Coronation (headless) chicken

May should go in mid-April. But attempts to appoint a successor uncontested will only stir further chaos in the hen coop.

  • On April 12, Britain is due to move out of a short extension either into No Deal (which is unlikely) or a long extension (which is likely).  In the latter event, Theresa May should stand down on that date as Conservative leader, but stay on temporarily as Prime Minister.  This would allow the Party to hold a leadership election with both Parliamentary and membership stages, which would be impracticable before mid-April.  The new leader would then succeed May as Prime Minister in, say, mid-June.
  • If May gives such a commitment to her Cabinet on Monday, and makes it public later that day, her deal stands a better chance of being approved by the Commons this week.  But endorsement would still be far from certain.  Such a pledge might not persuade the DUP to back it.  And even if it did, the “Spartans” will hold out.  If Opposition MPs hold fast too, the agreement will still go down.  Whatever you view of the deal, this is worth bearing in mind.
  • Now suppose that May instead agrees to quit immediately.  Today’s papers are full of the names of potential successors as Prime Minister, including David Lidington, Michael Gove and Jeremy Hunt.  How would a handover work?  Is it suggested that May stay as Party leader until after a post-April 12 leadership election – thereby allowing a replacement, temporary Prime Minister to serve until that contest produced a new leader, presumably at some point in early-to-mid June?
  • If so, would a new Prime Minister be prepared to take office under that constraint?  Is Hunt, Gove, Lidington or anyone else really prepared to serve in office for less than twelve weeks?  If not, is it proposed that the person who might lead the Party into the next election is selected unopposed?  We name 19 potential leadership contenders in our regularly monthly Next Tory Leader survey question.  There are doubtless others.  Is it seriously suggested that all but one would be prepared to stand aside?
  • Next, Conservative MPs.  Would they, too, be able to rally round one person?  Consider the names most in the frame.  Lidington would be unacceptable to most hard Brexiteers.  Boris Johnson unacceptable to many softer ones.  Gove and Hunt would be in danger of falling between two stools.  Too pro-hard Brexit; too pro-Soft Brexit; pro-Remain; unpopular with members; unpopular with voters; too tained, too fresh – the objections to any aspirant are legion.  What is meant to bring clarity would breed confusion.
  • Next, Party members.  May was elected unopposed after Andrea Leadsom’s withdrawal from the last contest (in effect).  Her leadership is not ending well.  Why should activists want to see her successor appointed – “crowned”, as Tory MPs like to say – rather than elected after a proper contest?  If it didn’t work out last time, why would it do so this time?  Would such an outcome even be legal under the terms of the Party’s constitution?  Above all: what difference to Brexit policy would this new leader make?
  • Next, the Palace.  Monarchs like coronations – but why should the Queen assent to this one?  She might well say to a departing May: “Now, look here.  You tell me that your Parliamentary Party will accept Mr Lidington as your successor.  But I read gather that some Tory MPs will not support him.  Why shouldn’t I send for Jeremy Corbyn instead?”  The Queen has steered clear of party political controversy for the length of her distinguished reign.  Why should she now be dumped right in the midst of one?
  • Finally, May herself.  What if she simply refuses to go? She cannot be challenged in a leadership ballot until the autumn.  Both the 1922 Committee and the whips have pointed her towards the door.  As we write, she is declining to walk towards it.  If her Cabinet unanimously advises her to quit – and we’ll believe that when we see it – she might be left with no alternative.  But until or unless that happens (or Philip May steps in), she will be hard to winkle out.
  • This site is not set on keeping May in office.  We urged change during December’s leadership challenge.  As we say, we want her to pledge to quit as Party leader, and to depart on April 12 – paving the way for a full leadership contest.  Conservative MPs have had enough of her, too.  No group or faction trusts her.  She has lost the confidence of her Cabinet and whips.  Her disastrously misconceived attack on her own MPs appears to have sealed her fate.
  • None the less, our message to them this morning is: be careful what you wish for.  A post-April 12 Prime Ministerial departure works.  A pre-April 12 one doesn’t.  The Conservative Party is like a man stuck in a swamp.  If he keeps his head, he can work his way out of it.  If he loses it, he will be sucked into the depths.  Lidington Now, Gove Now, Hunt Now, Anyone Now – to attempt anything like this is to flail and thrash about. It will only drag the Government deeper into the swamp which threatens to drown it.

Would the EU abandon Varadkar? Perhaps. But it’s not at all likely.

The divisions and impatience exposed could well be real, but it doesn’t follow that Brussels is about to suddenly shift its policy.

Throughout Brexit, there have been two apparently fixed points on the EU side of the negotiations. The first was their remarkable cohesion, in the face of a deeply divided British political class, and the second was their solidarity with Dublin.

As this Government’s efforts to negotiate Brexit reach their apparent nadir, it is worth paying attention to the other side of the table and noting that something appears to have shifted this week, at least with regards to the former point.

The apparent willingness of certain EU leaders to go for ‘no deal’, rather than endlessly indulging Parliament with a series of extensions in which it can continue to vote down the Withdrawal Agreement, seems to contradict the Union’s policy of catering to the particular needs of the Republic of Ireland.

Whilst the EU is perfectly willing to roll out the high-minded rhetoric about the vital importance of an invisible border whilst attempting to persuade the UK to adopt the backstop, it seems improbable that they would content to allow unregulated goods to flood into the Single Market through Northern Ireland in the event of no-deal.

On top of the serious economic consequences, this is one of the reasons that Leo Varadkar’s government has good reason to be deeply worried by the prospect – hence our Editor floating the ‘Varadkar Test‘ as a gauge of Theresa May’s real willingness to pursue such a course.

By apparently hardening their attitude towards one, then, leaders such as Emmanuel Macron seem on the surface to be abandoning their commitments to Dublin’s interests. Which is a very good reason to think it might be a bluff, of course, but if it is a bluff it has been deeply unhelpful for a Prime Minister who needed Brexiteer MPs to think that a no-deal exit had been taken off the table to win them round to her Withdrawal Agreement.

