Andrew Gimson’s Commons sketch: Tory MPs fear Bercow is betraying Brexit

The anger expressed on the Conservative benches reflected the anger felt in many a humble home.

Tory MPs came back from Christmas feeling ready to be cross. One could see it in their grumpy faces as they listened to Theresa May, but it was the Speaker, John Bercow, who fanned their anger into a roaring conflagration which took an hour to subside.

It is worth dwelling for a moment on May herself. The Prime Minister looks more and more like a poker player who has been dealt some lousy cards and cannot maintain the pretence that she is feeling confident.

When Jeremy Corbyn asked her if any changes she obtains in Brussels will “be made to the legally binding Withdrawal Agreement itself”, there was a slight tremor in her voice as she began her reply.

And when he remarked that he didn’t hear the words “legal changes to the document” from the Prime Minister, her voice rose as she attempted to retort: “I’ve made it clear to the Honourable Gentleman…”

Nor did those beside and behind her look any more sure of themselves. They too were pale and gloomy. Even Boris Johnson, sitting with his arms folded at the far end of the Chamber, looked pale and gloomy, and thinner than he was.

If Corbyn had any sense, he would have gone on asking, with increasing brevity, about legal changes to the document, for the subject plainly rattled her. But he and his handlers are under the illusion that they should try to ask a number of different questions, instead of exposing the nullity of her answers by pressing again and again on her weakest point.

Her performance did nothing to improve the morale of Tory MPs, but instead reminded them that she is no use as a saleswoman. The more she told MPs the answer is to vote for her deal, the less enamoured of her deal the House felt.

Ken Clarke, the Father of the House, irritated his Tory colleagues by telling May she “has to be flexible on some things”, and asking her to consider delaying or revoking Article 50. That produced angry cries of “No”.

As soon as PMQs ended, Tory Eurosceptics directed a stream of furious points of order at the Speaker for selecting Dominic Grieve’s amendment while rejecting theirs. Mark Francois was beside himself with rage as he accused Bercow of overturning a motion of the House.

Clarke counter-attacked by suggesting that people like Francois “who are getting somewhat over-excited” should perhaps “don a yellow jacket and go outside”.

The Chief Whip, Julian Smith, was on his knee talking to the Prime Minister. He appears to have lost some more of his hair. Perhaps he tore it out while trying to find a way through for her deal.

Stephen Doughty, one of the Labour supporters of the Grieve amendment, accused the Chief Whip of “feverishly briefing journalists in a calculated attempt to undermine” the Speaker’s judgment.

Andrea Leadsom, the Leader of the House and no friend of Bercow, suggested he should publish the advice he received from the Commons clerks. For the general view on the Tory benches was that he had defied that advice.

Bercow naturally declined to do this. There were angry cries of “Publish it!” To describe the Tories as incandescent with rage would be no exaggeration. They feared the Speaker was betraying Brexit by bending the rules in order to allow the Remainers to take back control.

Iain Duncan Smith and others suggested that by allowing the Grieve amendment, Bercow had broken with precedent. The Speaker replied: “I understand the importance of precedent. But…if we were guided only by precedent…nothing in our procedure would ever change.”

He added that he was invariably determined “to stand up for the rights of the House of Commons”. Angela Eagle, from the Labour benches, crowed that “the House of Commons is taking back control”.

Labour and the Scots Nats loved seeing the Tories so confounded, and at times burst out clapping.

Andrew Percy, from the Tory benches, declared that “a procedural stitch-up” was taking place. Crispin Blunt said he was driven to the “uncomfortable conclusion” that among his Tory colleagues there was now “an unshakeable conviction that the referee of our affairs is no longer neutral”.

When the umpire is no longer regarded as neutral, it becomes difficult to accept his decisions as final.

Bercow declared: “I have always done my conscientious best.” There was an odd echo here of Tony Blair after the Iraq War, insisting he had always acted in good faith.

Adam Holloway asked in a fury about the pro-EU sticker in the Speaker’s car. Bercow retorted that the sticker “happens to be affixed to the windscreen of my wife’s car”, and he does not regard her as his chattel.

