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The May loyalist genius – in this context I use the word genius sarcastically – who decided that it was a clever idea to ritually humiliate Cabinet Brexiteers at Chequers doesn’t look so clever now.
Around Chequers it was briefed that ministers would be fired if they dared step out of line. It was briefed – wrongly it turns out – that cards carrying the number of a taxi firm (Astons, defunct) were on the hall table. Hilariously, it was added that a new generation of Tories was ready to take the place of any old fart resigning. The implication was that the talented next generation of Tories, who May refused pointedly to promote earlier this year remember, are somehow pro-May. Er, no.
This strutting was high-handed hubris in action from Number 10, treating Cabinet ministers like naughty children. In the end, it helped hasten the late night resignation on Sunday of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary. He had been pondering his resignation for a while, but had decided to try one last effort at Chequers – one last fight and heartfelt plea – in an attempt to get May to change course and to be more robust with the EU. Britain will not be truly self-governing under the May proposal, he believes.
In the aftermath, much will be said, is already being said, by those dismissive Remainers who hold anyone Brexity in lofty contempt. Davis wasn’t on top of the detail; he hadn’t come up with a plan; he wanted to be leader.
As ever, the truth is much more interesting than the caricature. Not only did Davis work hard, travelling incessantly, he could have brought down May in the 48 hours after her election disaster last summer and chose not to. Despite the urging of his friends in the Commons, he backed her, believing that she was best placed considering the Cabinet and Commons arithmetic. “You see, I like Theresa,” is how he used to put it. He was also one of those who had urged her to hold the election, a doomed decision for which he felt partially responsible, although no-one ever said “hold an early election and be the most wooden performer since Woody Woodpecker.”
When in print or in person I criticised May (I think Britain has been attempting to do this tricky thing Brexit without a functioning Prime Minister) Davis always politely rejected my analysis. Of course, he was frustrated, but he decided to battle on even when May effectively handed control of the negotiations to Olly Robbins and the civil service. This was a constitutional first, and not in a healthy way. It has led to the UK having made hardly any meaningful preparations for “no deal” which could happen by accident and having the Chequers proposals and nothing left other than more concessions left in the locker.
Early this year, for a brief while it seemed – in Britain, not in Brussels – that Davis might get his Canada plus plus option, that is a healthy free trade deal with security co-operation (which the EU needs) and other elements bolted on. That turned out to be an illusion. Brussels had trapped Britain and May on Northern Ireland, and sealed it with the terms of the December settlement that included the Northern Ireland backstop.
That leaves Britain forced to choose later this year between humiliating terms (Chequers plus more concessions) or “no deal” for which the government machine has, shamefully, not yet prepared properly.
As has so often been the case, May’s deficit of emotional intelligence has been a contributory factor.
Getting the civil service compromise plan on Brexit safely through Chequers, the Tory parliamentary party, and the country, required maximum sensitivity and a frank admission that compromise was necessary, essential even. It required May to own it; it required emotional intelligence and team-building, not juvenile threats by backroom staff and trainee grandees. It required levelling with the country and leading.
What now? All the focus has been on that small band of Remainer Tory rebels holding the government hostage in Brexit votes in the Commons. There is now a bigger minority group – perhaps as many as 20 to 30 Tory MPs – dedicated to stopping May’s compromise plan, that is even before it is watered down further. Jacob Rees-Mogg, “the heavy artillery” as Davis terms him, is in that group and dedicated to stopping what they see as a sell out. To do this they will have to vote with Labour to block May’s version of Brexit, with the risk that they then kill Brexit entirely, by mistake. Do they dare?