The Stalling Thuds of May

vintage-deck-chair-partyWe’d been expecting a reshuffle for a while. Critics of the government were preparing to say that it as rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. But after yesterday, it seems that the government has lost the ability even to move the deckchairs.

I’ve been expecting the end of Theresa May’s government for some time, and have been wrong at each turn. It’s started to dawn on me that we’re not dealing with politics as usual. That’s not just on the great strategic party-political level, but on a much more human level.

The PM has been shown to be unable to move anyone. Not the disloyal; not the incapable; not the women and minorities that the Tories briefed that they wanted to put forward as the new face of government. The power to give or withdraw favour this is arguably the PM’s greatest asset, and clearly it has been lost.

Under normal circumstances, ambitious leadership contenders would close in for the kill, but since June we’ve learnt that no one has the stomach to wield the knife. The remain wing of the party fears handing control over to the leavers; and the leavers are worried about handing power over to the swivel-eyed lunatics. So instead nothing happens, and we have a government that increasingly lacks a prime minister.

What could you infer from a government without a proper PM. Well, from the perspective of those working in government, this is only going to be bad news. A chaotic situation, where ministers lack the fear of removal, is a recipe for months of rolling disaster. I can already think of some members of the cabinet who choose to carry out their negotiations with Treasury in public view, daring the chancellor to slap them down. There will be more of this, and from more corners.

But I find myself more intrigued by the implications for Brexit. This is not the reshuffle of a PM who can achieve anything remotely controversial – fox hunting, grammar schools, pensions reform, housing policy. The idea that she can deliver an unpopular Brexit, without a majority, and still fulfil all the promises that she made last year, seems like utter fantasy.

I hadn’t expected this reshuffle to resolve the unanswered questions here, but it goes to show that the elephant is still firmly in the room. And, increasingly, nobody in government looks big enough to take on an elephant…


Building the machine

When I was a boy, and first getting my head around the idea of government, I learnt that the Prime Minister was in charge of the country. If they said something, we would have to do it.

At the age of six-ish, this was all that was needed to temporarily knock dinosaur hunter off the top of my list of career ambitions. But having spent years on the fringes of government, I’ve learnt that the underlying assumption is deeply untrue. The PM really doesn’t decide everything. And, after the past 72 hours, it seems fairly clear that the PM will now decide nothing.

Practically-minded civil servants won’t spend long grieving this. This isn’t for political reasons – but one of the least reported characteristics of government is its way of taking decisions. In the case of Theresa May’s government, that approach would best be likened to trying to get your passport stamped at a Soviet bloc customs post. Despite you thinking everything is in order, you have to wait an age while a surly apparatchik finds fault with you, before grudgingly waving you through, or possibly having you hauled off as a saboteur. This was not intended to win Whitehall’s respect, and didn’t.

Conversely, one of the unsung pleasures of the Coalition was the decision-making body known as the Quad – the two top Tories and two top Lib Dems – who were able to make decisions swiftly, effectively and on behalf of the whole of government.

Now, after the coup that dare not speak its name, we will have a new way of doing business – something that is judged to represent a consensus of the shadowy group that now runs the government. Whether it works any better will be anyone’s guess, but it will mean that Whitehall’s day-to-day operating model has to change once again.

The timebomb

With that done, government’s next question is what the hell to do about Brexit. If anything could have convinced six-year-old me that I didn’t want to be Prime Minister, the next 24 months would have been it.

Over the past day and a half, it has become clear just how badly government is caught by the Brexit trap.

  • Tory moderates have made a sustained pitch over the weekend that they want a soft Brexit (i.e. retaining access to the single market, and by implication having some kind of free movement of labour). You don’t know how many people this is, but even if you only count the Tories saying this on national television, it’s more than the government’s wafer-thin majority.
  • But if the government were to flip over to a soft Brexit plan, it would only make things worse. The Eurosceptic wing of the Tory party (aka ‘the bastards’ of John Major’s day) will be equally angry, and would launch a rebellion of their own. That would just as easily leave the government without enough votes to do what they want.

So whatever they choose, the government is outvoted, and probably collapses.

I don’t see how you solve the parliamentary arithmetic on this – it can’t add up either way. Nor is it something the DUP can solve – you need a good 30+ extra votes to stand any chance of winning the battle, whichever side you pick.