Perhaps it is a good thing to have all this fear of betrayal bursting out in the Chamber, for it reflects the fear of betrayal found in many a humble home. One cannot pretend it is edifying, but it is representative of the wider nation.

My apologies for filing this sketch late. The computer I was using in the press gallery, perhaps sensing the psychological disturbance sweeping through Westminster, suddenly and irrevocably stopped working.

Universal Credit. Noble aim, thorny problems – and Rudd’s decision. If the scheme is to work properly, it must be paid for.

If you appoint Duncan Smith to the post she now holds, as Cameron did in 2010, it follows that you must fund his plan fully.

ConservativeHome spoke yesterday to Conservative MPs in marginal seats about Universal Credit.  One switched-on Parliamentarian told us that food banks in his seat hate the new scheme and that job coaches love it.  He said that the former claim it pushes people into debt, homelessness and destitution.  And the latter counter that makes it easier for them to help benefit claimants move into work and get better-paid jobs.

Both perceptions can reflect reality.  It was never going to be easy to make a major change to the system which is reliant on people reporting changes to their income in real time, complete with new computer systems to enable this to happen.  This helps to explain why Universal Credit, originally intended to be fully operational by 2017, will now not be so until 2023.  The payment poses particular challenges for claimaints migrating to it from what Ministers call the legacy system.  Last autumn, the Resolution Foundation calculated that 2.2 million families were expected to gain under the system and 3.2 million to lose, with single parents especially adversely affected.

The Government has chucked transitional relief at Universal Credit.  Ministers argue that claimants can take on more work to increase their income.  Philip Hammond announced more support and an increase in work allowances in last autums’s Budget.  But the bottom line is that too many people are being paid late: last summer, the National Audit Office said that it a fifth of those expecting their first full payment were in this position.

A Commons vote is due on transferring three million claimants from the old to the new system.  David Cameron had a small majority, but his Government was vulnerable to defeat on welfare-related and many other issues: remember George Osborne’s U-turn on planned changes to tax credits.  Theresa May has no majority at all.  A handful of backbench protesters could sink the change.  Amber Rudd thus had little alternative but to postpone the vote, and has duly done so.  She will now seek Parliamentary approval for a pilot plan that transfers just 10,000 people from the old to the new system.

The operation of Universal Credit is complex, but the politics are simple – or straightforward, at any rate.  The Universal Credit system is the brainchild of Iain Duncan Smith’s work in opposition at the Centre for Social Justice.  It has a visionary aim: to roll six benefits into one, make the system more simple and flexible, and improve incentives to work.  Writing on this site last autumn, Alok Sharma, the Employment Minister, complained of three cliff-edges in the legacy system that deter claimants from seeking work, and reported that 86 per cent of people on Universal Credit are actively looking to increase their hours, compared to just 35 per cent of people on Jobseekers Allowance.

If you are going to appoint Duncan Smith as Work and Pensions Secretary, as Cameron did in 2010, you cannot do so without allowing him the room to implement his scheme.  And if you are going to do so, it follows that the Treasury must take the funding consequences on the chin.  It didn’t.  Think back to that Osborne tax credits U-turn.  The reason for Duncan Smith’s resignation in 2016 was precisely that the then Chancellor was not prepared also to reverse planned savings to disability benefits (which in turn impacted upon Universal Credit).

Amber Rudd is the fifth Secretary of State for Work of Pensions to hold the post since he left – a turnover rate of about one every six months.  She has started by doing what every new Cabinet Minister should do if confronted by a policy problem: namely, to promise that she will listen and learn.  There is more to this than the usual bromides.  Rudd is particularly sensitive to the position of women in the system.  She will campaign for more money: Downing Street’s Brexit-driven weakness may thus well be Universal Credit’s gain.  That she is on broadly the same wavelength as the Chancellor over EU policy can’t do her cause any harm.

Writing on ConservativeHome last autumn, Tom Clogherty of the Centre for Policy Studies identified what new money could do to help realise Duncan Smith’s goal: a report from the think-tank, he said, “advocates bold action on Universal Credit, suggesting that the taper – the rate at which benefits are withdrawn against each pound of post-tax earnings over any work allowance – should be cut from 63p to 50p. This would give a huge boost to the lowest earners, while also giving them a strong incentive to increase their hours and make progress in the workplace”.

