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.

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.