People outside of the Tory party have been suggesting that the way forward is to have a cross-party group on the shape of Brexit – a frighteningly grown-up idea that therefore has no place in our constitution whatsoever. But for my money, I can’t see another way of fixing this problem that doesn’t tear the Tory party in two or forces them to a second election – which is exactly what the party grandees are trying to avoid.

We can look forward to the Queen’s Speech with interest. If the government is really lucky, someone will have an answer by then.

In reply to your letter of the 29th…

The EU’s response to my earlier blog post came out on Friday. Now, if I’m honest, I don’t really speak Eurocrat. I know the difference between the Court of Justice of the European Union and the European Court of Justice, but I don’t pick up the points about e.g. when the Council is trying to stiff the Commission, or the both of them are ganging up on the Parliament. But nonetheless, like most of the European languages you learn in school, they’re mutually intelligible with a bit of gesticulation to fill in the gaps.

The things I’d take away from this are:

  • The Commission is far more concerned with orderly transition than anything else. Whereas the UK comes in talking about a grand partnership, you get the feeling that the Council is more concerned about who is going to pay for reprinting the stationary.
  • The EU is determined to figure out how the UK leaves before it is willing to talk about what the future relationship is. This is a legalistic approach, and probably forces the UK to adopt a position of hard Brexit whether we like it or not.
  • …But on the plus side, once that decision is taken in principle we can talk through what the new relationship looks like before the overall deal is resolved. So we can get this done without having to have a cliff-edge moment.
  • There are some points that matter a lot more to the EU than they do to us. There’s clearly a fear we will just ignore past obligations and walk away; there’s also a strong wish to preserve the role of the Court of Justice of the EU as the ultimate arbitrator of what this all means – which I think is a difficult thing for them to ask for. So we have more negotiating power than I’d first expected.
  • There are some things we’re agreed on – EU/UK citizens living in the other entity; and not screwing up Ireland.
  • But the big question mark under it all is, do we really believe the EU will be the sole negotiating entity? This document is written in the belief that the only substantive conversations will be the ones between team EU and the Brexit bunch. But you can see things like the last-minute addition on Gibraltar that are clearly driven by single EU members. And I can’t see Angela Merkel sitting this one out. The UK’s push on defence cooperation isn’t really relevant to the EU, but critical to member states. So where does the real balance of power lie?

The Article 50 Letter – translated

The moment my girlfriend and I concluded we had been civil servants for too long was when, confronted by the same parliamentary question, we independently came up with the same answer, virtually word-for-word. Civil service correspondence is a language all of its own, with its own quirks, rules and secret meanings.

Since the must-read item for today is the Article 50 letter, which has been written by some of the best drafters in the business, I thought I’d perform a public service.

The key points to take away:

  • We want a deep and special partnership. To the extent of mentioning it about every two paragraphs, with those exact words. Style to one side, the idea is to say that it’s better to be friends (especially with people who keep saying how important you are in the world) than it is to go our separate ways.
  • We are doing one deal, and only one. We aren’t going to let you cherry pick the economic points that most suit you; we are going to talk about overall cooperation, especially on security. While we don’t want to, if we can’t reach a deal we will walk away from existing cooperation.
  • We really don’t think you can get a deal done in two years. So we’d better start making arrangements now to make sure that doesn’t fling us off a cliff-edge.

It’s a good letter. The Department for Exiting the EU may or may not prove capable of organising a piss-up in a brewery, you could invariably rely on them to produce a good letter. It also marks our first proper attempt to set the terms of the negotiation and to do so in our favour.We haven’t got a great card of hands, but the job of a civil servant is to play them as best we can.

But the question I’m left with is this – we’re linking an economic deal to counterterrorism cooperation. Do we really plan to go through with that? To the extent to which we’ll let people die? It’s not a bluff that I’d want to have called. And if that’s the best we’ve got, where does that leave us?

Enter the dragon


So it’s official. Parliament must vote on Article 50. Lord Neuberger, like some gold-ringed boxing promoter, has confirmed that we are about to enjoy the parliamentary rumble of the century.

The news shouldn’t surprise anyone; the interesting points of law had been decided at the High Court, and this judgment was largely a rubber stamping of sound reasoning. Nor does the judgment itself say anything other than that parliament must vote before article 50 can be triggered – hardly enough to set you on the edge of your seat.

But do not be fooled by this quiet proceduralism. In less than a fortnight, we could see the beginning of the end for Theresa May, the House of Lords and/or the Tory and Labour parties as we know them.