Separately, senior backbenchers and former ministers are piling on pressure for an end to the benefits freeze.  A coalition of five former Secretaries of State, ranging from Nicky Morgan to David Davis, made the case last year.  Davis said that the freeze contradicts “the basic Tory notion of having a robust safety net and an effective ladder out of poverty.”  Rudd can be expected to make the same case in private.  Whatever your take, one thing is certain.  If Universal Credit is to be introduced in the first place, it must be paid for.

Profile: David Lidington – the Tory loyalist diverging from his leader over Brexit. And now tipped as her successor.

At the heart of May’s operation, this staunch Conservative is now mulling potential ways to a second referendum with Labour MPs.

“Lidington is one of the guilty men in this process.” These words, spoken by Iain Duncan Smith, leaped from the pages of yesterday’s Sunday Times.

It is astonishing, and until recently would have been inconceivable, to hear such abuse, flung anonymously in 1940 against Neville Chamberlain and other supporters of appeasement (Michael Foot was one of the three authors), directed by a fellow Conservative MP at the loyal, amiable, capable, self-effacing and unmemorable David Lidington.

Keith Simpson, who has known Lidington since they worked as ministerial advisers in the late 1980s, said of him this weekend: “I don’t think he’s got an enemy in the House of Commons.”

But Lidington, a Remainer who is conventionally described as “Deputy Prime Minister in all but name”, now finds himself suspected, by some Eurosceptics, of colluding with Labour MPs to try to bring about a second EU referendum.

This site yesterday warned of the danger of an “SDP Mark Two” being built from the top down, and remarked of Lidington that “for such a lifelong Conservative – a Tory to his bones – to collude in discussing realignment [with Labour MPs] would surely be several steps too far”.

Lidington responded to the coverage of him in the Sunday press by tweeting, “I listen to views of MPs on all sides of EU debate”, and referring to the opposition he expressed in the Commons last Tuesday to a second referendum.

And one of his Cabinet colleagues yesterday afternoon remarked to ConHome that if Duncan Smith were Prime Minister, Lidington, “a quintessential party loyalist”, would work as hard as him as for any other Conservative leader.

Helping the present Prime Minister get her deal through the Commons entails finding out how Labour MPs might vote, being told by some of them that they yearn for a second referendum, and then putting it to them that since they are not going to get one, they would surely prefer to vote for May’s Withdrawal Agreement rather than allow Britain to crash out of the EU with no deal.

Or as Lidington’s ministerial colleague put it:

“He is not a plotter. He would go to hell and explain to Satan that dominion over all creation is not on offer, and in the absence of that, could we please come to a satisfactory arrangement on the future of Dr Faustus.”

But May’s Cabinet is so divided that any talks held out of the public eye are in danger of being seen as suspicious. A former colleague says of Lidington:

“I did notice how even before Chequers in July he was doing a lot of flying around Europe without the knowledge of Boris Johnson or David Davis.”

Lidington accumulated a detailed knowledge of other European capitals while serving as Minister for Europe from 2010-16, a post he had also shadowed in Opposition. This is one of many reasons why he is so valuable to May. He knows the European issue inside out, and like her is a Remainer who has publicly accepted the referendum result.

This should not, however, be allowed to define his whole identity as a politician. He is a One Nation Tory, a devout Anglican (though born a Congregationalist) who is a man of moral seriousness. In his maiden speech, he quoted Edward Gibbon’s damning verdict on one of his best-known predecessors, John Wilkes:

“A thorough profligate in principle as in practice … His life stained with every vice and his conversation full of blasphemy and bawdy.”

No praise here for Wilkes as “the father of civil liberty” (as Boris Johnson wrote in an admiring essay). Lidington is the sort of Tory who turns out to have rather stern views, as he showed during the debate on the legalisation of same-sex marriage:

“I think that marriage is such an important institution in our society that its definition should not be altered without an extremely compelling case for doing so. The Bill’s supporters have argued that the definition of marriage has changed over the years, citing the institution of civil marriage in the nineteenth century and changes to the age at which a person may legally marry. But that is to ignore the fact that whatever changes have been made, the essential nature of marriage in this country and in Europe as a whole has been as a public institution that binds together one man and one woman, exclusively and permanently. Its purpose is not only to provide mutual love and commitment but also for the procreation and care of children.”

