the “bloody dif­fi­cult woman” (copy­right K Clarke) has dug in her kit­ten heels. Can­di­date Javid, son of a Pak­istani bus driver whose clever sons did very well, makes plain the op­po­si­tion which May also gets from Philip Ham­mond, Greg

Clarke and oth­ers. Im­mi­gra­tion has been good for him. Yet the vicar’s daugh­ter from ru­ral Ox­ford­shire, who failed as home sec­re­tary to de­liver David Cameron’s “tens of thou­sands” pledge, per­sists in her “ci­ti­zens of nowhere” and “jump­ing the queue” talk. She is hardly a Farage or aka “Tommy Robin­son”. Is she just try­ing to de­liver the one Brexit prom­ise she thinks – against much ev­i­dence – that a sov­er­eign gov­ern­ment can de­liver? Or is bor­der con­trol an il­lu­sion too?

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