The aftermath of the English Civil War saw our national genius for compromise in full flower. Charles I lost the war. Parliament won it. He was executed and England became a republic. But the two entrenched positions, royalist and parliamentarian, made peace within 15 years. Charles II returned from exile; King and Commons were reconciled. Historians wrangle over how long it took Parliament to keep the monarch properly in check – some argue that arbitrary power was still had real force in Victorian times – but the template for Britain’s constitutional future was set in 1660. The high noon of absolute monarchy had passed away.
As the Commons breaks up today, after the most remarkable political year in our country’s post-war history, I wonder if that national talent for healing and reconciliation is working itself out again – though this time in a form less bloody, infinitely more democratic, and far swifter.
The vote for Brexit was a revolutionary act – a revolt against the establishment – as indeed was the Commonwealth. David Cameron duly offered his head before it could be lopped off. And Theresa May is in roughly the same position, to follow my fanciful parallel, as Charles II was when the Commonwealth ended – that’s to say, she is a symbol of the old regime.
But there any resemblance ends This is not only because there is no likeness of character between the Merry Monarch and the vicar’s daughter, but because she has done the very opposite of he did on his return to England. The new regime targeted some senior Parliamentarians with an Indemnity and Oblivion Act; there was an exhumation and posthumous execution of corpses. But May has targeted not so much Brexiteers, her opponents scarcely more than a fortnight ago, but the men and women she campaigned alongside – and the man who effectively co-ran the country with the Prime Minister that they both served.
George Osborne was fired by her – personally. She not only did it, but let it be known that she had: the former Chancellor was not even granted the face-saving cover of a resignation. And the entire power structure that he and David Cameron built has been broken up.
Greg Hands no longer sits around the Cabinet table. Nor does Matt Hancock. Claire Perry has departed government. Michael Gove, a Brexiteer but an ally of Osborne, is out. Other proteges of the Chancellor have been absorbed into the new regime: Amber Rudd at the Home Office, Liz Truss at Justice. More broadly, Oliver Letwin no longer controls the Government machine, and Mark Harper is no longer Chief Whip. The entire Policy Unit, with the exception of Rachel Woolf on the Education desk, has either left post or been asked to re-apply. Nick Timothy, who knows Woolf well from his work on free schools, is co-Chief of Staff with Fiona Hill.
Meanwhile, thought some senior Brexiteers are no longer Cabinet members, others are – and their total number is unchanged in a smaller top team. Boris Johnson is Foreign Secretary. David Davis is back; so is Liam Fox. Leavers cannot complain that the cause they love is in the hands of others.
Charles I held court masques in which peace and concord would ceremoniously drive away discord and disorder. May’s equivalent is not triumphant Remainers driving out Leavers, in revenge for their referendum defeat, but of some Remainers and Leavers joining together to exile the previous Remain order. “Politics is not a game,” the new Prime Minister told her new Cabinet at its first meeting on Tuesday. This was a clear hit at her predecessor and his circle, who so often delivered Conservative policies in Blairite garb. Out go young thrusters; in comes grey hair. Davis is 67, Michael Fallon 64, Philip Hammond 60, Patrick McLoughlin, who writes on this site today, 58.
Almost two years ago, with a general election looming. I tried to detach myself from the work I do, and asked myself why I would vote Conservative were I not used to doing so. It is perhaps impossible for any of us completely detach ourselves from our prejudices, but I came up with the best answer I could.
It was that May, together especially with Iain Duncan Smith at Work and Pensions and Michael Gove at Education, was providing Grown-Up Government: that’s to say, working seriously away to improve public services and making life better. Strip away the spin and this was the best of what was beneath it. Davis and Fallon and Hammond and McLoughlin and Liam Fox and David Lidington and Damian Green, Leaver and Remainer alike, are Grown-up Governent made flesh and holding office. May’s first week has seen no blizzard of announcements; no “eye-catching measures” with which she can be associated.
Instead, there have been visits to Scotland and Wales; yesterday’s visit to Merkel and today’s to Francois Hollande. Much of what May is doing, like all this, looks ordinary, if not dull. But beneath the unspectacular surface is a penchant for taking risks – of which the defenestration of Team Cameron is the most spectacular.
In Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, Achilles watches Hector closely, before telling him that he has “fed mine eyes on thee;/ I have with exact view perus’d thee, Hector,/ And quoted joint by joint”…”Tell me, you heavens (he continues), “in which part of his body/ Shall I destroy him?/ Whether there, or there, or there?” It is as though May has been patiently brooding at the Cabinet table for six long years, marking down the names of those she considers her enemies, or who have crossed her: Osborne, Gove, Nicky Morgan. It is very risky – some would say foolhardy – to send so much talent to the backbenchers; to have alienated so much of the Cameron court.
But whatever one’s view, May has clearly started as she means to go on. She will chair three crucial Cabinet committees herself: one on the economy; one on social reform – which will oversee the implementation or her and Timothy’s Aston Villa Toryism, as I can’t help calling it – and, not least, one on Brexit. Peace and concord (plus a questionable degree of centralisation) are winning out over discord and disorder.
We Brexiteers will not get everything we want. Much is in the hands of other European Governments and the EU institutions once negotiations begin, and what the timetable for Brexit really turns out to be. But it looks as though May is inching towards a national consensus for some EFTA-based, Norway plus-or-minus style arrangement – though the fly in the ointment is that such a solution is hard to square with flexible immigration control that also delivers lower numbers. Yes, Britain might still be a single market member in some form. But we would regain control over agriculture, fisheries, energy foreign affairs, defence and criminal justice policies. We would be out of the EU.
A year ago, we were in it, and governed by a team that had achieved much, but whose comfort zone lay in prioritising tactical gambits over strategic planning. Now, we have voted to leave, have Grown-Up Government – and a Prime Minister committed to some form of Brexit, plus social reform.
What’s not to like? There is a trend among modern Conservatives to describe themselves as optimists. I have to confess feeling not so much optimistic as panglossian. Today feels like the end of the best political year that Britain has seen for a long time. Though there is, as always, a sting on the tail. After all, May will return in the autumn to no real majority, a shaky mandate – and no money: that’s to say, to the enduring deficit and Brexit restructuring.