"I supported the Prime Minister and I still do now"
— BBC Politics (@BBCPolitics) November 18, 2018
“I still think a deal could be done. But it is very late in the day now, and we need to change course.”
“I still think a deal could be done. But it is very late in the day now, and we need to change course.”
May won’t yield to their demand for renegotiation unless she believes that at least some of them will quit. And on the basis of last week, why would she?
Each politician has his or her own ideals, ambitions, strengths, weaknesses, hopes, fears. It follows that the more MPs there are involved in a scheme, the more likely these qualities are to clash and collide, like particles in an experiment. The discipline of party or government is usually required to keep politicians marching in step – and that includes Cabinet Ministers.
Which brings us to the five who want Theresa May to renegotiate aspects of her draft deal. One might assume that Ministers as senior as Liam Fox, Michael Gove, Chris Grayling, Andrea Leadsom and Penny Mordaunt, when banded together, carry the authority of the Government with them. But in this case, they do not. It rests with Theresa May. She is Prime Minister. The Cabinet is her Cabinet. She controls its agenda. She shapes the minutes.
This is why she was able to see off last week’s Cabinet push to get her to renegotiate the deal. There are no votes round the Cabinet table, as Esther McVey discovered. There is no loyal Opposition. Cabinet decisions may not be unanimous but they are, to use a word that May deployed herself, collective. If a Cabinet Minister is opposed to one to the point where he cannot live with it, his only course is to resign – as McVey and Dominic Raab duly did in the meeting’s wake.
Only when a Prime Minister has lost her power do Cabinet Ministers gain more of it than she has. This, notoriously, was the case when Margaret Thatcher was forced out. She had beaten off a leadership challenge, but not by enough to maintain her command. Her successor could be in a situation similar, or worse, by the end of the coming week. But she is not there yet, if she ever will be. While she would be foolish to sack any of the five – her powers are not limitless – her grip is for the moment tenuous, but real.
She will also have a shrewd grasp of the position of each of the five. She won’t read Liam Fox as a resigner. Nor Chris Grayling. Michael Gove backed her plan very reluctantly in Cabinet, has tried to persuade her to change it, pondered resignation…but not resigned. It would be difficult for him now to go. That leaves Andrea Leadsom and Penny Mordaunt, perhaps the most likely of the five to walk (though one never knows). But that tangle of motives may divide them, which opens the door to divide and rule.
In short, the threat of resignation is ultimately the only device likely to make May yield to their push. And she will surely be thinking that if none of them quit last week, then why would any of them do so this week? It may be that other Cabinet Ministers will now join them. It is even possible that the Prime Minister will give way. But if they aren’t prepared to walk away, they will probably get an outcome they won’t like. Where else have we heard that recently?
She didn’t establish herself as a strategic Home Secretary, but is a highly effective media performer.
Theresa May cannot rely on the Brexiteers in her Cabinet to go out and sell her draft Brexit deal enthusiastically. Liam Fox has been helpful to her today, but within very narrow confines. Two of the holders of great offices of state want the Prime Minister to return to Brussels to push for concessions – Sajid Javid and Jeremy Hunt. That has left her reliant this week on the energetic Matt Hancock.
Amber Rudd’s return to the top table will be linked to Downing Street’s need for strong, articulate, media-experienced performers to tour the studios on May’s behalf. The new Work and Pensions Secretary is a first-class communicator: far more adept than the Prime Minister at getting on the front foot, and completely committed to a central element of the draft deal: frictionless trade – or as near to frictionless as can be achieved. She was a passionate Remainer during the EU referendum, stepping up for TV debates, and closely linked to the anti-Brexit campaign in which her brother, Roland Rudd, was a big cheese.
In one sense, the appointment is surprising. Rudd was a senior voice in the pro-deal element of backbench former and present Tory Remainers. Her departure leaves it weaker. Furthermore, she has an ultra-marginal seat, and is now to be responsible for the hyper-vulnerable business of managing Universal Credit.
But she is the kind of centre-leftish Conservative who is now at this Government’s centre of gravity. Esther McVey out, Rudd in makes the Cabinet even less leave-tilting than before, with Boris Johnson, David Davis, Dominic Raab and McVey all gone. There is a big question about whether a Minister compelled so recently to resign should return to government so quickly. There has been a campaign to suggest that civil servants were to blame for the Windrush debacle. But for all Rudd’s force on television, she didn’t establish herself as a strategic Home Secretary. However, she does fill a gap as a Soft Brexitish future leadership contender. It is possible there may be a vacancy soon.
“I’m sure this is more about manoeuvring and leadership”. He also says he wants to study the Northern Ireland protocol.
“I’ve been fighting for a good Brexit deal, but the terms offered to Cabinet yesterday had two fatal flaws.”
They are now coming so fast as to necessitate this list, which will be updated as the day continues.
“No democratic nation has ever signed up to be bound by such an extensive regime, imposed externally without any democratic control… nor the ability to decide to exit”.
“Dear Prime Minister,
It has been an honour to serve in your government as Justice Minister, Housing Minister, and Brexit Secretary.
