Brexit II

old_west_duel_by_mackdoodle99-d6hyvtsThere’s a moment common to many great westerns. Two gunslingers are facing off against one another. They stand at twenty paces. The moment comes, they reach for their six-shooters and bang! There’s a moment’s pause. Then, slowly, one of the two topples to the ground.

We’re in the pause. The resignations are in; the Westminster village is fluttering like startled wildlife; and in a moment we’ll see whether Theresa May slumps slowly to her eternal reward.

Whatever happens, peace in the Tory party is over. Theresa May’s government was based on the idea that she could bridge the full range of views in the Tory party to deliver a Brexit deal – by implication one that could simultaneously appeal to the hard Brexit wing of her party, the soft Brexit/remain wing and the wider public.  This has looked increasingly unlikely for some time, but somehow it never came to the crunch. Now, with Davis going, we have crunch-off.

Put up or shut up

The first question is ‘do we have a leadership challenge’? My assumption was, after this, there had to be. (That said, the early signs coming out of the big MP meetings of this evening is that there isn’t the appetite. If so, skip to the end, which is even more likely to be accurate).

The Brexiteers can’t win a leadership contest. They can start one – that takes 48 letters of no confidence, and that’s within their compass. But to win it they’ll need 155, which they have nothing like. The Chequers deal has made sure that all of the soft-Brexit/Remain Tories have lined up behind the PM, and they are a strong majority in the party.

What the hard Brexiteers can do is weaken the PM to such an extent that she is visibly no longer a strong enough leader, at which point she would be in some sense honour-bound to go.

You and whose army?

That sounds like a favourable position for the PM – of the three likely situations, the only situation in which she has to depart is one, to an extent, of her own choosing.

The next step comes the day after the leadership contest is over. Let’s say you’re a hard-Brexit Tory. You’ve held the leadership contest and lost. Most of your members have resigned from government. How are you going to get your voice heard? You have at least 47 friends, some of whom will be of the opinion that Brexit trumps all other considerations of loyalty. The government has a practical majority of 13. This is not a difficult government to hold to ransom.

Oh god, not another one

But then go to the next level. If the government loses its working majority, things get really complicated.

  • It could mean a general election – the Fixed Term Parliament Act requires it now.
  • It could open up a parliamentary realignment – the main part of the Tory party together with some of the natural advocates for a softer Brexit.

These all work against the hard Brexit rebels. The Tories will be slaughtered in any election into which they go divided between rival factions, thereby making Corbyn PM. A parliamentary deal is only going to make Brexit softer – indeed the easiest way for May to get a majority across Parliament is to promise a public vote on the final deal. That would be catastrophic for the Brexiteers. Several of these permutations destroy the Tory party for a generation as well – and relatively few Tory MPs, however Brexit-mad, are willing to actually drive the bus off the cliff.

What’s the point?

So, as the gunsmoke clears, I think it’s likely the PM is unscathed. She drives out her critics, but puts them in a position where they have to show grudging loyalty or risk unleashing the red tide of Corbynism.

So why are the Brexiteers doing it? They can’t win the leadership contest, and can only fight a guerrilla war if they want to drive the PM into the hands of their enemies. It seems futile.

There is one thing they very definitely do achieve by resigning. They distance themselves from the eventual Brexit deal. Previously, Davis and Johnson would be unable to complain about the final deal: they’d set it. Now, they and their allies can call it a fudge. ‘Yes, it’s awful, but it’s not our We resigned to stop it from happening.’

The latter point is the one that really makes my heart sink because it fits perfectly with what Boris and Davis have said today. This isn’t about shaping the Brexit deal. It’s about explaining why the Brexit deal isn’t enough. It’s already clear that the hard Brexiteers have lost. So now, they lay down the lines to show that we need a second Brexit! A real Brexit! One where we regain our sovereignty, where we have the courage of lions, and where we travel to work on unicorns!

Better still, you don’t need to hold a leadership contest for this. You just need to flounce, and be seen to be flouncing. This way, whatever goes wrong afterwards clearly wasn’t your fault.

You also get the advantage, having surrendered any hope of shaping Brexit, that you can focus on shaping what people are going to think after Brexit. The whole stab-in-the-back myth can be up and running while more decent politicians are trying to help the country get through the process

Friday was the end of a kind of Brexit. But my depressing conclusion is that today shows people are getting ready for Brexit II.