Or not. Probably not, at least in the short term. But we haven’t had a parliamentary vote this significant in three quarters of a century, and what’s at stake is a hell of a lot bigger than membership of the EU.

The game

Let’s start with the basics. What is happening next? Everyone is agreed that parliament will have to vote before Article 50 can be triggered. Government has said that it plans to get this power as soon as possible, probably by a very short bill introduced into parliament next week.

This bill will almost certainly pass the Commons – the question will be whether it gets amended before it does. The government wants a blank cheque in order to act however it chooses. But if the right to trigger is hemmed in with limits, caveats, requirements, reversions, checkpoints and so on then it will probably prove impossible to use.

Then, if it makes it through the Commons, it has to get through the Lords. The Lords don’t have to pass the bill at all; and they can also amend the bill themselves and send it back to the Commons. The Commons then votes on those amendments  and so on (a process known as ping-pong) until both houses are agreed. Or, quite possibly, not.

In order for Theresa May to meet her deadline of March, this process has to be completed in about 8 weeks. The parliamentary process can run that fast; but if you can’t get an underlying agreement then it can’t be forced to a conclusion until a year has elapsed.

So the three things you have to watch here are:

  • Supporters
  • Amendments
  • Time

Who’s with me?

You can reduce the calculations in the Commons to two variables:

  1. How split is the Labour vote? Do they really put their weight behind a set of amendments?
  2. How many Tories risk dire vengeance by voting for the amendments?

Loosely speaking, if Labour tries some concerted opposition and convinces about 20 Tories to rebel, plus one extra for each rebel of their own, then the government will lose.

The numbers here are anyone’s guess. Most MPs backed remain, including all-but-ten Labour MPs. But the reality of the referendum result will not be lost on them; and nor will the pressure of their own leadership not to look at odds with public opinion. That goes double for the government side.

Many MPs will also realise their vote isn’t going to be forgotten. A whole generation of Labour politicians were judged by how they voted on Iraq; this will equally totemic. Do you want to be the one who defied the will of the British people and betrayed the 52%? Or do you feel that the PM’s lurch to a hard Brexit has broken the link with popular sovereignty altogether, and risks damning the country to economic collapse?

And then there’s revenge. There are definitely 20 Tory MPs who, to put it crudely, wouldn’t piss on Theresa May if she was on fire. They know that if she loses this vote then she is grievously wounded. This group is less reliable – they will pay a very heavy price for treachery – but equally this is the best chance they’ll have to get even. Watch what happens with some of George Osborne’s best friends, particularly if the process drags on.

U.K. Chancellor George Osborne Launches National Loan Guarantee Scheme
Remember me…?

The question looks different again in the Lords. Here, the government is a stonking 300 peers short of a majority, and even those peers that it does have are far more remain-inclined (and far less beholden to the PM) than MPs. The only thing that can ensure a clear passage here is fear of undermining the whole democratic process (something that hasn’t traditionally bothered our upper house), which brings peers into line.

I suspect that the level of support in both houses depends on what sort of question you are asking, which brings us onto…

What the hell are you doing?

The government wants to do this quick and fast, and with the minimum amount of debate possible. The plan goes something like this:

  • The PM set out a clear twelve point plan for Brexit. That’s all the plan you need, and asking for anything more is asking for things the UK can’t promise.
  • Democratic accountability demands that Parliament get out of the way of the referendum result.
  • Behind the scenes, the whips make clear that this is not an area where rebellion of any kind will be forgiven.
  • If the House of Lords gets in the way, let them know that the much-delayed abolition of the House could finally happen if they are so flagrantly out of line with the views of the people.

That would be an easy plan for a government with a 100+ majority; our government has a majority of 16.

Instinctively, I don’t think the ‘no negotiation’ strategy is likely to work. Parliament hasn’t had a big Brexit debate, and every bloody MP will want their thoughts to be on the record. That stands against discipline. There are also some points on which I think you can get an easy majority for amendment – guaranteeing continued rights for EU nationals living in the UK, for example. And once you’ve got one amendment, the floodgates are open.

Balanced against this though is that there doesn’t appear to be much of an alternative. No alternative leadership (despite the Lib Dems’ best efforts); no idea of what the likely amendments might be. Government has been pretty slick in terms of presenting a joined up and disciplined message on its plans. By contrast, the letter at the weekend that 46 Labour MPs sent to the PM read like a list of demands from a student debating society.