I regret to say that, following the Cabinet meeting yesterday on the Brexit deal, I must resign. I understand why you have chosen to pursue the deal with the EU on the terms proposed, and I respect the different views held in good faith by all of our colleagues.
For my part, I cannot support the proposed deal for two reasons. First, I believe that the regulatory regime proposed for Northern Ireland presents a very real threat to the integrity of the United Kingdom.
Second, I cannot support an indefinite backstop arrangement, where the EU holds a veto over our ability to exit. The terms of the backstop amount to a hybrid of the EU Customs Union and Single Market obligations. No democratic nation has ever signed up to be bound by such an extensive regime, imposed externally without any democratic control over the laws to be applied, nor the ability to decide to exit the arrangements. That arrangement is also now also taken as the starting point for negotiating the Future Economic Partnership. If we accept that, it will severely prejudice the second phase of the negotiations against the UK.
Above all, I cannot reconcile the terms of the proposed deal with the promises we made to the country in our manifesto at the last election. This is, at its heart, a matter of public trust.
I appreciate that you disagree with my judgement on these issues. I have weighed very carefully the alternative courses of action which the government could take, on which I have previously advised. Ultimately, you deserve a Brexit Secretary who can make the case for the deal you are pursuing with conviction. I am only sorry, in good conscience, that I cannot.
My respect for you, and the fortitude you have shown in difficult times, remains undimmed.
This blow to the heart of the Government does nothing to make a challenge less likely. Get ready for Run Raabit Run Raabit Run Run Run.
“Dominic Raab was palpably unhappy….how on earth can any of the discontented third of the Cabinet, or more, look voters in the eye and claim they are content with it? How can they go out and sell it? It is significant that, yesterday evening, none of them were due to take to the airwaves this morning.” So we wrote earlier today.
Now he has gone, and May has lost a second Brexit Secretary. And if she can’t convince the holder of the post to stay put, what does that signal to the world about her draft agreement?
When Raab’s predecessor – David Davis – quit, a leadership challenge didn’t materialise – even when Boris Johnson followed him shortly afterwards. Can one really be staved off this time? The expectation at Westminster yesterday was that Esther Mcvey and perhaps Penny Mordaunt would be the first Cabinet members to jump? What will they do now?
At any rate, Raab now arguably has first mover advantage in any leadership contest among the Brexiteers. Watch out, Boris Johnson – and others. We should prepare for Run Raabit Run Raabit Run Run Run.
A new leader would need a new plan to reverse this evident humiliation of May’s leadership and of British statecraft.
If we can congratulate Cabinet members on nothing else this morning, we can at least do so on their ability to speed read under pressure. In less than a morning, they somehow managed to master 585 pages of the Brexit Draft Withdrawal Agreement, all without recourse to independent legal advice. Plus the seven pages of the Outline Political Declaration – a mere bagatelle by comparison. Yes, that’s right. The Government wants us to hand over the best part of £40 billion for fewer than ten pages of unenforceable text. And our future negotiating leverage into the bargain.
But let’s stick for the moment to the Withdrawal Agreement. Don’t judge it before you’ve read it, its backers said yesterday. That they were supporters betrayed that they had already made a judgement themselves. By the same token, they should have conceded that reading a document of that length takes rather more than a few hours. None the less, we will take their advice. Unlike a mass of newspapers and commentators, we do not pretend to have done so in full.
So we will make no comment for the moment on whether the Northern Ireland backstop has survived, with its implications for Scotland and the Union. On the UK-wide or Great Britain backstop, and whether the latter can practicably leave it, de facto if not de jure, with all the consequences that has for our freedom to strike trade deals worldwide. On whether that seven page declaration points towards Chequers, Canada, Cheqada – or anything bankable at all (and if there are any safeguards for the money). Above all, on whether the whole package leaves us, in that neat reversal of William Hague’s famous saying, out of Europe, but run by Europe. And on, if you prefer George Osborne’s brilliantly malicious assessment yesterday, whether or not the EU has Taken Back Control.
We will pause to make only one observation. Theresa May’s claim that the agreement would allow us to take back that control – of borders, law and money – is already under siege, at least as far as its second part is concerned. Paul Waugh of the Huffington Post has found 63 references to the European Court of Justice in the draft. Ending its jurisdiction was at the heart of the EU referendum result. The Conservative Manifesto committed the Party to it, not that most of members needed any persuading.
Where Waugh has trod, others will follow. As we write, Martin Howe will be pouring himself another cup of strong black coffee, surrounded by gutted candles and legal tomes. He will have laboured overnight to craft his assessment. So will others. By lunchtime, the Withdrawal Agreement will have been wrenched open, gutted, filletted, and its innards displayed to the world. One thing is certain: bits of it will not look very appetising. The Prime Minister will have passed them over in her statement yesterday evening. One senior ERG member told this site yesterday that the agreement is like a Budget that will unravel on day two.