Could it be the case that they are simply running out of patience with the whole process, and losing their cohesion as a result?

The fact that Angela Merkel appears to have had to rebuke both Macron and Donald Tusk, and emphasise in strong terms that a no-deal Brexit must be avoided, certainly suggests so. And there is no doubt that there is genuine concern about whether or not the UK takes part in the next European elections, a decision which must be made soon and which could impose tight legal limits on any deferment.

But it is a long way from there to thinking that Brussels really will abandon its previous priorities, especially against the wishes of the German Chancellor, and facilitate no deal. It still seems more likely that, for now at least, EU leaders will if pressed swallow their frustrations and grant a long extension – almost certainly with strings attached – if the British Government seeks one.

If that is the case, this rare crack in the united front could possibly not have come at a worse moment for May. Just when some of them felt she had the ‘gun to their heads‘, Macron has muddied the waters.

Rachel Wolf: The Government’s porn crackdown. It sounds great. But it won’t work.

If we can’t think of anything that’s going to do real good, maybe we could act like true Conservatives for once – and choose to do nothing at all?

Rachel Wolf is a partner in Public First. She was an education and innovation adviser at Number 10 during David Cameron’s premiership, and was founding director of the New Schools Network.

I asked the editor of this site what I should write about this week, since Brexit is the only subject of interest for many. With unerring journalistic instinct, he responded: “I thought you might be interested in writing about pornography”.

Here goes.

It will soon be harder to watch pornography online. Internet providers will face large fines and consequences if anyone under 18 accesses porn, and will therefore require credit card details, a purchased ‘porn pass’ from a newsagent, or use of a VPN (Virtual Private Network) for access.

Guido Fawkes has endearingly called this the “tossing tax”, and it has various libertarian groups predictably excited. To rehearse a few of their key arguments: this is an infringement on personal liberty; it will create a massive database of porn users with credit cards, which is bound to get hacked at some point; and it will drive people to illegal behaviour.

Nevertheless, when I was first told about this policy idea my instinctive response was “good”. David Willetts has often said to me (and others) that a Conservative is a libertarian with children. I used to find this very irritating in my early 20s, but at least in my case he has been proved right.

When I think about my children, I want to stop bad things happening to them. And it is clear that parents worry about the effect that widespread access to online pornography may have on teenage boys’ view of what normal sex is, and therefore how girls get treated or feel they must behave.

It is part of a wider wrestling with the environment that girls are growing up in. We are in a strange time, in which we are simultaneously chanting “Me Too” and focusing on gender pay gaps while our children are more princess-obsessed than we or our parents were, when lego seems to come in pink and blue categories, and where the youngest “self-made billionaire” is Kylie Jenner, one of the Kardashian-Jenner clan who uses her brand – derived from her family’s fame – to sell makeup.

If we can change this – reverse it – then great. And it doesn’t seem that important if men looking for porn are inconvenienced in the process.

But honestly, the more I think about it, the more exasperated I feel about this policy. I’d love boys to stop watching degrading porn online and changing their attitude to women as a result. It would be great if the Government could do something serious about it.  But does anyone really think this is going to work? Or is the Government simply reaching for the same domestic policy intervention again and again, regardless of impact, because of a paucity of time, and therefore of imagination?

This Government likes to prevent us from doing bad things. Sometimes it bans them – like ivory. Sometimes it taxes them – like plastic. Sometimes it just makes accessing them harder – like porn.

That is unsurprising, given the political fix it is in. The Government can’t pass legislation very easily. It is too distracted to come up with deep and serious policy responses to complex problems. It is deliberately focused on less ‘classic’ Conservative voters, such as former Labour-voting Leavers who tend to be relatively socially authoritarian, and in favour of public sector intervention and funding (it may be about to lose them all over Brexit – but that’s a separate point).

Banning things is easy to announce, relatively easy to implement – and, most helpfully of all, creates an enemy that the Government and the public are united against.  But do we really think that the consequence of this move will be a massive decrease in young boys watching people having sex on the millions of sites available (this isn’t just about the internet – I can’t think of anyone at school who failed to find cigarettes, alcohol, or drugs if they wanted to)? It is likely that the sites they do access will be much less concerned with morality or legality than those who play ball.

And could we please decide what being an adult is, and when? We have the same MPs arguing that smoking should be banned until 21 but that voting should be at 16. We can marry and have children – the ultimate responsible act – at 16, but not drink alcohol or watch other people having sex until 18. At some point, it would be helpful to decide when people become adult.

I know the Government is consumed by a first-order problem. I know it is nine years in, and getting tired and short of ideas. And I know that we are wrestling with serious mental health and social issues which rightly worry us, and where our traditional policy responses seem inadequate. But if we can’t think of anything that’s going to do real good, maybe we could act like true Conservatives for once – and choose to do nothing at all?

Liz Truss: At the heart of the spending review will be popular, free market conservatism

I’m travelling around the country asking the public what their priorities really are. This review should be the People’s review.

Liz Truss is Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and is MP for South West Norfolk.

2019 is a big year for British politics. As we leave the European Union, we have an opportunity to set out a new economic agenda, leaving the era of post-crash consolidation and recovery behind and entering a new era of growth and opportunity for Britain.

This year, the Treasury will conduct the Spending Review, setting budgets from 2020 through to 2023. It is an opportunity, not just for us to decide on our spending priorities, but to make a real and lasting impact on the British economy and the lives of people across the country. We will have the power to modernise the state and make it sleeker, more effective and better value for the people it serves.

At the heart of the Spending Review will be popular free market conservativism guided by three principles.

First, we’ll focus on what matters to real people, not vested interests. I start from the principle that every pound in the Exchequer is money that somebody has worked hard to earn. That means we have a responsibility to make sure that public money is spent on public priorities.