Born in 1956, the same year as the Prime Minister, he was educated at Haberdashers’ Aske’s School and at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, where he read history, chaired Cambridge University Conservative Association and in 1979 demonstrated his keen but wholesome competitive spirit by captaining the team from Sidney Sussex which won University Challenge.

This feat he repeated in 2002, when he led Sidney Sussex to victory in the “champion of champions” contest held to mark the 40th anniversary of the programme.

He had the intellect required for an academic career, and in 1988 received his doctorate for a thesis on “The enforcement of the penal statutes at the court of the Exchequer c.1558 – c.1576”.

But instead he entered politics, serving in the late 1980s as an adviser to Douglas Hurd at both the Home Office and the Foreign Office. At the 1987 general election he stood and lost in Vauxhall, and in 1992 he won the seat, Aylesbury, for which he still sits. He was able recently to tell his ministerial colleagues that unlike them, he was an MP at the time of Black Wednesday, and they could not have that level of chaos again, which – by implication – they would have in the event of no deal.

From 1994 Lidington served as Parliamentary Private Secretary to Michael Howard, and from 1997 in the same capacity for William Hague. He shadowed various posts, including Northern Ireland (in which he has maintained a close interest), before being demoted by Cameron to the role of Foreign Affairs spokesman, outside the shadow Cabinet, followed by the long stint as Europe Minister.

The present Prime Minister is appreciative of merit never fully recognised by the Cameroons, and promoted Lidington to be Leader of the House and then Justice Secretary, before bringing him to Number Ten at the start of this year, when her friend Damian Green was forced to resign and Lidington took over as Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, though not as First Secretary of State.

“I am the man who stands on the stage spinning plates on the top of poles,” Lidington recently told The Spectator. “Every now and then the PM gives me another plate and I have to keep that going as well.”

In the same interview, given at the end of September, he supplied a curiously unclear answer when asked if he wants her to carry on: “She will decide, in due course, what she wants to do. But now, she is focusing on the task in hand.”

He chairs a large number of Cabinet committees, belongs to even more, and deputises for the Prime Minister in the Commons. When she is performing there, he can usually be seen on the left-hand side of the picture, looking cheerfully supportive, though in the last week or two he has appeared markedly less perky.

He has an impressive grasp of the issues in his constituency, is respected by his parliamentary neighbours, who include the Speaker, John Bercow, and is married to Helen, a primary school teacher. They have four grown-up sons.

Although Lidington is unknown to the wider public, and has betrayed no sign of charismatic tendencies, he is liked and trusted by his fellow Tory MPs. As Simpson observes, Lidington belongs to the Breakfast Club of Tories who gather each morning in the Members’ Tea Room, where he can be found fortifying himself with poached eggs on granary toast.

In Simpson’s words, “It’s like an RAF officers’ mess – no larks’ tongues in aspic for us.” There could be few better places to take the temperature of the parliamentary party, while showing one is without side. Regular attenders include Andrew Selous, Alec Shelbrooke, Gavin Williamson, Mark Spencer and two or three of the Scottish Tory MPs. Steve Barclay often comes in to get a coffee and chats for ten minutes.

According to The Times, Lidington belongs to a group of five Cabinet ministers – the others are Amber Rudd, Philip Hammond, David Gauke and Greg Clark – who lean “reluctantly” towards a second referendum if all other options are exhausted.

But despite the convulsions of the last 48 hours, he remains a highly respected figure, about whom encouraging as well as discouraging things are said. In Saturday’s Daily Mail, Peter Oborne ran through the runners and riders for the succession to May, before backing a complete outsider as far as the bookies are concerned (though in political terms, a complete insider):

“However, I believe that another Tory — one who shuns the limelight — is the favourite to be the next PM. I am referring to David Lidington.”

Five years on, cutting the spare room subsidy has been vindicated

Work has been rewarded. Predictions of rent arrears increasing have been proved false. The number of households penalised has fallen from 660,000 to 381,000.