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What if Harry Kane had played? (a 2 a.m. ramble, with very little football content)

Years ago, I read a piece of what-iffery by someone who is now a respected psephologist. It all started from the most modest premise: in the 1970 World Cup quarter finals, England’s goalkeeper Gordon Banks couldn’t play because of a terrible stomach bug. After his substitute played poorly, England lost the match and was knocked out. Not a big event in itself, but it happened three days before a general election, and that election turned out to be a surprise win for the opposition. The suggestion of the writer was that a well-timed World Cup victory might have been just enough to put history down a very different path.

Banks KaneFast forward to 2018, and the parallel is striking. This time, we have the nation euphoric about having finally, finally won a penalty shootout, and a time in politics when the future is very, very uncertain. I can see someone else speculating in thirty years, what might have happened had Kane been sent on during England-Belgium, if he’d managed to win the match. England end up elsewhere in the draw, and find themselves knocked out in a surprise loss to Japan. Rather than ending the week with an optimistic sense that the best can always happen, we could have finished with a redoubled sense that England’s glories ended before we were born. And that difference could honestly change the future of the UK.

Previously…

This seems to be the crunch week on Brexit. I’ve thought that before, and the government has kicked the can down the road – but now we’re out of road, and it really might be the moment at which the Tory party descends into civil war.

Politics for a long time has been on a knife edge; now people are pushing it down onto the blade.

On a surface, the news doesn’t seem that different from the past fifty weeks of Brexit discussions. The government is trying to figure out what it wants out of Brexit, and is putting forward some ideas that are not popular with some of their MPs. The hard Brexiteers under Jacob Rees-Mogg aren’t happy, but then they haven’t been happy with anything short of subsidised re-enactment of the battle of Waterloo and mandatory Rule Britannia for the under fives.

What’s special? Two things – time and trust.

On time, we haven’t got any. It’s been said for a long time that we don’t have enough time to prepare for a no-deal scenario. We may now have passed the point at which we have time to make any kind of deal at all. The ‘essay crisis’ model that the British side tends towards isn’t an option for the Brussels machine and its constitutional requirements for clearing a deal. Those in the know said we have until October, and the chances of sorting this out by then is now zero.

In a world where we have no long-term deal agreed, all of the beautiful options are reduced to two – do you crash out with absolutely no deal, or do you slip into the twilight of an endless transition period while you work out the tricky bits. In the past few weeks, the starkness of this choice has become apparent. And one side of the Tory party cannot accept one option; and another side cannot accept the other.

There’s also a sense that the PM has no one left who trusts her. It’s not surprising – trust in politics is about the exchange of political capital, and she hasn’t had any to spend since last year’s election. It was clear, after the reshuffle-that-wasn’t, that she hadn’t the authority to sack or move anyone, and the reason she was in office was primarily because no one wanted to go to the hassle of removing her. Such a situation isn’t compatible with negotiating the greatest rewriting of our system of government in a century.

You can go into exhaustive detail about who lost trust when, but the important thing is that no one has any left now. If you’re a remainer Tory, you feel betrayed by the shenanigans around the EU Withdrawal Bill; if you’re a hard Brexiteer you see so many compromises already made to the vision of a pure, free Britain capable of doing all the things that make you a fan of Brexit in the first place, and feel disinclined to make any more.

I don’t want to get caught up with who is right or wrong here, but it does look a little self-inflicted by the Brexiteers. Both of these problems would have been solved by a credible vision for how Brexit was going to work, rather than just why it’s important and how it’s going to be amazing. The fact that the Moggs and Davises of the world have never deigned to consider the nuts and bolts has meant that pretty much every practical decision that has been resolved has moved us back towards the status quo, and every decision where they’ve thrown a strop and prevented a decision being taken has seen us moved closer to the point where there’s no time to make a deal.

How it starts

These two factors are also leading to something miraculous and unheralded in British politics – Theresa May may be about to make a decision. It seems that her vision of Brexit may finally be laid out. Certainly there’s been a lot of chatter on the wires which would be consistent with preparing to do just that.