What do I mean by vested interests? It’s not obvious to those who don’t spend every waking hour in Westminster, but there is a growing blob of lobbyists, corporations, quangos and professional bodies who ask again and again for Government favours – arguing that they are the exception, that their cause deserves special treatment.

This makes me deeply uncomfortable. Some have good ideas which are worth pursuing. But if we only listen to these people, it would squeeze out other priorities of those without big lobbying teams. And should they be taking money from those on relatively low earnings who could be spending the money on a new car, a holiday or a treat for their kids?

I want to make sure that the Spending Review works for people across our country, from Plymouth to Perth and Darlington to Dereham – people that go to work every day and don’t have the time or money or inclination to hang around Whitehall. It should be the People’s Spending Review.

That’s why I’m travelling around the country asking the public what their priorities really are. So far, I’ve been in Felixstowe, Walsall and Tadcaster, and people have told me they want money focussed on core public services – the police, education, roads, defence and the NHS – rather than the waste and bureaucracy of the type which ballooned under Labour.

The public have little truck with the nanny state. They don’t want their hard-earned cash spent on announcements designed purely to get column inches or on billboards that brag about the Government’s generosity. They don’t want to hear that their money is used for corporate subsidies. Or to prop up zombie industries. Or to be told exactly how much to eat and how much to exercise.

After 13 years of Labour government and initiative-itis, we ended up with a horrendously complicated landscape. We have reduced the number of quangos from 561 in 2013 to 305 in 2017. But the administration cost of these budgets is still £2.5 billion, and the various support pots for business including tax credits cost around £18 billion. Too many hard-working public servants and businesspeople are spending their time filling in forms and applying for grants.

At the Spending Review, we’ll take a leaf out of our international competitors’ books – like South Korea and Japan – and show that it is perfectly possible to fund the services that have a real impact on people’s lives while keeping taxes low.

One way we’ll do that is through the zero-based capital review, meaning we’ll take a fresh look at all the major projects we’re investing in and ask whether they are really working for us. We need to make sure we are focusing on projects like local transport around our cities and counties – which generally have the greatest impact on growth.

They may not be glitzy, but fixing the local junction or improving the train service have a big impact on people’s lives, and are some of the top priorities for people I met. By focusing on the core services that matter to the public, we can boost growth – both personal and economic – while keeping taxes low so people have more to spend on their own priorities, and more of a stake in their own future.

That takes me to our second priority for Spending Review – opening up opportunities for people across Britain and ensuring everyone has a shot at success.

I came into politics because I want Britain to be a success story, and that means everyone in the country being a success story. A fully-functioning free market depends on new entrants generating new ideas, so we have to crack down on any entrenched privileges that stop talented people coming through.

Take housing. It’s still the case that – because of our restrictive planning system – people are paying a greater proportion of their income in housing than ever before. In 1947, people were paying less than an eighth of their total spending on housing – now it’s over a quarter. And people who rent in London are spending half their income on rent. And we are all paying the price. Next year, we will spend £34 billion on housing support. If we don’t deal with these entrenched barriers, it will undermine people’s faith in our economic model and lead them on the road to socialism.

We know Labour’s answer to this is further eye-watering public spending. Their latest idea is for a Universal Basic Income, a flat payment given to everyone with no strings attached. There’s a big problem with this: it doesn’t work. Finland carried out a trial in 2017, and found people receiving UBI were no more likely to find a job. What’s more, in order to expand the programme across the country they would have needed to increase income tax by nearly 30 per cent.

What people need is not handouts or Universal Basic Income, but the Universal Basic Infrastructure of life – the foundations of living a full life in a modern free enterprise country, without arbitrary and unfair barriers to success. By that I mean access to good education, a good home with fast internet, and good transport links to get to a good job.

At the Spending Review we’re going to look at every bit of spending and make sure it is delivering for everyone regardless of their background. Unlike Labour, we know one person’s success is not another person’s loss. One person’s success improves all our lives through the jobs they provide and the new goods and services they invent. If we get the conditions right, success is there for everyone to grasp.

In doing so however, we must not be blind to those who aren’t yet able to take those opportunities. There are some people – perhaps who are struggling with health conditions, or have missed out on basic education, or been the victims of crime – who will not yet be capable of taking the opportunities available. Our third priority should be to help those on the margins move to a position where they can take control of their lives, and to stop any more people getting into that position in the first place.

Too often, these people haven’t had the best start in life that’s so crucial to success. Indeed, the academic evidence shows that when it comes to intervention, the earlier the better. This requires us to be patient. Take the successful phonics programme championed by Nick Gibb that has seen our 9-year olds shoot up the European literacy league tables. The benefits will be felt most in 10-20 years’ time, when these children are entering the world of work and starting their own families. In the future, we’ll have more independent adults able to succeed.

For the first time in many years, because of the choices we have made in Government, we have the power to make positive decisions. We can use this to reduce taxes and focus on core services that the public care about. As we throw off the constraints of the post-financial crash world and the European Union, we’ll focus on the public’s biggest priorities, ensuring everyone has the Universal Basic Infrastructure to succeed and targeting support for the most vulnerable in our society so everyone has a fair shot.

This article is based on a speech delivered to Onward earlier this week.

Neave had the boldness to make a home run from Colditz, and to help Thatcher beat Heath

Patrick Bishop’s biography of Airey Neave, who in 1975 showed how to run a successful leadership campaign.

The Man Who Was Saturday: The Extraordinary Life of Airey Neave by Patrick Bishop

Airey Neave sprang to fame as the first British prisoner to make a home run from Colditz. He entered the Commons, for a long time got nowhere much, and then played a key role in Margaret Thatcher’s victory over Edward Heath.

In 1979, he was murdered by the Irish National Liberation Army, a few weeks before he would have become Northern Ireland Secretary.

