Few would disagree with the observation that there has been a lull of late in the battle for Brexit. Given the overriding importance of the outcome it is reasonable to ask why this should be so.
The lull may be due in part to the plethora of alternative major newsworthy issues currently on the go. The Salisbury poisonings, the war in Syria, the perceived need to ensure that the female of the species is paid the same as the male of the species for the same work, the pros and cons of the case for more bobbies on the beat to combat violent crime, the exuberant activities of Mr Trump at work and at leisure, the immigration issue neatly summarised by Private Eye as “Windrush to Bum‘s Rush,” the black spot handed to Sir Martin “Shortie” Sorrell by his disgruntled colleagues – these and many more compete with Brexit for the attention of Mrs May and her colleagues.
It is also worth noting that the lull may be more apparent than real in that the location of the debate between the EU and the UK has shifted from the glare of the cameras to rather more secluded venues to allow the principal negotiators to haggle over the small print.
It would seem that the pleasantries exchanged in recent weeks have now given way to what we old fashioned manager johnnies would call the nitty gritty where the devil will be in the detail.
The potential influence of the dissenters – from all sides of the house – – from the policies of their own parties is strengthened by the all pervasive sense of confusion and uncertainty surrounding Brexit.
“In the land of the blind the one eyed man is king.” (Equally the one eyed woman is queen. Holdenforth does not do inequality.)
In this blog I will examine the possible contribution to the Brexit campaign of the dissenters in the House of Commons, those pains in the arse to party managers and docile colleagues alike, and I look at how the outcome of the Brexit drama may well be significantly influenced by the contribution of those traditional bit players and noises off – the awkward squad whose members are, for a wide variety of reasons, at odds with their respective parties.
Who are the key players – the main stakeholders – in the unfolding Brexit drama and where do they stand?
Firstly, the EU negotiating team. Their aim will be to drive the hardest possible bargain in order to make it clear, very clear, to any other would be leavers that leaving, far from being a soft option, will be the political equivalent of the actions of sharpshooters who take careful aim before shooting themselves in the foot.
The motto of the EU negotiating team and their backers towards the UK might be succinctly expressed as “If that is the way that they want it, then that is the way that they can have it and that is the way that they will have it”.
“So they [the Government] go on in strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent.”
Winston Churchill, From Hansard, November 12, 1936
Might there be parallels between the behaviour of Mr Baldwin and his government in 1936 and the behaviour of Mrs May and her government in 2018?
Let me allow Mr Alex Massie, occasional columnist for The Times, to have his say.
“Its time for May to stop marching in circles”
Alex Massie, The Times, April 23, 2018
I was preparing to catalogue the formidable array of problems facing Mrs May on the Brexit front when I read the excellent column by Mr Massie in the Times on April 23. He listed not only the problems that I had intended to mention but quite a few others that had escaped me.
None of the obstacles listed by Mr Massie are trivial and this makes any attempt to compress them tricky. However Holdenforth does not seek to avoid problems so herewith my selections from the Massie column together with my comments.
“Picture the scene deep inside the Downing Street bunker. There sits Mrs May .. Surrounded by her closet advisors as they ‘war game’ the latest developments in the Great Brexit War” (Holdenforth – We are with you so far, Mr Massie.)
“’Give me options’ you imagine the prime minister demanding. But there are no good options, merely different kinds of difficulty.” (Nicely put, AM.)
“The Sunday Times reported yesterday that that the PM accepts, however reluctantly, that Britain may yet have to remain within the EU customs union if it is to achieve its objectives elsewhere.” (What objectives might these be other than that Mrs May clings onto the keys of Number 10?)
“Mrs May is trapped: in office but not in power.” (Spot on, AM.)
“At some point even this prime minister must make a decision. Are her opponents the EU 27 – ” (Yes) “or her own backbenchers” (Yes again)
“The spectre of Moggism hangs over the government.” (Let’s not carried away. Surely things have not got so bad that this modern Bertie Wooster, the lightest of lightweights, can be thought to exercise significant influence. )
“The gulf between rhetoric, action and reality widens by the day.” (Hear Hear.)
There is more, much more, in the same vein in the AM piece and none of it will have made comfortable reading for Mrs May.
Holdenforth cautiously suggests that the prospects for a successful outcome for the UK in the coming Brexit battle are bleak and the position of and prospects for the HMG team are far more shaky than those of the EU team.
Alex Massie has set out with crystal clarity the weaknesses of HMG and of the UK in the impending Brexit battle. He outlined the difficulties of trying to satisfy the mutually exclusive aims of the hard Brexiteers, the peace at any price Brexiteers and those for whom any departure from the EU will be over their, if not dead bodies, then badly battered bodies.
The task of the HMG team is made significantly more difficult – if that were possible – by the fact that the SNP is firmly in the Remain camp and the Labour Party is in the Micawber camp, waiting for something to turn up.
