Thursday, July 25, 2019

From May to Johnson: Some reflections

Some reflections on the departure of May, the accession of Johnson, the reshuffle to end all reshuffles, and what could lie ahead.

1. Theresa May did her best to carry off a dignified departure, but as usual her best was not quite good enough. Her valedictory PMQs highlighted some of the issues that ultimately made her an unsuccessful PM - in particular her inability to think on her feet, and also to master the peculiarly British art of using self-deprecating humour to take the wind out of an opponent's sails.

Asked by Jeremy Corbyn whether her successor should now call a General Election, she could have replied along the lines of "I think I'm the last person he'll be taking advice from about election timing." Instead she called on the Magic Grandad to follow her example and stand down, which was all rather petty and demeaning.

2. That said, history will, as it usually does, judge May less harshly than her contemporaries did. Brexit was not a crisis of her making, and it fell to her to try to clear up the appalling mess bequeathed to her by her predecessor in a way which, rightly or wrongly, she judged would do the least harm to the economy and the least damage to the Union.

People who have described her as the worst PM ever clearly have never read up on Bute, North, Goderich, Rosebery, Chamberlain, Eden or even Cameron. In the annals of PMs of my own lifetime, she will go down alongside Douglas-Home, Callaghan and Major as decent public servants who were ultimately swept away by events beyond their control.

3. I generally agree with those, such as my old lobby colleague Bill Jacobs, who have argued that behind Boris Johnson's bluff and bluster there lies a very sharp mind. Johnson is certainly the biggest intellect to have occupied No 10 since Brown and possibly since Thatcher, and that actually augurs well in that he will need every one of those brain cells to think his way out of this crisis.

Does he have a cunning plan? Well let's hope so, because as the brilliant Liz Kendall has already pointed out: "Optimism is not enough to get things done - otherwise we'd all be spending today waltzing back and forth over his garden bridge and then jetting off on our holidays from Boris Island in the Thames."

4. Although the new Cabinet is clearly both more Brexity and more right-wing than the old one, I don't necessarily buy the idea that Johnson has snuffed out the Tory Party's One Nation tradition in one brutal afternoon of bloodletting.  There are still more Remainers in it than Leavers, and on every issue except Brexit, I would regard the PM himself as a liberal Tory.

For me the biggest issue was not so much the number of sackings as the number of comebacks by previously discredited ministers. Gavin Williamson (leaking state secrets), Priti Patel (making unauthorised contact with a foreign government without telling the PM) and Grant Shapps (overseeing a bullying culture in the party when Tory chairman) are all back as if nothing had ever happened, which does little to rebuild trust in politics.

5. Sacked Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt must now be regretting not going harder at Johnson during the leadership campaign. Beforehand he promised him the 'fight of his life' but he failed to subject Johnson's Brexit 'plans' to the kind of forensic scrutiny that Rory Stewart or even Michael Gove might have done and also shied away from making 'character' an issue in the contest even when presented with a fairly open goal.

Hunt's dismissal along with those of his supporters Penny Mordant and Liam Fox was politics as Mafia hits. While some inevitably compared it to the baptism scene in Godfather I, the scene that sprang to mind for me was the exchange between Tom Hagen and Michael Corleone at the end of GF2 - "C'mon, you won! Do you have to wipe out everyone?  "Tom, I don't feel like I have to wipe everyone out, just my enemies."

6. I suspect Johnson is genuine in wanting a deal with the EU, but I also suspect he is not so naive as to believe he is actually going to get one. By the same token I suspect he is also not so naive as to imagine Parliament will let the UK leave on 31 October without a deal.

But by my reckoning, all that's already been factored in. The EU refuses an accommodation, the Remainer Parliament blocks no deal, and Boris - who let's not forget is much more interested in power than he ever was in Brexit - has the perfect pretext for calling an autumn election. Brenda from Bristol, be warned.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Tears for a beloved country

I did not vote for Brexit and continue to believe it is the greatest act of political and economic self-harm this country has inflicted on itself in my lifetime, and probably even my parents' and grandparents' lifetimes too. Nevertheless, I respected the result of the referendum and recognised Theresa May's sincere belief that it was her duty to deliver an outcome that reflected the narrowness of the result - namely to take Britain out of the EU, but to do so in a way which minimised the damage to jobs and the economy.

Although I wish we had never reached this point in our history, I would have been happy to see her deal pass the Commons for the simple reason that it would have removed the baleful spectre of a no deal Brexit and all the chaos which that would undoubtedly inflict on businesses both large and small, not just in the disruption of trading relationships with our closest neighbours but more broadly in the recessionary knock-on effects it would have on the economy.

In her resignation speech on the steps of Number 10 today, Mrs May exhorted her successor, whoever it turns out to be, to seek the consensus in Parliament which she herself has found elusive, but this seems a forlorn hope. The truth of the matter is that the political space for a sensible compromise such as May's deal has shrunk dramatically over recent months and we now have two factions who, by turn, are either hellbent on Brexit at any cost or alternatively hellbent on stopping it at any cost.

The forthcoming Tory leadership battle will only exacerbate this. The contenders for Mrs May's crown will now spend the next few weeks seeking to outdo eachother in a virility contest to see who can promise the hardest Brexit, and knowing the nature of the electorate, it is self-evident to me that the candidate perceived to be the most out-and-out no-dealer will win. Boris Johnson's latest comments ruling out an extension to the current 31 October exit date confirm this.

So where does that leave Parliament? The Cooper-Letwin device that prevented a no deal exit in March is no longer available, and since a new PM set on no-deal would not need to bring a Withdrawal Agreement back before the House, the Commons would have little or no opportunity to take control of the process in the way it previously managed.

Virtually the only sanction Parliament would have in such circumstances would be to pass a vote of no confidence in the new PM, but this would require Remainer Tory MPs such as Dominic Grieve to vote to bring down their own government in the knowledge that it would provoke a general election their party would be certain to lose.

Accordingly, I think Mrs May's departure has appreciably increased the risk of a no-deal Brexit followed by the worst recession since the 1930s and the break-up of the UK, given that - irony of ironies - the first consequence of any move to trading on WTO terms would be that the EU would have to erect a hard border in Ireland to stop the UK having a back door into the single market.

I suspect the tears at the end of Mrs May's speech today were not just for herself, but for the country which she - entirely genuinely - so professes to love.