Patrick Bishop has written a very enjoyable life of him. His style is understated, which suits the subject. Neave was quiet, unobtrusive, hard-working, thorough, at his best working in the background, “saying little, hearing much”, as Bishop puts it while describing the period as Thatcher’s campaign manager.

And Neave’s wartime exploits were so audacious they require no stylistic embellishment. The story of the escape from Colditz, which I do not think I have read since I was a boy, is as exciting as ever, and less familiar than it used to be.

Before that, Bishop gives us the siege of Calais, where the Germans had to be distracted and held up if the British Expeditionary Force was to have any chance of being evacuated at Dunkirk.

What a mixture of fear, confusion, incompetence, improvisation and bravery the British performance was. Neave was in charge of a searchlight battery, and most of his men were neither trained as infantry, nor equipped for that role. As he himself later wrote:

“This was my first experience of street fighting and I was acutely frightened. It was difficult to understand how others could remain so collected under fire. Throughout the battle, the noise was so great that if you were more than ten yards away it was impossible to understand what was said to you.”

Bishop notes that at no point does Neave present himself as “anything other than a tiny actor in great events, often confused, frightened and ineffective, but always desperately concerned to do the right thing”.

He is wounded, the bullet passing half an inch from his heart, and is taken prisoner by the Germans as he lies at a regimental aid post in a tunnel under one of the bastions on the ramparts, erected round Calais by Vauban for Louis XIV, which in 1940 formed the main line of defence.

Neave witnessed what he calls “the terrifying ignorance of those conducting this campaign from Whitehall”. This theme runs through the book.

Here is a member of the Establishment, educated like his father and grandfather before him at Eton, who is well aware that authority is only tolerable if it is quite often treated as ridiculous. Bishop is good on Eton, neither unduly impressed nor stupidly contemptuous, and sees the continuity with Neave’s later experiences:

“The boys had a complicated relationship with authority. From the outside, the regime seemed strictly hierarchical…The reality was more subtle and interesting…Like his peers, he enjoyed finding ways to get round irritating restrictions. He also liked to challenge authority when the chance arose and the odds of getting away with it were favourable. It was good for morale, a reminder that those who ruled the school did not have it all their own way…as in prisons, order in school essentially depended on the consent of the inmates.”

Neave himself wrote, while describing his first, unsuccessful attempt to escape from the Germans, that “no one who has not known the pain of imprisonment understands the meaning of Liberty”. Here is a paradox: that to understand freedom you must be deprived of it.

He at length managed to get out of Colditz disguised as a German officer, using his captors’ reverence for authority to outwit them. Looking back on his escape, he called it “the great emotional event of my life”.

Soon after reaching Switzerland, he was recalled to London to help run the escape lines from occupied Europe – the period when he took the code name “Saturday” which is used in the title of this book. He observes that his women agents are every bit as good as the men.

There follows his uninspiring parliamentary career. He knows his stuff, works hard on behalf of his constituents, writes successful books about his wartime adventures, but is no orator, and like many MPs then and now, feels he is under-achieving.

He also says it takes him 20 years to recover from the war, though he knows how fortunate he is to have married Diana Giffard, who like him has worked in intelligence, and who throws herself into political life.

By September 1973 he is losing patience with the Prime Minister, Edward Heath, and confides to his diary:

“Diana and I discussed whether we can stand him much longer. He lacks any idea of how to handle MPs or their wives and has annoyed the country by his irritating habit of telling people how good things are…The country is only going to work for somebody who inspires and leads them, but who is this going to be? Heath has now got everybody on the wrong side.”

Neave already regards Margaret Thatcher as a possible successor – an intuition, or observation, which puts him well ahead of the game. In July 1973, he quotes from Wordsworth’s poem “She Was a Phantom of Delight” when proposing a vote of thanks to Thatcher after she has spoken at a school in his Abingdon constituency.

He had resorted to the same poem in the dedication to Little Cyclone, his book about Andrée de Jongh, one of his most courageous wartime agents. The poem ends:

“A perfect Woman, nobly planned,

To warn, to comfort and command;

And yet a Spirit still, and bright

With something of angelic light.”

In the 1970s, many Tories were still doubtful about having a woman leader. Neave did not share those reservations. He saw that Thatcher might well have what was needed.

He proceeded to run a brilliant campaign for her. All this is described in richer detail in the first volume of Charles Moore’s biography, but Bishop gives a short, lucid account which reminds one of the great uncertainty of this as of most Tory leadership battles.

Edward du Cann, to whom Neave also felt a degree of commitment, had to decide not to stand. Sir Keith Joseph, whom Thatcher had decided to back, had blotted his copybook and retired from the contest.

And Neave had to run a very astute campaign. He was good at divining MPs’ true intentions, he compiled unusually accurate figures, and he did not share them with the wider world.

His experience in intelligence had taught him the folly of giving your enemy a true account of your position. Let the enemy think he knew what you were doing.

So while Heath’s handlers exaggerated his strength, in the final stages of the contest Neave downplayed Thatcher’s chances.

This meant that the many Conservative MPs who were totally fed up with Heath, not least because he had been bloody rude both to them and to their wives, felt they could safely vote against him, without handing victory to Thatcher, about whom a considerable number of them harboured doubts.

The aim of quite a few Conservative MPs was to give Heath a jolt so he would start to behave himself. Big figures like Willie Whitelaw, who felt obliged to remain loyal to Heath, believed they could come in on the second ballot once the incumbent had been wounded.

But to general amazement, Thatcher defeated Heath in the first round by 130 votes to 119, with 16 votes cast for Hugh Fraser. A second round of voting was required, but she was now unstoppable, and on 4th February 1975 she became the new leader.

While others hung back, she and Neave had shown the courage and audacity needed to pull off an implausible victory, beneath the noses of an arrogant hierarchy. It was a feat which recalled his wartime exploits.