We are not at all sure that he is right. This morning, it looks rather more like one of those Budgets that went to pieces on day one. Today’s splash headlines make bleak reading for Downing Street. How could they not, given the Cabinet’s verdict, which is all over them, and on the inside pages too? Dominic Raab was palpably unhappy. Geoffrey Cox compared the agreement to a life raft made up of oil drums and a plastic sail. Michael Gove thinks it is bad, but that no deal would be worse. Sajid Javid and Jeremy Hunt pushed at May to take if back to the EU for re-drafting. Liam Fox dislikes the backstop. Penny Mordaunt wants a free vote, so that she can oppose the agreement. Esther McVey actually called for a vote, clashing with the Chief Whip and the Cabinet Secretary. How on earth can any of the discontented third of the Cabinet, or more, look voters in the eye and claim they are content with it? How can they go out and sell it? It is significant that, yesterday evening, none of them were due to take to the airwaves this morning.
One last point on that Cabinet meeting. Reporting of it has tended to divide members up into supporters and opponents of the agreement. This is understandable, but flawed. The Cabinet makes, as the Prime Minister said yesterday, collective decisions. And as McVey has discovered, it does not vote. Nor do its members shape the minutes. If they are unhappy, they must either wait to be cheered up, or resign. Those whose discontent spills over into opposition, like McVey, have not quit – so far. Do they really intend to stay in office, hoping perhaps that the agreement collapses, or that the Commons votes it down, saying nothing about it at all? Such a position would be worse than dishonourable, in a manner of speaking. It would be ridiculous.
By then, events may well have overtaken them. Perhaps Graham Brady will announce today that he has received 48 letters, and that a confidence ballot in Theresa May must be held. Maybe he will not. Perhaps it will come later, or not at all. But even if it does, and she wins it convincingly, her troubles will be far from over. As matters stand, it is very unlikely that the agreement can get through the Commons. Even if she survives a ballot, she might not be able to survive that. The combination of a future Commons vote on the agreement and aleadership contest, ushering in a new Prime Minister, would be like a cutting-edge experiment with two new chemicals. There is simply no knowing what it would bring. We believe that a Conservative Prime Minister, faced with this Commons, can carry through Brexit if intent on it – even a no deal one, given the legislative state of play. But it is possible that the mix could blow the laboratory roof off.
Our position on May’s leadership is well-known. Like our members’ panel, we believe that she should not lead the Party into the next election. Enraged Brexiteer MPs are itching to get her out now. The sum of their view is that there is a lie at the heart of her policy – that she does not believe her own words; that no deal is better than a bad deal. For this reason, they say, we are not properly prepared. Downing Street and the Treasury have dragged their feet, and conspired to spring a new choice on the Cabinet yesterday: May’s Deal, a chaotic No Deal, or No Brexit. And for this she has lost the DUP, in all likelihood, and with it her majority.
One doesn’t have to take a view on the agreement before accepting their point. But they should reflect that changing the Prime Minister, in itself, would solve nothing. A new Conservative leader would face the same old Commons. He or she would need a new plan – Canada, plus or minus those three pluses; Nick Boles’ Norway-for-Now; or perhaps a transition to No Deal, as proposed by some Cabinet Ministers. And given the numbers in the Commons, logic also points to a general election, sooner rather than later, to win a majority for change. That runs the risk of a Corbyn Government – and, more pressingly as far as some Tory MPs are concerned, the loss of their seats.
Some Leavers will be tempted to join many Remainers, and say that this humbling pass, this evident humiliation of May’s leadership and of British statecraft, is the inevitable consequence of Brexit. Our response is uncompromising. The British people are entitled to vote to leave the European Union. If they were now to be told that they can’t, because our politicians aren’t up to negotiating it; or the commanding heights of our institutions are against it; or government is incapable of planning for it – in short, that they must “come to heel”, in John Kerr’s illuminating phrase – what would that say to the British people about the state of our liberal demcracy and parliamentary government? The potential consequences are so far-reaching that there is no need to spell them out.
Interpretation one: its members are talking at length, but there’s no real resistance to the Prime Minister’s draft Brexit plan. Interpretation two: it is running into trouble.
Earlier this afternoon, it was reported that Theresa May would make a statement outside Downing Street at 17.00 or so.
Hurd appears to have misspoken, and confused a press statement with a press conference. There will apparently be the first later, but not the second.
This is because Cabinet will now apparently not break up until 19.00 at the earliest. Interpretation one: its members are talking at length, but there’s no real resistance to the Prime Minister’s draft Brexit plan. Interpretation two: it is running into trouble. Or maybe the explanation is a bit of both.
Our best guess is that some Ministers are asking for aspects of the draft deal at least to be revised. There will certainly be calls for clarification. We will soon find out if there was a push, concerted or unconcerted, for the draft not to be approved, at least at this stage.
If it is correct that Geoffrey Cox is promoting the view that the draft presents no real progress on the backstop, but that it offers a better deal than no deal at all, the meeting is unlikely to be going smoothly. Brexiteer Ministers unwilling to resign will not wish to go out and sell it to the public on that basis.
The spectrum of resignation expectation has Esther McVey and Penny Mordaunt at one end, as the most likely to go, and Dominic Raab and Michael Gove at the other, as least likely. David Mundell is a wild card.
As we write, darkness has fallen, and the lectern set for a statement is no longer in view.
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