Now we know: the House of Lords’ proposed amendments to the EU Withdrawal Bill, the focus of so much fraught Parliamentary arithmetic, will come back to the Commons next Tuesday. The impending battle adds a bit of heat to the prosecco being uncorked for Westminster’s summer party season.
By any measure, the debates and votes on the 15 amendments will take place against a dark background for Theresa May. The findings of ConservativeHome’s monthly survey of Party members do not make happy reading for her. Almost two-thirds do not have confidence in the Government’s handling of Brexit. More than two-thirds want the Prime Minister gone before the next election, and her personal approval rating is back in negative territory after a brief lift in response to her handling of the Salisbury attack. Unhappiness appears to be contaminating the ratings of the Cabinet as a whole, which have slipped almost 18 per cent in a month.
Grassroots Tories are not stupid; their feelings about the torpor in Government are rooted in hard fact. Downing Street has failed (still) to settle on and secure a position on customs. Today it is reported that there will be no White Paper on the future UK/EU relationship by the time of the EU Council meeting at the end of this month – meaning, according to former Brexit minister David Jones puts it, that it will be “kicked down the road to the October Council, by which point it will be far too late”.
No position on customs and no White Paper on the future relationship would likely prevent the plan for proper discussions on a trade deal to open in the autumn. Furthermore, there are some concerns that the EU might seek in October to bank the early offer of money, which Brussels desperately needs – money which was supposed to open the door to reciprocal talks but which, in the absence of such progress, they may attempt to still receive in return for essentially nothing.
Discontent among Conservative Party members is not the only symptom of the situation. As authority seeps from the centre, ministerial indiscipline flourishes and collective responsibility starts to crumble. Jeremy Hunt freelances on NHS spending to the extent that a hypothecated tax is now on the agenda. Tobias Ellwood breaks ranks on the witch-hunt against veterans of Northern Ireland. Sajid Javid challenges the Prime Minister’s long-held positions on immigration. Boris Johnson will apparently be allowed to just wander off somewhere conveniently distant on the day that the future of the nation’s air travel infrastructure is decided.
The frenzied game of whack-a-mole which occupies every Prime Minister becomes more and more frantic. Focus all efforts on next week’s amendments, working the angles and the numbers over and over, and you find frustrations about the wider issue of Brexit planning popping up from frontbenchers and backbenchers alike. Allot what extra time and political capital you have to trying to cool those concerns, and the not inconsiderable task of running the country throws up further challenges.
The latest trouble is in transport, where regional papers across much of the north of England have banded together to demand solutions to the huge disruption afflicting rail commuters in recent weeks. The combination of those headlines and Chris Grayling’s bruising outing in the Commons yesterday have had some effect in bringing the problem to national attention, but it remains to be seen what actual answers are forthcoming.
It’s the kind of issue that does serious and lasting political damage, particularly to the Conservatives: disproportionately harming their target voters, across areas seen as key political battlegrounds, raising awkward questions about competence and private operators, all mixed in with the feeling that such a crisis would get more attention, more quickly, if it took place in the south. It brings to mind the old Matt cartoon of a couple in Yorkshire sitting on the roof of their house, surrounded by floodwaters, as the radio says “Now the weather: in London it is slightly too warm to sleep comfortably.” Angering regional papers – more trusted than the national press – doubles the political pain.
With that troubled backdrop, Grayling must now venture into the fraught territory of airport expansion, too. The Transport Secretary said today that his plan received “almost entirely universal support” from the Cabinet, which is a crucially different thing from getting entirely universal support. Upsetting Boris Johnson is far from his biggest difficulty, however; already facing angry commuters in the north, the progress to a vote on Heathrow in the next few weeks means he will now annoy various voters in parts of the south of England, and yet it must be done. Even after such a long delay, it still isn’t certain that the Government will win the eventual vote; Labour’s union backers want a new runway, but senior figures like John McDonnell still oppose it, and the temptation of inflicting a defeat on an already-embattled Secretary of State might prove too great.
This feels like the death of a thousand flustered cuts, inflicted by a hung Parliament on an administration with more work to do than authority or capacity with which to do it all. Chance, circumstance, human error, the entropy and attrition of everyday politics, and the opportunism of the Opposition all take their toll, and yet the Government continues where other administrations might already have fallen.
How? Partially because no Tory MP wants a new General Election, partially because the underperformance of Jeremy Corbyn in the local elections and the opinion polls artificially flatters Downing Street’s performance, helping to stave off the sense of crisis which would otherwise bring events to a head. The Parliamentary Conservative Party also lacks a ready-made and unifying alternative Prime Minister to instal in May’s place if they so wished.
The fact that no replacement is obvious or agreed does not, of course, mean that such a person will never emerge. If anything, nature abhors a vacuum; it would be impossible for current events to coincide without intensifying the speculation and debate flying back and forth above those fizzing prosecco glasses. Those in good standing with Party members, and on the front foot in their brief, become the focus of intense discussion. Sajid Javid’s return to form in his new role as Home Secretary has attracted attention, and tomorrow Michael Gove will deliver a speech at Policy Exchange on ‘reforming capitalism for the 21st century’ – a topic which, coincidentally, Theresa May once used to set out her stall as an ambitious would-be leader.