Fortune had favoured the brave, and the timing was perfect. Neave, as Bishop says, had grasped the crucial factor, namely that Ted Heath was finished. That factor, and the ability to spot it, are of particular relevance just now.

According to Neave’s family, it was at his request that she made him Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary. Bishop reminds us that the number of deaths among civilians, security forces and paramilitaries peaked in 1972 at 496, and was still 263 in 1973, 303 in 1974 and 267 in 1975: figures which tend to be overlooked by people who regard Brexit as the worst crisis in living memory.

So Neave took on a very tough portfolio. He believed the priority was to smash the IRA, and he said so. He became a target, and took little in the way of security precautions. His London address was in Who’s Who and his car was parked outside.

The terrorists planted a bomb which was designed to go off as he drove uphill, and which on 30th March 1979 inflicted mortal injuries as he left the underground car park at the Commons.

Nobody has been charged with his murder. Bishop, who knows the terrorist beat, has applied under the Freedom of Information Act to get hold of the relevant Home Office and Metropolitan Police files, and has been rebuffed at every turn. The papers will not be released until 2079.

Neave belonged to a generation whose lives were formed in war, but his story, of a man who knew his weaknesses but was determined to do the right thing, has a far wider resonance.

Kemi Badenoch, who was born the year after he was assassinated and is now MP for Saffron Walden, named him as one of her heroes and went on: “The escape from Colditz is I think probably the coolest thing any British politician has ever done.”

The price May is paying for survival is powerlessness

She yesterday achieved the outcome most likely to prop her up – at least for the time being. But Cooper, Letwin and Bercow are waiting in the wings.

Theresa May succeeded yesterday in achieving her aim.  Of the three Brexit outcomes that could have emerged from the EU summit, she has gained the one most likely to meet her core objective – survival as Prime Minister, at least for the moment.  There is not enough time to hold a leadership election before April 12, the deadline now agreed if her deal hasn’t passed the Commons by then.  And there is no sure alternative means of finding a replacement.  A short extension best suits her abiding preoccupation: to hang on.

Of the other two possible outcomes, a long extension would have opened up the time and space for a leadership challenge.  No Deal might have kept her in office for the time being, since the response from her Ministers and Conservative could have been: all hands to the pumps.  But it might not have done – since it would also have created that space and time.  Furthermore, it could have sparked Ministerial resignations, defections to the Independent Group, and a perilous confidence vote.

In a strange kind of way, one can’t help admiring May’s ducking and diving, her evasions, her twists and turns, her deflections, her gnomic silences – the sheer inventiveness and tenacity with which she hangs on. Sometimes, she has threatened no Brexit.  At other times, such as earlier this week, she has threatened No Deal.  On Wednesday, she hurled a bucketful of verbal paraffin over just about every other MP in the House – including her own Parliamentary Party.  Late yesterday, she sought to sponge the oil from their hair and enraged faces, offering words as close to an apology as she is probably capable of speaking.

She has promised that Britain would leave the EU on March 29 over a hundred times.  She has led Tory MPs into the lobbies to vote in principle not to do so.  She has U-turned on a general election in 2017, transition migration, transition extension, putting her deal to the Commons in December, a regulatory border in the Irish Sea: we cannot bear to replicate the list in full.  Her latest about-turn, characteristically implied rather than asserted, is that we may now participate in this spring’s European elections, after all.

So evasive have been her dealings, so profuse her positions, that she was bound sooner or later to stumble across one that would work.  So it proved yesterday.  Like the majority of Conservative MPs, like the National Convention, and like the local Associations which have lined up behind the last, we have always argued that one has to be prepared to walk away from a negotiation to get a result.  The threat of No Deal should always remain on the table.

We believe that May was bluffing when she hinted earlier this week that she was prepared to countenance Britain leaving the EU with No Deal on the date still written into law.  In her elliptical way, she has pushed the idea at pro-Brexit Ministers.  She did the same to EU27 leaders yesterday.  Some of them may not have believed her.  But she seems to have sowed enough doubt to get them collectively to back off.  Emmanuel Macron didn’t veto extension.  (Neither, please note, did Viktor Orban or Matteo Salvini.)

How much more would have been achieved had she played that card at the right time and place – in other words, right at the start of the negotiation!  If Philip Hammond had been moved in the botched 2018 shuffle, as we urged just before it took place.  If a Minister for No Deal had been appointed then (ditto).  If preparations had been ramped up.  That lost chance is a tragedy with a double edge.  For May has not only threatened No Deal late in the day, but is unlikely to be able to do so again.

This is because her tactical win is wrapped in a strategic defeat.  As we write, an extension motion will presumably pass the Commons, perhaps with predominate Labour support.  But her deal is in no position to do so at a third attempt, assuming that the Speaker allows it to be put in the first place.  If it can’t win next week, it won’t be put: that surely is the logic of setting a new deadline, if it doesn’t pass, to April 12.  On paper, the option of No Deal will still exist then.  In practice, it is likely soon to be suffocated.

For with little likelihood of the deal passing; with infuriated Remainers, distrustful Leavers, an alienated Whips Office, and a Chairman of the 1922 Committe who has reportedly told May to go, she is Prime Minister In Name Only.  Yvette Cooper and Oliver Letwin are ready for a third bite of the cherry.  Their bid to take over the negotiation, in effect, failed in January by 23 votes.  A revived push at it from Hilary Benn fell last week by only two. It is very hard to believe that it will not be successful in some form a third time. The motion to revive it is already tabled.

The Speaker will ensure that it gets a fair wind. (His latest commitment to precedent is to revolutionise S024 motions – or so it appears.) The Second Referendum lobby is dropping its pretence of wanting a further vote, and is gradually revealing what has been its real aim all along: revocation.  Letwin/Cooper are more likely to steer MPs towards Customs Union membership and perhaps Single Market membership, too.  The House may not have settled on either by April 12.  But the Commons would then surely vote for another extension.