So it will all come down to a frantic battle for the support of individual members over the next week or so. For the moment, I think odds favour the government; but that could be reversed by one well-placed speech.

You want it when!?

The other thing worth noting is that the government is on a timetable; the amenders are not. If Theresa May can’t get a deal by March, she’s seen as having failed. This is the other weakness of the force-it-through approach, particularly given the delaying power of the Lords.

This would naturally push you towards finding a compromise. But government is taking an approach that makes compromise structurally almost impossible. It isn’t obvious how those two are resolved by anything short of total victory.

And if I don’t…?

No one is yet asking whether losing this vote means the government falls. Historically, it would have; though there’s not exactly a lot of precedent here.

I don’t think the wrong amendments would force the PM to step down – it’s not quite a direct enough repudiation (though outright losing the vote would be different). But the government does have in its back pocket the threat to turn the whole question into a confidence vote, and thereby potentially trigger a general election.

A general election would both solve the government’s majority problem, and also give it the right to overrule the Lords (the Lords traditionally does not impede any measure in a winning party’s election manifesto). It’s a clear platform on which to go to the country, and few Labour MPs will want an election with polls being where they are. Government is far better-placed to thrive in an election than its opponents.

But if you’ve got to the point of holding an election, the Tories already have rebellions in their own ranks. This turns a family quarrel into a shooting war, and almost certainly forces the rebels to find a new, permanent allegiance. If the election is only about one thing, it also risks uniting the opposition into a single team – which would be catastrophic for the longer term.

Anyone’s guess

There comes a point at which you have to give up prediction and get out the popcorn. The next few weeks might just see the start of the biggest political shake-up since the 1910s, or even the 1840s. And it could well depend, not on the great flows of impersonal social factors, but the tongues and minds of individual parliamentarians.

Maybe 2016 was just the warm-up act for a real year of revolution…

All politics is national (for now)


Waking up this morning, and hearing the results of the by-election in Richmond Park, I had my first warm feelings about democracy for a long time. Setting aside the wider politics, as a local I have been wanting to see the back of Zac Goldsmith for many years – and finally my neighbours have agreed with me. Next time, Zac, show up in Parliament and do your job.

But it’s the wider story that really matters. This is a really, really important by-election result. First, a bit of context for those who haven’t been watching closely:

  • Richmond Park is historically a Lib-Dem/Conservative marginal. Zac Goldsmith had held the seat for the Tories since 2010.
  • Zac resigned in the wake of the decision to build a new runway at Heathrow, as he’d promised to do at the general election.
  • The Conservative party, after some deliberation, decided not to put up a candidate against him. UKIP and the Greens also both stood aside – UKIP because Zac was a Brexit backer, the Greens because they wanted to give the Lib Dems the best run at victory.
  • So the contest boiled down to a Zac-Lib Dem contest, with Zac standing in for the government.

And Zac got a thumping. A 23,000 vote majority vanished in one go, and the seat turns yellow.

On the back of that, you can now rule out an early general election.

Why? The only reason that the Tories have a majority in parliament at all is that they took 24 Lib Dem seats across the south. Without those, they stand virtually no chance of holding a majority in the house. While some of those are probably lost to the Lib Dems for good, if a 23,000 seat majority isn’t safe then some are definitely in play. And for each one that’s lost they need to take another seat in what has historically been seen as Labour’s heartland.

Not only that, but the Lib Dems have shown that they are the political lightning rod for the hardcore Remain voters. If anything, that’s a bigger problem for the government. Not because these people can carry many constituencies; but because under a first past the post system a few thousand votes in the wrong place can play merry hell with a candidate’s majority. If many of those Remainers were previously voting Conservative (as they were in Richmond), they can be added to the pile of people who are just generally voting against the government. It would take just 1,800 well-placed Tory voters across the country switching to the Lib Dems to wipe out the government’s majority – even though they wouldn’t win a single seat for themselves.


Theresa May’s caution already meant she passed up a general election when she looked guaranteed to win; now, when she’s likely to lose, she will certainly bottle it.

(There is one caveat here – the same logic applies in reverse if the Tories are fully allied with UKIP, and UKIP tell their voters to back the government. I’ll come back to this ‘unholy alliance’ option on another occasion).