In 2013, Margaret Thatcher and Nelson Mandela died. Prince George was born. Peter Capaldi became Doctor Who. Germany won the World Cup, Sam Bailey won X Factor, and Eleanor Cotton won the Booker Prize. Frozen was released at the cinema. Pharrell Williams was topping the hit parade.

That same year, a welfare reform was introduced, officially called the Under Occupancy Penalty. It changed the rules for those in social housing with a spare bedroom and whose rent was paid by Housing Benefit. The cut was an average of £15 a week – although it was only applied to those of working age. Critics of the policy termed it the “Bedroom Tax”. I called it “cutting the spare room subsidy”. David Cameron picked up on my phrase at Prime Minister’s Question when challenged on the policy by Ed Miliband. Language matters and much of the debate was taken up with the proper label for the policy. The Left won the linguistic battle. While the term “Bedroom Tax” was thoroughly dishonest, it was strong and pithy enough to resonate. More generally, opponents of the policy got plenty of coverage for individual cases where the policy was portrayed as causing hardship, for instance for the disabled. Often these reports turned out to be misleading, but by then the TV crews had moved on.

The point was that the change was about fairness. Why should a family in overcrowded conditions in the private rented sector, subsidise a household in social housing, which has a spare room? It was also about prompting a change in behaviour. The family with a spare room that faced a shortfall in paying the rent could swap with an overcrowded household. They could take in a lodger. That has sometimes happened. But the main impact has been to reward work. By taking a job, or increasing the number of hours worked, many have recouped the loss in Housing Benefit. Or come off Housing Benefit altogether.

A measure of the success of the policy is that the number of households being affected has fallen sharply. When it was introduced 660,000 households had their benefits cut. The latest figures show that has fallen to 381,000.

What about rent arrears? The claim was made that they would increase. That claim has proved false.

The Home and Communities Agency collect some figures from housing associations. In 2009/10, when Ed Miliband was sitting around the cabinet table, housing associations evicted 7,535 tenants for rent arrears. In the year ending 31st March 2018 it was 6,914.

So far as council tenants are concerned the latest returns from local authorities state:

“In 2016-17 local authorities reported that 5,800 evictions were carried out by court bailiffs, a decrease of ten per cent compared to 2015-16.”

For 2012/13 the figure was 6,140. Not all evictions are for rent arrears, of course. But it is the principal cause. In any case, rent arrears as a percentage of the total rent due has also fallen. For 2016/17, the latest figure available, it was 4.2 per cent. For 2012/13, before the spare room subsidy cut came in, it was 4.6 per cent.

Another measurement is by the English Housing Survey. This only included a “social rented sector report” in 2014/15. In that year it found that 14.1 per cent of tenants in social housing said they were in arrears with their rent. The most recent figures, for 2016/17, found that had fallen to 12.1 per cent.

Perhaps given all these figures, it is not surprising the issue has lost political “traction”. The BBC has diminished the airtime it gives to indignant attacks on the policy. The Labour Party has given up organising angry demos about it.

The upshot is that the policy has been vindicated. It has rewarded work and as a result it has contributed to a reduction to those stuck on welfare. The policy is fair to the taxpayer and those who are in overcrowded conditions.

Yes, yes. I know what you are going to say: “Post hoc, ergo propter hoc.” I don’t claim that all the reduction in welfare dependency has due to the cut in spare room subsidy. But I do think it is overwhelmingly likely that it helped.

Will any of its critics offer a word of contrition? Will any correction be given by those from the charitable and housing “sectors” who gave such emphatic predictions that rent arrears would increase? Perhaps some of the Labour MPs who cast aspersions on the morality of Iain Duncan Smith will write to him to apologise for questioning his motives? Don’t hold your breath…

Andrew Gimson’s Commons sketch: May’s thin red lines grow thinner, yet she refuses to surrender

And her enemies are divided: can the No Dealers and the People’s Voters combine to defeat her?

“Hard pounding this, gentlemen,” one of Theresa May’s predecessors once said. “Let us see who can pound longest.”

That was the Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo, and the same grim spectacle is now unfolding in parliamentary form, as befits a great constitutional struggle with an uncertain outcome.