On second and final thoughts, we apologise for offering certainties, or seeming to.  Anything could happen yet.  Pro-Remain Ministers could quit.  So could Leave Ministers.  The ERG could go on strike, and refuse to vote.  The Whips’ Office could give up any attempt to stop them. Leadership candidates are raising money, announcing teams.  No Deal could somehow slip through the cracks.  But the drift is unmistakable.  May endures.  But the price she is paying for survival is powerlessness.

Sarah Ingham: Why the horror at holding European elections this spring? We should seek and embrace the opportunity.

Far better than a Second Referendum, the poll would offer a benign way of taking the country’s temperature.

Dr Sarah Ingham is a member of Kensington, Chelsea and Fulham Conservative Association.

The Prime Minister was clear in her original request to the European Council for an extension until June 30th that it would not be in the interests of either the UK or the EU to participate in this spring’s elections to the European Parliament.  Yesterday’s agreement holds within it the possibility of a further extension beyond the April and May dates that it established.  Among the reasons that this possibility it is viewed with dismay across the Commons is the prospect of those elections.

Indeed, many ministers seem to view the UK’s possible participation in the poll as so toxic as to be radioactive, shuddering their ‘no thanks’ in an echo of the anti-nuclear power slogan of yesteryear.  Claims are being made, not least by Nadhim Zahawi on Wednesday’s Daily Politics that the participation is the European election would be evidence of ‘political meltdown’ and would ‘unleash forces’. But it would be unfair to single out Zahawi; some of his colleagues have been equally hyperbolic in recent days.

Leaving aside whether whipping up fears about civil unrest only serves to normalise it, is this refusal even to consider allowing UK voters their say in the European elections sensible?

In case MPs haven’t noticed, we are already in the middle of a political meltdown as far as many voters are concerned, . This is in part due to the Prime Minister’s repeated delays in putting her unpalatable Withdrawal Agreement to the test, hoping that unconvinced MPs willbuckle at the 59th minute of the 11 hour.  Being under intense time pressure is no way to buy a bottle of wine, let alone to decide the future of this country for decades to come.

Quite what these ‘forces’ are that might be ‘unleashed’ remains a mystery. The dogs of (civil) war? Or another interview with Brenda of Bristol, who was decidedly unimpressed by the announcement of the 2017 general election?

Over a thousand days on from the referendum, the United Kingdom seems even more split about its future relationship with the EU than it was on June 23rd 2016. Every day, we become a more polarised country, constantly assailed by divisive, shrill discourse – not least because Brexit is used by many as their proxy in the culture war.

It is the Article 50 Extension, not the prospect of British voters’ taking part in the Euro Election, that represents collective political failure in Westminster. As the Government, MPs and civil servants have become bogged down in the Brexit process, voters have become an abstraction, ‘the people’ whose will ‘must be respected’.

The European elections would offer a chance to put voters back in the Brexit process. If nothing else, it would be a benign way of taking the country’s temperature, and finding out the electorate’s views on the Euro-issue three years on from the referendum. It would be the ultimate opinion poll.

The poll would be democracy in action – who can argue with that? – but far less divisive and damaging for the country than a Second EU Refernedum, for which ardent Remainers are still agitating and for which exhausted MPs, unable to reach any agreement, might still opt. And with a far-left Corbyn government not absolutely beyond the realms of possibility, fighting the Euros is infinitely preferable than risking a general election.

In addition, the UK’s participation could surely act like the safety valve on a pressure cooker – a means of allowing voters’ emotions, as well as their opinions, to be vented? All that frustration, disillusion and anger with Westminster could be channelled safely into campaigning and voting. It would move the debate on from contested claims about £350 million a week for the NHS: it could be the start of some healing.

The UK sends 73 MEPs to the European Parliament: they have less influence on daily local life than many district councillors. Turn-out in the EU 2014 Election was 35.6 per cent – not quite the level of engagement shown in Ireland (52.4 per cent) or Belgium (89.4 per cent). It reflects the fact that, five years ago, the EU was hardly the major issue for voters that it has been allowed to become, thanks to choices made by the Cameron and May governments. If there is one election where the Conservatives can afford to take a hit, it’s the election for the European Parliament.

With a 21-month implementation period still on the cards, it might be no bad thing for the UK to continue to have some representation in Strasbourg and Brussels. It might be very much in our interest, if not necessarily the EU’s. Of course, should the Prime Minister’s unloved Withdrawal Agreement be passed, or should the EU refuse to grant an Extension, or should we leave with No Deal, this is all just speculation.

But as they vote meaningfully or indicatively over the coming few days, MPs should at least be open to the idea of giving voters their say in late May. They could perhaps consider that, back in June 2016, the people landed them in this mess: perhaps it’s time for the people, through another exercise in democracy, to start helping them get out of it.

Iain Dale: Zombie May and her Zombie Cabinet

Leadsom seems to be the only one with lead in her pencil. All she needs now is to grow big fat hairy balls.

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and is a commentator for CNN.

Another astonishing week in Brexitland. But I suspect we’ve seen nothing compared to what is to come over the next seven days.

Sadly, we have a political leadership which is wholly unfit to be described that way. We have a Prime Minister who deludes herself that she is showing leadership when in fact she is doing the opposite.

She chairs a Cabinet, but refuses to give it any idea of what she believes, or where she wants to take the country. And we have a Cabinet that is so devoid of bollocks that it allows her to do what she likes without fear of consequence. And she lets them do it. It’s a Zombie Cabinet, led by a Zombie Prime Minister.

Her speech in Number Ten on Wednesday evening was one of the most embarrassing of her premiership, and there have been a fair few to rival it for that particular accolade. It achieved the exact opposite of what she presumably wanted. At times, she even channelled Donald Trump, which was never going to end well.

By trying to pitch the people against Parliament, she did something very dangerous – something I cannot remember any other prime minister doing. The fact that she had already done it that day in Prime Minister’s Questions, and then repeated it seven hours later, made it even worse.