It’s a very soft Brexit indeed – softer than I had expected, and so soft I can see the tabloids talking about ‘Andrex Brexit’ once it’s fully explained. There is a transition period that runs on for a while, then another sort of transition period after that while we sort out all of the basic logistics that the public and business expect of a competent government. We stay in large parts of the single market, and potentially trade some of the more acceptable parts of free movement away (e.g. so people with jobs can move here, like they can in Norway).  The ECJ will have a role in policing the process.

It’s an excellent model of Brexit – for anyone who didn’t want Brexit in the first place. And who can stomach the fact that it’s worse than the status quo on every measurable point. But it’s outright offensive to anyone who believes Brexit is the path to the Promised Land.

So where do we go from here?

If this is all accurate, the PM is throwing down the gauntlet to the Brexiteers. This crosses enough of their red lines to force a showdown. The remainers were in this position a few weeks ago, and didn’t take the party over the edge; now it’s the Brexiteers’ turn to choose between backing down or starting a leadership contest.

If I had to guess, they will go with number 2. If the PM’s position is what it has shaped up to be, they have lost Brexit. While the remainers are the type of people who would always judge whether something was important enough to do something so drastic, the Brexiteers lack that level of nuance.  Also think they feel less shame about the idea of putting the party at risk, which was what seemed to stay the hand of many remainers. The backers of hard Brexit are the kind of people who like to remind you some ideas are worth dying for.

I think the PM has already taken this into her calculations. Enough people are pointing out that you need 48 MPs to trigger a leadership contest, but you need 158 to win such a contest. The Brexiteers can’t bring that kind of force to bear, if the remainers line up behind the PM. The best case scenario for her is that she wins the vote, and can then go on to implement her Brexit without further interruption.

However you then have two further questions:

  • Has the PM’s support become so low that, even having won the competition, she would have no authority? This is what happened to John Major in 1995, and Major looked far stronger than May. If that happens, we’ll just have more of the shenanigans of the past two weeks.
  • Do the truest Brexiteers march out of the Tory party altogether? Lose ten of them, and the government no longer has a majority in the Commons, and a general election is probably triggered.

The last one is potentially the scariest outcome for the middle-of-the-road Tories: a general election at short notice with Theresa May in charge could not end well (anyone who says the Tories are ahead 5 points in the polls should remember she had a 24 point lead before the last election). The one thing holding the Tory party together is the importance of keeping Jeremy Corbyn out of power – which in turn makes me think that the legendary men in grey suits may try and stop a Brexiteer walkout by encouraging Mrs May to give way to a compromise leader. Right now, that would be either a Gove-Javid duumvirate or some complete non-entity with a pro-Brexit record (no, I have no idea who that would be either).

And the thing that shapes each point along this path is not political science; it’s animal spirits. It’ll be down to psychology and the weighing up of chances, and gut instincts about what risks to take and what risks to leave unrealised. And that’s why something as seemingly unrelated as the ability of Gareth Southgate to exorcise his personal demons from Euro 96, or a chance meeting in a corridor, or the calibre of wine served at a party the night before a crucial conversation, might truthfully shift us from one future to another.

Of Civility

the_duel_by_jasinski-d2zvm28One of the most striking things about the British government is its aura of politeness. That may sound like an odd claim to make, especially if you are a fan of the Thick of It. You might suggest that the top echelons of government are filled by a bunch of sweary, terrified bullshit-artists who try to cover their own powerlessness with sheer aggression, and I might or might not disagree. Civil servants pass round tales of where the Blackberries get thrown.

It should, by all rights, descend into a snarling cage-fight, with PMQs like a version of WWF wrestling. Yet it doesn’t. Governments consistently maintain the public fiction that they are united, even as they bicker and snipe amongst themselves. Ministers might not be able to bear being in the same room as some of their colleagues, but in the photograph around the Cabinet table they all have the same smile.

It is the expression of a two-hundred year old tradition of collective responsibility, in which the cabinet agrees to show unswerving support for everything the government does, even if its individual members personally disagree. But I’m beginning to wonder if that tradition will make it to the end of the month.

Laws and sausages

The aura of polite, calm, joined up policy-making was always going to struggle to cover Brexit. Brexit was voted in on a single word – “leave” – but involves the detailed redesign of a large part of the British state. It involves the creation, largely from scratch of a new relationship with Europe.