The policy of the Labour Party continues to puzzle Holdenforth. Insofar as one can make any sense of the material that is put out it appears to be a confused combination of playing Little Sir Echo to the Tories, and, as noted, waiting for something to turn up.
The latter policy cannot fail to succeed in that something WILL turn up. But what is that something?
When the questions are coming thick and fast from the 24/7 media pack – and sooner or later they will be coming thick and fast – Labour will need to get its Brexit act together – so why not get a plausible principled policy together now in the relative tranquillity of the Brexit phoney war?
What about the opinion formers in the media?
“Let me a little show it, even in this-
That I was constant Cimber should be banished,
And constant do remain to keep him so.”
Caesar spelling out his fixed position just prior to his death at the hands of Brutus and others in Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
Paul Dacre, like Julius Caesar some two thousand years ago, has been and remains commendably consistent on Brexit.
He has been consistent in his raucous demand that Brexit should mean Brexit – and he continues to demand that Brexit will mean Brexit – full marks to PD for consistency- but he needs to remember what the outcome was for Julius Caesar.
How might this drama unfold in the next few months?
As noted I will confine the scope of this blog to the possible contribution of the awkward squad which lurks on the back benches of the House of Commons to the outcome of the Brexit battle.
Members of the awkward squad are not to be confused with those members who from time to time feature in the headlines to the fury of the party whips and the joy of the electorate. This latter misbehaving group provides ample evidence as to the diverse activities and antics to be encountered in the inner sanctum of our democracy. We will not- for the moment – be looking at abuses of the parliamentary expenses arrangements, nor will we raise the question of how the MP Stephen Milligan died “in unusual sexual circumstances” (How does one die in usual sexual circumstances?), and of why Mr Jonathan Aitken was detained in one of Her Majesty’s penal institutions following his conviction for perjury. We will not seek to raise the case of the internet advertisements placed by the MP for the Rhondda, Mr Chris Bryant, for same sex partners, and nor will we raise the difficulties faced by the Liberal Democrats in the leadership election brought about by the drink problem of its former leader, Charles Kennedy.
(With regard to the last-mentioned difficulties which we will not be raising: four candidates put themselves forward to succeed Mr Kennedy. The tabloids immediately and predictably got onto the job of looking into their past lives and the outcome for two of the four was less than welcome. It turned out that one of the four, Mr Simon Hughes, was sexually ambivalent – not a vote winner in those judgmental days- and another, Mr Mark Oaten, was reported as having engaged in sexual activities too revolting to be described in a family newspaper! A third, Mr Chris Huhne, later had to resign from the Cameron cabinet because of suspicions, later confirmed in court, that he had persuaded his then wife, and, latterly, his aloof critic, to accept penalty points on her driving licence for offences committed whilst he was at the wheel. So – Nick Clegg got the job – a poisoned chalice if ever there was one. I should like to end this stroll down memory lane with a brief word about the unseemly allegations concerning Lord Rennard. The portly Lib Dem peer was said to have adopted a very hands on approach in his dealings with female colleagues and a few of them broke cover to accuse him of excessive familiarity. I have no idea what went on any more than you have but some of the reports reminded me of Molly Bloom’s confession to the priest in “Ulysses” – “And where did the man touch you, my child?” “It was on the canal bank, Father” One could sense the frustration endured by the priest as his zeal for getting to the gist of the matter overlapped with his quest for fortuitous titillation came up against not a brick wall but a canal towpath.)
Time was when politicians were expected to have principles to which they would adhere and, when necessary, refer. These principles were presented to the electorate which would then make its choice from the range on offer. Not any more. The speed with which clearly proclaimed principles are jettisoned and wholly different ones adopted leaves the onlooker dazed with the sleight of hand. In the early sixties the Labour party was bitterly opposed to the Common Market. Under Blair, the New Labour Party sought by a series of complex manoeuvres to take us in. The Tory party under Heath in the seventies was firmly pro Europe. Now the party is all but committed to pulling out. As recently as the 1983 general election the Labour party was proud to call itself socialist and put to the electorate a set of policies to match its principles. I recall vividly the speech made by Michael Foot in Ebbw Vale on the eve of the 1983 election. He spoke with pride and passion about the values and principles of the party he was proud to lead. On the debit side it took him about an hour just to bring his story up to 1945 and there were some in his audience and doubtless in the country anxious for a more contemporary note. Nowadays the Labour party whilst condemning everything that Thatcher stood for, has been careful to retain and in some cases even to extend her policies. It’s all very confusing to the voters.
What happens next in Westminster ?
Holdenforth still sees only 3 possibilities.
1. The least likely – Mrs May and her government stagger from crisis to crisis for the next 4 or so years. In this event and whatever else happens – the UK will be out of Europe. The arguments presented by Alex Massie will have lengthened the odds in its favour to the most remote eventuality.