What a bombardment the Prime Minister endured, and as Jacob Rees-Mogg observed, this is the third time in ten days she has done so.

No wonder the combatants look grimmer and more strained than they did at the outset of the battle. It has developed into a war of attrition, in which the Prime Minister is said by expert judges to lack the numbers to prevail, yet in which she refuses to admit defeat.

May’s thin red lines grow thinner, indeed have faded, many of her adversaries would say, into shades of pink so faint they have become indistinguishable from the white flag of surrender which they confidently expect to see raised.

Yet May will not surrender. She continues to proclaim that hers is the only strategy which will work: “I can say to the House with absolute certainty that there is not a better deal available.”

Jeremy Corbyn observed, with some justice, that “the silence from most of the rest of the Cabinet is telling”. It is far from clear that her colleagues are standing shoulder to shoulder with her.

And what a weight of former Cabinet ministers opposed her from her own benches, Iain Duncan Smith, David Davis, Boris Johnson, John Redwood, Michael Fallon and Owen Paterson among them.

But although these are heavy guns to face, none of them seemed, at least to this observer, to score a direct hit. When the debris fell back to earth and the smoke cleared, there she still was, still insisting on her compromise, even though, as Fallon objected, it is a “huge gamble” which guarantees no one what they want.

“In the Prime Minister’s lexicon,” Angela Eagle (Lab, Wallasey) asked, “is smooth and orderly the new strong and stable?”

That shot landed, for as the nation saw during the general election, May is useless at responding to attacks on her addiction to pitifully banal forms of words.

But this is not a general election, and in the present campaign she has the strength of her weakness, which is that her banalities may start to drive her critics to distraction. Mark Francois, deputy chairman of the European Reform Group, warned that the Spanish are after Gibraltar and the French are after our fish, and asserted that May’s deal “will never get through, and even if it did, which it won’t…”

In other words, neither he nor anyone else knows for certain whether she will get her proposed deal through the Commons. It looks bad for her at the moment, and her own supporters this afternoon seemed glummer than they did.

But the great and minor guns which opened up against her were far from united. Can the No Dealers make common cause with the People’s Voters (who incidentally are starting to become insufferably tedious in their own special way) so as to defeat the Prime Minister, or when it comes to it on 11th December, will they be too frightened of playing into each other’s hands?

“Two more weeks of this,” one of my colleagues in the Commons press gallery groaned. Hard pounding, and we shall see who can pound longest.

WATCH: Duncan Smith – “Far too much has been given to the European Union”

“What I saw, over the last week and a half to two weeks, makes it very, very difficult for someone like me to support this deal.”

Andrew Gimson’s PMQs sketch: May seems to think she has a deal she can sell

But although the Prime Minister looked calm, Nigel Dodds, parliamentary leader of the DUP, did not.

What a curious PMQs. The Prime Minister did not look worried. Nor did she look unworried in the manner of someone who knows the game is over and is demob happy.

Theresa May seemed to think things are going rather well, and that she will be able to sell her EU deal, because it exceeds people’s low expectations, and because voting it down would be worse.

Seema Kennedy, her Parliamentary Private Secretary, who sits behind her at PMQs with a file of papers and makes notes, looked as keen and helpful as ever, and as convinced as ever that the team effort to support the Prime Minister is worthwhile.

Nigel Dodds, Commons leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, looked tense and uncomfortable, his leg jiggling up and down in a manner suggestive of extreme concern. To look at him, one would say either that he has not yet managed to make up his mind, or else that he expects to have to take a course of action – backing the Prime Minister? –  which is going to cause him and his friends a great deal of pain.

When Jeremy Corbyn asserted, in the course of a random series of pre-scripted questions which failed to ruffle the Prime Minister’s composure, that we shall have “less say over our laws”. Dodds uttered a low “Hear, hear”. He is not a happy man.

But the Tory benches, which were full, did not convey the same sense of tension. If a revolution is brewing there, it was well concealed. Peter Bone (Con, Wellingborough) told her “you are not delivering the Brexit people voted for”, and claimed her draft deal will “lose the support of many Tory MPs and millions of voters across the country”.

