With another High Noon this week, Theresa May might have only one course left to her, writes Brian Monteith
The Prime Minister has, by admittedly lows standards in these unpredictable times, had a good week. The government defeated all 15 of the Lords’ amendments and a good number of Labour ones too with the majority never falling below 11 in the 20 divisions. Given her circumstances of leading a minority administration with at least a dozen rebels on her own benches, it must have been very pleasing for her.
She has also been able to stamp some long overdue authority over the Treasury by standing up for herself on a number of issues when before she has given good cause to believe she was buckling under pressure, or worse betraying her own promises.
The week had not started well when one of her junior ministers, a Dr Phillip Lee, resigned so he could speak out and presumably vote against the government with a clear conscience. It seems his conscience did not trouble him in agreeing to stand on a Tory manifesto he now says he cannot agree with. Nor did his conscience trouble him when he took the taxpayers’ shilling by accepting a ministerial position from the Prime Minister who had already laid out the Government’s strategy in her Lancaster House speech. Absurdly, in the end, he did not vote against the Government.
I can only conclude the Home Office is well rid of this particular minister who has shown such poor judgement and harbours a conscience as pliable as Plasticine.
To finish off a tumultuous seven days and set herself up for this week Theresa May went on the front foot by using the 70th anniversary of the NHS to announce her government would increase the behemoth’s budget by £20 billion a year by 2024. Showing a more positive outlook than she has before, she presented it as a Brexit bonus not requiring new taxes, although it may in time require more borrowing. It puts to the sword the boring debate around Vote Leave campaign’s slogan of directing £350 million a week to the NHS instead of Brussels by going even further and delivering the equivalent of £600m a week in cash terms and £384m a week in real terms.
This is exactly the type of upbeat tactic the Prime Minister should have been deploying from day one (had she been firmer with her Chancellor) and she should not stop there but go on to talk-up more of the benefits she and her ministers are intending to deliver by specifically naming various regulatory reforms will win public favour but not weaken her negotiating position.
For all this optimism, however, there remains a dark cloud on the horizon as she only managed to postpone until later this week the attempt by the Lords in concert with Tory rebels to force a so-called “meaningful vote” by Parliament in the event a deal is not secured between the UK and EU negotiators. Having met the rebels privately and in return for their temporary support promised to consider aspects of the wording they were wanting, the Prime Minister appears to have recoiled from going any further and the government amendment to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill has now been called a betrayal by the rebels.
This is more than a bit rich coming as it does from those that are seeking to undermine their own Prime Minister and such attitudes must surely strengthen support for May who has said she will not agree to any amendments that allows Parliament to overturn the referendum decision. Being more clear and robust on this position from the start might have helped her avoid the pressures she now faces, nevertheless the Lords can be expected to send back another amended Bill and as soon as Wednesday the Tory rebels have to decide to support the government or bring it down.
This is not hyperbole; the government motions are likely to be treated as a confidence vote and senior Conservatives such as Tom Tugendhat, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, has reiterated a new government will need to form if May loses. Given the lengthy three-month process of the Conservatives choosing a new leader the likelihood must be that May would seek to go to the country again as Prime Minister. The options for ambitious Ministers such as Boris Johnson or Michael Gove – or Savid Javid coming up fast on the outside – are limited if May continues with a more robust approach by blaming the rebels rather than coming over all softly-softly and full of compromises. In such circumstances MPs, who in the first hurdle narrow the field to two candidates, and the party members who then choose, might just give her the benefit of the doubt.
Typically in such tense situations attitudes are hardening. Already this week arch-Europhile Ken Clarke voted against the government 14 times, Anna Soubry eight, and Dominic Grieve, twice. Clarke and Soubry’s behaviour is now expected, the surprise is more when they agree with the government’s approach to Brexit.
Dominic Grieve’s behaviour is more difficult to fathom; as a QC and former Attorney General he must know that constitutionally it is not Parliament that conducts negotiations but the Executive, which then is held to account by Parliament. It was only last year he is on record arguing the Government should not be bound by Parliament, now he is arguing the exact opposite. The fact he was photographed going into the EU’s offices in London for a secret meeting with pro-remainers, including peers that are actively seeking to prevent and reverse Brexit and have moved amendments against the Government has not helped his claims of good intentions and his word is now being doubted.
More fundamentally he clearly does not understand his argument about a meaningful vote is wrongheaded – it has already happened; the MPs voted overwhelmingly in favour of giving the meaningful vote to the British people and on 23 June 2016 they voted in the largest numbers in our history to say we must leave the European Union.
With her victories last week and another High Noon this week Theresa May has only one course left to her – take the rebels full on – and if they bring her down then take them on within her party too. If it means calling on the constituency parties to deselect them for their disloyalty she might find that showing resolve brings its rewards.
Brian Monteith is a director of Global Britain