We apologise in advance to Gareth Snell. This site has no intention of embarrassing the Labour MP for Stoke on Trent Central, but he made perhaps the sharpest observation in the whole of yesterday’s proceedings. We reproduce his point of order, made during yesterday’s Business Motion, almost in full –
“I wonder whether, at some point before we vote on the motion, the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) could help me. When we discussed the business of the House motion last week, I asked him about the daisy-chaining process that he was involved in—the process of attaching another day to the business of the day we were discussing. We now have a motion that we passed on the 25th to have a debate on the 27th. The motion on the 27th gave us the 1st and the motion on the 1st would give us the 3rd. I have no issue with the House doing what it sees as necessary to find a way through this Brexit impasse, but I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman, if he has a plan, can tell us what that is going forward.
There is a rumour that on Wednesday we may be asked to legislate for the outcome of this evening. I presume that on Wednesday’s business of the House motion, there will be another paragraph (2) to commandeer a day of the week after. If that is the case, I wonder whether a plan—if it exists somewhere—of how many days and what the days are to be used for can be shared with the House. That is not because I wish to impede the House from doing this. However, on Friday I was asked to vote against the withdrawal agreement on the basis of a blind Brexit, and I am now being asked to hand over days of parliamentary business with no idea of what will be tabled and discussed on those days.
I mean to try to be helpful to the right hon. Member for West Dorset. If he has a plan of how many days and what those days are to be used for, could he share it with us? If we as a House are going to be asked to hand over day after day, we should know what we will be asked to vote on during those days.”
Letwin was under no obligation to answer. Indeed, Snell’s questions were not addressed directly to him – because they couldn’t be. Points of order are addressed to the Speaker.
Were Letwin Prime Minister, Snell could find other means of holding him to account, and getting answers to the questions he asked. He could table a Written Question. He could table a Prime Minister’s Question. He could push for an Urgent Question. Were the Prime Minister seeking to avoid being held to account, Snell could pursue some other member of the Government – such as the Leader of the House.
Now for a few hours in each week for the moment, Letwin in one sense is Prime Minister – the Prime Minister In All But Name, as we call him, as opposed to Theresa May, the Prime Minister in Name Only. If you disagree with this view, how else would you describe him, given the Commons’ vote last week to hand him and his allies power over the House’s timetable, with a view to bringing in legislation? Perhaps it would be more accurate to label him the real Leader of the House. Or both in one.
Except that there’s a difference between the way in which he, as a member of the legislature, works, and the way in which Theresa May, as the head of the executive, works. As we say, she can be questioned. But poor old Snell, plus almost 650 of his colleagues, has no means of compelling Letwin to come to the despatch box and answer enquiries. The latter doesn’t have to account for anything because, under the plan he has devised and which the Commons has approved, he is unaccountable. There is no Letwin’s Question Time. What will he cook up for Wednesday? There is no way of knowing.
You will point out that Letwin, were he a real Prime Minister, wouldn’t operate on his own. And he isn’t. He seems to have a kind of unofficial Cabinet, in which Hillary Benn and Yvette Cooper hold the equivalent of the great offices of state. Except that we can’t be sure, because they can’t be cross-examined, either. There are no minutes of their meetings. It is not even clear where they meet, and when, and who with.
You may add that any Cabinet needs a Cabinet Secretary. Letwin’s has one: John Bercow. It is the Speaker who handles the business of this shadow Letwin Government by furthering its plans and objectives – for example, by narrowing down yesterday’s indicative votes to four options, the consideration of which Letwin presumably approved of. Or perhaps he didn’t. Because, as we say, there’s no means of knowing. But his general purpose is to achieve a Softer Brexit. And the only consistent feature of Bercow’s self-contradictory rulings is that they always point towards that same end.
Theresa May’s Cabinet meets for a marathon session today. We have no idea what it will seek to decide, if anything, and nor, apparently, does anyone else – including, perhaps, her. Her handling of Brexit has helped to bring her to this point, and ConservativeHome is scarcely unique in pointing this out. But the Prime Minister in Name Only has an advantage over the Prime Minister In All But Name. She is accountable. Letwin is not. And to those who say that she is making a terrible mess of things, we have only one response to offer. Namely that, on the evidence available so far, the mess that Letwin is making of things is even worse.