This is hard enough on a technical level. Yet the real killer is the fact that it must be done with all of the compromises fully visible. Every single one of the EU’s neighbours has a relationship that has evolved over decades and has involved giving ground. Even the Swiss, a nation so isolationist that until 2014 every bridge and tunnel into the country was wired with explosives, are closer to the EU on some key points than we are as members. Similar compromises for the UK – over Ireland, over customs, over trade deals with the rest of the world – now have to be at once, in public and to a timetable not of our choosing.

It’s a process that seems designed to invite maximum dissent. The argument for Leave depends on striking our own trade deals – if you compromise that through a customs partnership then the whole exercise was futile. If you are a middle-of-the-road unionist Tory, there is nothing on earth that can reconcile you to the idea of a customs border in the Irish Sea. And if you are a sane member of humanity, anything that undoes the Good Friday Agreement feels stupid to the point of suicidal. Any of these points might have been suitable for a quiet compromise in the back end of some wonkish treaty, but none of them can be given away in a spotlight this bright.

Six Impossible Things Before Brexit

The parallel for me is from 1931 – the Labour government of Ramsay MacDonald were faced with the depths of the depression, and a fiscal orthodoxy that demanded that spending be cut even if it meant more economic hardship. MacDonald, his chancellor and a narrow majority of his party agreed. The minority did not, and resigned. The aftermath was that the sitting Prime Minister and his Chancellor formed a new government with the Tories, their own party threw them out, and Labour combined crashed to fewer than 70 seats at the election that followed. As a result, fifty years later some Labour party members would still turn MacDonald’s portrait to face the wall for his ‘betrayal’.

letters-160609_1424102c
Campaigning in the 1931 election had some shortcomings

Without wanting to sound alarmist, our current situation looks a great deal worse. In 1931 it was only money. In 2018 it is money, trade, travel, civil order, international relations, animal welfare, the constitution, chlorinated chicken and Paul Dacre’s wish to have just one Stalinist purge of the British establishment before he dies. We are approaching irreducible points from which people cannot back down. To find a compromise we need a border that is not a border, our own rules that are also someone else’s rules, our own trade deals that do not upset our snug position in the EU’s market. Six impossible things before breakfast doesn’t begin to cover it.

A nation of gentlemen

I see two likely ways out of this. The first is outright government collapse, as one side decides that it cannot live with whichever option the PM signs up to. Whether we go for MaxFac or the Customs Partnership (or some other issue in a few weeks’ time), the losing side sends the requisite number of letters to the chair of the 1922 committee and we’re into a Tory leadership contest.

Except that will only be the start of things, because the winner in such Brexity circumstances is likely to be Boris or Rees-Mogg, and perhaps a quarter of the Tory party would quit before letting that happen.* Labour moderates would then be faced with a choice of Corbyn for PM (which would fall apart in weeks under the current parliamentary arithmetic), or a walk-out of their own. And after that, things get really complicated.

The other option, though, is politeness. That sense that has pervaded British politics for such a long time, in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds and irrepressible personalities. To bury one’s deep-seated concerns and accept that whatever the group decides will be for the best. I can imagine this more easily of the Remainers than the Leavers, since the latter have more intellectual commitment and/or stubbornness. Plus the Leave position encourages fundamentalism – without the ability to strike trade deals there simply isn’t a case for Leaving. The idea that these deals will outweigh the loss of trade from Europe might be fairy-dust, but it is fairy dust with a democratic mandate – and that might ultimately convince the Remainers to surrender the point in the name of good feeling.

If that happens, it will be a sort of a triumph for our way of government. In other countries there would be splits and protests and riots; in Britain there will be awkward shuffling and tricky interviews on the Today Programme. If you see this, you will see why it is that Britain has maintained continuous constitutional government longer than any other nation on earth. Where other nations start snarling, our upper lips remain stiff. Civility persists, even beyond where common sense would see it go.

But here’s the question – just how British can you be, when Brexit is coming?

* As an aside, Tories MPs are usually more than smart enough to think two moves ahead, and would be at least this far into the reasoning before sending in their letter. For that reason, if this comes to pass I strongly recommend betting on Michael Gove to win the contest – as the person who is sound on Brexit, able to articulate a vision for post-Brexit Britain and not at risk of certification if he finds himself in the company of two medical professionals.

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

demo_brexit

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)

votes-are-counted-in-the-richmond-park-by-election

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.

small-majorities

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.

boris-johnson-getty
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.