2. Around 50 or so Tory MPS would have to write to the Chairman of the 1922 Committee to request a leadership election. This is the second plausible possibility, especially given the shaky record of Mrs May in her brief but turbulent stay in Number 10. It is much less likely than option 3 (see below) because Members of Parliament are noted rather more for their opportunism than for adherence to principle.
3. The most likely outcome is that Mrs May will sooner or later- and sooner rather than later – lose a vote of confidence and this would trigger a general election. For this to happen just 10 Tories – 3% of the total – would be required to vote against in order to dislodge Mrs May.
A modest rebellion.
Might there be enough Tory MPs with the required amount of intestinal fortitude and/or a private income and / or a job offer in their pocket to carry a no confidence vote?
Holdenforth asserts with confidence – Yes!
We urge the required 3% to follow the example of Henry V before Harfleur as he urged his followers to “imitate the action of the tiger; stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood, disguise nature with hard favoured rage“, and so on and so forth” by putting their heads above the parapet during and at the end of the confidence debate.
There would then be a repeat of the 2017 General Election – sorry about that, Brenda from Bristol – a single issue General Election which we will call Brexel 2 – a second referendum in all but name.
Our legislators – those in the Commons now plus a rather larger number anxious to replace them would then be required collectively to decide how to proceed and the voters would be entertained by the spectacle of the elastic consciences of the thousand plus candidates competing to be elected to the House of Commons being stretched to breaking point.
Possible factors to take into account
What about Mr Corbyn and his colleagues?
You tell me. I am far from clear as to what the Parliamentary Labour Party would do in the event that Mrs May and her Government lost a vote of confidence.
It might well be that her successor as Tory leader would note the fragility and uncertainty of the Labour Party, rally the Tory troops and succeed in winning the subsequent election.
What if for whatever reason or combination of reasons the DUP withdraws from the current support “arrangement” , something which could happen at any time given the volatility and unpredictability of politics throughout Ireland?
This leaves the only realistic option of lancing the boil – and putting Mrs May out of her self-inflicted misery – as being for a sufficient number of brave Tory MPs either to vote against or abstain on a vote of confidence to trigger a general election.
What should the policy of the Remainers be?
Holdenforth suggests that the scattered and disorganised remainers adopt an approach along the following lines:
“Sir William Harcourt was a genial accomplished parliamentarian , a party man, with an eye fixed earnestly but by no means unerringly upon the main chance”
From “The Earl Of Rosebery” -essay by Winston Churchill .
Thus Sir William Harcourt , thus significant numbers of current and would be members of the House of Commons.
The key policy elements of the Remain camp to be:
1. To persuade enough dissident Tory MPs to trigger the toppling of Mrs May.
2. An intent to reverse the 2016 referendum and to recommend that the UK get back to business as usual within the European Community.
3. The subsequent general election / second referendum to be fought in a spirit that would contain a readiness to acknowledge that the two main parties both made some appalling errors of judgement on this crucial political issue in the past few years.
Holdenforth remains firmly in the Remain camp and it remains confident that the Brexit battles, if fought to a finish, will be won by the EU and its negotiating team.
Should that outcome come to pass Holdenforth predicts that Mrs May will be left with two options, both unattractive.
A bad deal unlikely to be endorsed by her hard Brexiteer wing
No deal – an outcome difficult if not impossible to sell to the UK voters.
Throughout these turbulent proceedings the current membership of the Commons and those hoping to replace them will have just one aim in common – what outcome will be the best for me?
In this phase the electorate, advised and exhorted by the tireless media, will be trying to predict the outcome.
Straws in the wind.
Owen Smith, a member of the Labour Shadow Cabinet, suggested that Parliament be allowed the final say on the Brexit terms secured by HMG – and was promptly sacked by Mr Corbyn. Given the gravity of some of the political offences that JC had previously pardoned from members of his shadow team – not a good omen for the future.
A doughty cross party and no party group has been formed to campaign for a second referendum on Britain’s future in the EU. Its leading members include Carolyn Lucas, Chuka Umunna and the formidable Anna Soubry. Comedian Andy Parsons – who he? – and Sir Patrick Stewart – thespian space traveller – were also on the launch platform.
The House of Lords has tabled some tricky amendments to trip up the Brexiteers thus triggering some Bolshevist demands by The Daily Mail for the political gelding of the our revered upper house.
Tony Blair and John Major have both launched impressive broadsides against Brexit.
Lord Adonis – a beacon of sense in the Brexit battle – is said to be working tirelessly to organise the Remain forces and I wish him every success in his efforts.
Mr Barry Gardiner was said to have embarrassed the Labour Shadow Cabinet by suggesting that the party’s Brexit policy was bollocks – Holdenforth is not as prim as the Daily Mail which reported the word as b******s. Whether direct or via asterisks the frustration of Mr Gardiner was plain to discern – his was a commendably direct comment which suggest that there is may well be some flexibility in the views of Mr Gardiner as the Brexit battle moves from phoney to turbulent.
Holdenforth both suspects and hopes that events are moving against the Leavers and in favour of the Remainers.