She also achieved something else unique. She alienated many of the MPs she needs to win over to get her third “meaningful vote” through Parliament next week. These include Labour MPs and members of the ERG. It takes a lot to bind those two groups together, but Theresa May achieved it.

I do not understand how that speech ever came to be made. Did none of her advisers raise a hand, and point out the dangers of taking the approach she did?

But in the end, the buck stops with the Prime Minister – she is after all responsible for what comes out of her mouth – but speeches like that go through multiple drafts, and are run past a whole raft of people. Yet no one seemed alert to the downsides and dangers of what she was about to say. Quite incredible.

– – – – – – – – – –

I’ve copped quite lot of criticism for saying that I think May’s leadership has run its course, but I’ve got broad shoulders and people are free to say what they like. Margaret Thatcher inspired me to join the Conservative Party when I was 16. I devoted a large part of my life to promoting the Conservative cause in one form or another. It was my dream to be a Conservative MP, and although I never achieved that aim, I still continued to be an activist for the party until I joined LBC, when it became inappropriate to continue with party political activities.

I believed May was the right choice to succeed David Cameron, to take us to Brexit and conduct negotiations with the EU. I was wrong on both counts. As I said on Any Questions last Friday, this is the most calamitous British government since Lord North lost America. Hyperbole maybe – but not much of an exaggeration, surely.

Brexit means Brexit, and we’re going to make a success of it, she said. Ad nauseum. We will leave on March 29th, she said. Ad nauseum. We’ll be leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union, she said. Ad nauseum.

Well, Theresa May’s form of Brexit does not mean Brexit. At the time of writing, we won’t be leaving on March 29th. If her deal goes through we won’t be fully leaving the Single Market or the Customs Union. It’s all going terribly well, isn’t it?

– – – – – – – – – –

Up until now, I have always thought that were there to be a general election, the Conservatives would win a majority. No longer.

The prospect of a Corbyn government is nearer now than at any time during the last three and a half years. It won’t be that he gets many more votes than he did last time. It will be because Conservative voters stay at home and sit on their hands.

It will be interesting to see what happens in the local elections. Labour’s polling apparently shows that they are not going to do well because people now see them now as the party that backs Remain, and Labour Brexiteers are deserting. We’ll see.

– – – – – – – – – –

Back to the Cabinet. Last week, I wrote in my diary about its supine nature. They’ve been at it again.

On Tuesday, the Cabinet met to discuss what to do about extending Article 50. The Prime Minister asked each of her ministers to give their views on whether we should request a short or a long extension. I’m told that once they have all finished, she said: “Thanks for your comments,” and moved the discussion on to something else.

Not a single one of them apparently raised a hand, and said: “Excuse me, Prime Minister, we’ve given our view, what’s yours?” It was then briefed out that she would be writing to Donald Tusk asking for both a short extension which could be turned into a long one if necessary. The next morning, her entire cabinet was taken by surprise when it emerged she was only asking for a short extension.

This is not Cabinet Government in any meaningful sense. But, given the Prime Minister’s weak political position, it is truly astonishing that the Cabinet continues to allow her to get away with it. Andrea Leadsom seems to be the only one of them with any lead in her pencil at the moment (don’t let that image pollute your mind). Perhaps she will be the one with the big fat hairy balls to tell the Prime Minister, “Enough, and no more”.

Johnny Mercer: Reform the leadership rules. MPs should present members with a final four candidates, not two.

That way we would have a proper contest, focused on the future and the full range of issues. And our hardworking members would have a real choice.

Johnny Mercer is a member of the Defence Select Committee and MP for Plymouth Moor View.

We are in parlous times, and we need to be very careful as we pick our way forward.

Politics, and the country which we serve, is changing faster than we can currently keep up with. Make no mistake, Labour couldn’t give a stuff about our nation, or meeting the challenge of Brexit: a referendum where people voted to leave the European Union, of course, but were actually voting about far more than that as well, and giving a verdict on a political class that they thought had no idea – yet alone cared – what it was like to walk in their shoes. Labour are intent only on destroying our movement, our party; and if we let them, I don’t believe we will be forgiven by my generation who would have to live with the consequences.

So we must keep up with the change. One way we can do that is change the rules for how we choose who guides the next turn of the handle in the evolution of our Conservative movement: how we select our next leader.

Currently, MPs whittle it down to two candidates. This will inevitably lead to a Brexit and a Remain candidate – two issues which most of us cannot wait to move on from. Unholy alliances and promises of greatness to over-looked colleagues will ensure we end up selecting remarkably a similar outcome to what we have in the past.

The problem with that is, it is entirely in the opposite direction from which politics is going. We are a political party seeking a fourth term in office, from a country which is thirsty for real and authentic change. We must change with these times, or be changed by them. I know what option I want us to take.

With two candidates the whole contest will be about Brexit and the far too many of our members who have become frustrated with this all-pervasive process will remain desperately uninspired. What goes for the our Party goes for the country – they had enough of Brexit some time ago, and to see a Conservative leadership process take place on that particular ground would worsen not improve our current situation.

If one contender drops out, it again leaves no option but another coronation, which is not something for which I could personally advocate. For we are built upon our volunteers and activists; they are the pillars upon which our movement is formed. Without them we would not have a Parliamentary Party; we would not have seats like mine. In an age where people are crying out for more democracy not less, aching to ‘take back control’ of their Government and their party, it would now seem an appropriate moment to fast-track a change in the rules, in time for the next contest.

The current parade of grubby deal-making underway among the obvious contenders does not strike me as honourable in the circumstances. Members of Parliament are liable to being ‘bought off’ with promises of implied greatness; alliances are built of convenience over principle. It is in some ways understandable – to fail to prepare is to prepare to fail. But it does not seem right and – crucially – I am not sure it will give us the right answer.