But if there is no election, then the parliamentary maths just got that bit nastier – the working majority goes down to 13. Now, you only need seven grumpy Tory MPs to hold the government to ransom – coincidentally the same number of Secretaries of State that Theresa May sacked from the cabinet on coming to power. And, on the back of the Richmond result, the critics will feel bolder.

If you want to get a preview of what this will look like, the Garrick theatre has just put on a revival of the play This House, about how the 1974 Labour government bled itself to death as its majority ticked down ever closer to zero. It’s great theatre. It’s going to make fascinating current affairs.

Night of the Long Stilettos

There is one moment when the British political system demonstrates its total superiority over the rest of the world. Only in our country, plus a few direct descendants, could two men be PM and Chancellor one day, and be unable to get an inside table at a local bakery the next. Normally that kind of descent takes either months or handcuffs.

My own predictions for the Cabinet may not have been spectacularly perspicacious – though I take a certain pleasure for having been as accurate as both Robert Peston and Iain Dale, and a whole day earlier. And the source of the error was misreading how the need to Brexit-up the cabinet would be resolved – not by putting a lightweight into May’s own Home Office, but by handing over the Foreign Office to a Brexiteer. And also leaving Osborne’s severed head out for the birds.

If you want to characterise this reshuffle, there are two points I’d draw out:

  • This is a cabinet built for Brexit. Having a Brexit-heavy team means that May has quite a mandate with the Leavers, implicitly, for whatever deal emerges. Tory Brexiteers would have been able to shout ‘fix’ if a Remainer team had stitched together a deal that put the Single Market first and quietly forgot about restricting freedom of movement. But with Boris, Fox and Davis in charge, they can’t say it’s been done to them. Plus, there isn’t really anyone to lead the fight back.
  • May has eliminated almost all current rivals. Only non-threatening leadership contenders have been allowed near power: Andrea Leadsom (Keeping Up Appearance’s answer to Sarah Palin) at the Department of Bovine Misery and the reanimated corpse of Boris Johnson as minister for all the bits of the Foreign Office that don’t matter. Osborne, Gove and Morgan – three actual threats – are as far from power as they can be thrown. The top team are a bunch of political emasculates with no significant backing within the party without the backing to launch a coup, so a leadership challenge from within the Cabinet looks very unlikely.

This configuration makes me fairly confident that May means what she says when she says no early election and no second referendum. She’s built one of the few cabinets that could actually do an EU deal without needing to secure some kind of extra mandate. I hadn’t thought such a thing was possible.

But before you get carried away with the brilliance of this – beware two weaknesses.

First off, ruthlessness isn’t without its consequences.

This is not Game of Thrones, where you throw the bodies of your defeated rivals into a ditch. When you fire George Osborne, you’re effectively inviting him to spend more time plotting his vengeance upon you.

Macmillan could carry out the Night of the Long Knives because he had a majority of close to a hundred. May has a majority of sixteen, which drops to fifteen when they elect Jo Cox’s replacement in a few weeks.

She’s betting heavily that Osborne and Gove were backed by shallow careerists who will melt away now they are powerless. That’s not a given. Even the ministerial sackings make up enough people to make her majority meaningless, when the right moment comes – and while I don’t think she’ll lose anything totemic, I wouldn’t be surprised if in a few months’ time she finds herself getting frequently frustrated on small things and looking subtly less in control.

And then, there’s weakness number two.

Back from the dead

Boris is a disaster waiting to happen, at least in the political sense. May had no choice but to put a Brexiteer here, and there were almost no alternatives whatsoever. When Boris cocks up (and cock up he will, for reasons that seem almost Pavlovan) there is the question of who fills his place.

There are only three choices from the Leaver ranks. I think May might have put Priti Patel in at DfID for precisely this reason – so she has a replacement for Boris ready to go with some international experience. Unfortunately, Patel is famously undiplomatic in her nature and far from an ideal choice. Neither Grayling nor Leadsom look like they are up to the job. So where can you go?

I think the logic takes you back round to George Osborne (for the contacts) or Michael Gove (for the Leave credentials). But whereas it would have looked magnanimous to appoint either now, it will look weak in a year or two’s time, if it’s on the back of a Boris resignation.

In terms of Leave-Remain, it’s an extremely clever reshuffle. But in purging the Osborne/Cameron set at the same time, she’s chosen to play for high stakes. The government needs plenty of successes before the recession hits, the negotiations bite or Boris explodes. The clock is ticking.