Bone may be right, yet there was no feeling in the Chamber that he was articulating what many Tory MPs think. This was not a Norway debate, with May as a latter-day Neville Chamberlain completing misjudging the mood of the House.

Kenneth Clarke, the Father of the House, wanted to be assured that instead of the “swirl of rumours” about the deal, if it is agreed by the Cabinet, a statement about it will very soon be made to the House of Commons, thus re-establishing parliamentary sovereignty.

He added: “I wish the Prime Minister well in obtaining a parliamentary majority for some course of action in the future which is in the national interest” – a wonderfully vague formula, which rather implied that in his view, the deal may require modification.

Iain Duncan Smith, a key Brexiteer, was called, but said he was “not going to be asking about Brexit…for now.” He instead asked about Fixed Odds Betting Terminals. The Prime Minister said the Culture Secretary would be updating the House on that question later today.

Julia Lopez (Con, Hornchurch and Upminster) asked whether this deal with the EU would prevent the UK from doing free-trade deals with other countries, as the New Zealander, Sir Lockwood Smith, has warned.

May responded in her blandest tone that this is not the case and “we will have an independent trade policy”.

The Prime Minister did not look as if she expected to be confronted, within hours, by Cabinet resignations and an avalanche of protests which will sweep her out of office. She seemed to think she has got a deal she can sell. We shall quite soon know whether she is deluding herself.

Sir David Cameron-Hume. In time, why not?

He may eventually be able to construct a case for return which, while tortuous, would not be beyond the reach of his powers of persuasion.

David Cameron is in a horrible bind as he perseveres with writing his memoirs.  Remainers boo him for losing the EU referendum.  And Leavers don’t cheer him for calling it – because he was on the wrong side, as they see it, and oversaw a Project Fear campaign whose apocalyptic predictions were swiftly disproved.  He cannot believe that the decision to call the poll which, in effect, pitched him out of Downing Street was the right one.  But he must go on claiming that he was correct to give the British people the choice: to come clean would be an admission of failure.  Cameron has escaped from many a trap in his time, but this one holds him fast.

Furthermore, he surely can’t return to Parliament, at least for the moment.  The Brexit negotiation is arduous, and he would be blamed, not without reason, for failing to make preparations for leaving.  If, in the short-term, Brexit is turbulent, because it comes with an acrimonious and disruptive No Deal, he would be held responsible for harm.  If, on the other hand, the economy manages just fine – either because there is a deal, or because No Deal works out better than some expect – he would scarcely be able to take the credit.  So for the moment he has little option but to plug away at his book, while actors knock him for relaxing in France “with his trotters up”.

The medium-term could  be different.  Cameron is young enough to be able to look forward to it (he is 52), and the passing of time is a wonderful thing.  If Brexit turns out well and the Conservatives win in 2022, he would be able to construct a case which, while tortuous, might not be beyond the reach of his powers of persuasion.  Of course he didn’t want Britain to leave the EU but, look, the country’s steaming ahead now and, you know, that wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t had the courage to call that referendum – whatever the cost to himself.

That would be the first part of his pitch.  We appreciate that it is less than full and frank.  But the second part would be less easy to dismiss – namely, that he still has something to offer, and wants to put something back in.  Having urged Cameron not to leave the Commons, we are scarcely in a position to argue that he shouldn’t return.  He ran a government which, for all its ups and downs, ground the deficit downwards and delivered a remarkable run of public service reform.  Think Iain Duncan Smith.  Think Michael Gove.  Think Francis Maude’s work in Whitehall, or Steve Hilton’s drive for transparency.  For all that, Cameron must ultimately take the credit.

If Cameron really does want to become Foreign Secretary, he will be well aware that there is a precedent – well, of sorts.  Alec Douglas-Home, having been succeeded as Conservative leader by Ted Heath, went on to serve him as Foreign Secretary from 1970 to 1974.  He had left the Lords because it wasn’t believed practicable to run the country from the Upper House, and we can’t quite see the Foreign Office being run from it in this day and age, either.  So the Commons it would be.  No Association would have him, some will say.  We disagree. He would persuade his way in somewhere, somehow.  The chance to select a former Prime Minister would be irresistible.