Instead there is a huge opportunity coming shortly to have a genuine and engaging public discussion of what modern Conservatism actually looks like beyond Brexit, and we should take it.

MPs should select down to the last four, not two. Then our membership surely must have their properly weighted say, in a single transferable vote contest. The contest itself would be invigorating for our movement. It would electrify a country crying out for genuine political leadership. It would create an environment for authentic discussion of modern Conservatism.

We would reach out beyond our core vote to a country that longs for something to vote for but cannot currently bring themselves to get involved. Our membership would soar – they would feel like they had a real say, and candidates would be forced to reach out beyond Brexit and define the future, not the past.

Alex Morton: Riots, looting, pillaging, yellow vests. France shows what Britain could face if Brexit is blocked.

A new book argues that the country is divided between a metropolitan elite, which rules for its own advantage – and the rest.

Alex Morton is Director of Policy at the Centre for Policy Studies, and was a member of David Cameron’s Downing Street Policy Unit.

In nine days, we are due to leave the European Union with no deal. Parliament has twice voted down the proposed deal. The Cabinet is divided. Party discipline has broken down.  The Speaker is effectively campaigning for Remain.  And Emmanuel Macron is threatening to veto any extension to Article 50.

Mention of France’s President reminds us of the country he governs – which is apposite, because a new book from France casts light on Britain, and reminds us all what is at stake.

Twilight of the Elites by Christophe Guilluy is a more pessimistic French equivalent of David Goodhart’s The Road to Somewhere. Written in 2016, before the country was wracked by riots, protests and violence, it argues that France is suffering from a fatal – maybe terminal – division between the people and elites.

The failure of the French elite

Guilluy, a geographer, argues that his country has seen:

  • Social dislocation and unhappiness.
  • Economic stagnation.
  • A rise in insecurity in every level – both economic in terms of ownership, pensions, jobs, but also cultural in terms of rapid ethnic and cultural change, terror attacks, and crime.

The ruling class of France has failed to create a stable and prosperous country, and has morphed into an Establishment whose rule is difficult to justify on conventional metrics of success.

His main charge against this elite – which may have a familiar ring to British ears – is their hypocrisy. Their bastion, Paris, lectures the rest of the country on being open, yet is a city where the average square metre in housing costs more than 8,000 euros, way beyond most people’s budgets.

He also hits out at France’s equality agenda, arguing that it is designed to allow the children of the rich, whatever their gender, to retain control while feeling virtuous about the open society. There is far less attention paid to slowing social mobility beyond those educated at elite universities, or to the stagnant economy.

This elite condemn those who express concerns over immigration or multiculturalism – yet even more than in Britain, they themselves live far away from areas of low skill migration, Parisian suburbs like Aubervilliers and La Courneuve where nearly eight in ten children are from a migrant background. Even where the elite and migrants live close to each other, they are educated separately.

The divide between metropolis and periphery

Guilluy’s most explosive argument is that all this is a deliberate strategy, created to ignore the more important divide between the 40 per cent living in the largest metropolitan areas and the 60 per cent living in what he terms the periphery, the France of rural areas and small cities, towns and villages.

The political system, he claims, is designed to ignore the fact that the country’s limited economic gains accrue to the top 10 to 20 percent within the large metropolitan areas. This allows the elite to effectively pretend that the large cities are France, and France is the large cities – so communities that are poor, white, old, outside major urban areas, or any combination thereof, simply do not exist.

However, even within the metropolitan areas, Guilluy notes there is increasing marginalisation for those who do not have the right connections, attend the right schools, or capture one of the professional jobs in the city’s core. He notes for all the talk of diversity, those who live in the “sensitive urban zones” – predominantly poor migrants alongside the remains of the white working class – were hit most by the global financial crisis, with unemployment rising in these areas from 16.7 per cent to 24.2 per cent, compared to 7.6 per cent to 9.1 per cent across urban areas as a whole. He also notes that the last thing those who live in these areas, whether white working class or the children of previous migrants, want or benefit from is more migration.

The collapse of the old politics

The result of all this is an incompetent, self-selecting, hereditary and deeply out-of-touch ruling class which is unable to cope with the political challenges France faces. The last desperate claim of those in charge is that they are all that stand between power and the bogeyman of the National Front. Yet Guilluy argues that it is their own failures that have created both the National Front and rising Islamism among alienated migrant youth.

Guilluy does not believe this argument will be enough to save the system, and events appear to be vindicating him. He published his book in 2016, before the old parties of left and right came a humiliated third and fifth in the 2017 Presidential elections, beaten by Macron, Le Pen, and in the case of the Left, by a Corbynite socialist. The most recent polls for 2022 have Le Pen scoring in the mid-forties.

The book cites polling showing that nearly nine out of ten French people believe both that government takes no interest in people like them, and politicians are only concerned with their own advantage. He notes that those who rail against divisive politics are themselves prone to portraying those on the periphery as bigoted and stupid, or to pitting different groups against each other along gender or racial lines.

The lesson for Britain

Brexit has been a huge political convulsion. But it is striking – in comparison to France and other European countries – that the turmoil has not spilled out on to the streets. In France, the Champs-Elysées has been looted and pillaged. Thousands of demonstrators in their yellow vests regularly confront the security forces, and each other. The far right are on the march.

The coming days and weeks in Britain are sure to be dramatic. And probably traumatic.

Britain’s elites need to bear in mind the lessons from France. Almost all of the points Guilluy makes about France could arguably be applied here too. There is a disconnection between the metropolis and periphery – or in our case, between London and the affluent university towns and the rest. And our Establishment is not exactly performing brilliantly under pressure. Brexit is complex but not impossible and people expect politicians to solve complex problems.

Abandoning or reversing Brexit would be the best possible way to make all of these problems worse – to confirm to the millions on Britain’s periphery that they do not matter. And to push us down the dangerous path that France appears to be locked into.