At the start of the week, it all seemed unusually clear. Theresa May was going to opt for the softest possible Brexit and her Cabinet could like it or lump it. The moment had finally arrived.
Those of us who predicted it was always going to come to this, with civil servants burrowing away behind the scenes while transient dramas played out, were on the verge of saying: “I told you so.” Then the clarity started to blur as warring Tory factions got to work on their briefings.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, guardian of the Brexit flame and impervious to consequences, threatened Mrs May with removal if she sought a Commons majority for her plans, regardless of her own party’s view. One Foreign Office Minister, Sir Alan Duncan, chastised Rees-Mogg for his “insolence” and another, Alistair Burt, tweeted plaintively: “Just tired of this constant threat and counter-threat.” He spoke for us all.
Their boss, Boris Johnson, then weighed in on behalf of Rees-Mogg whom he imaginatively described as “a principled and dedicated MP who wants the best for our country”. I suppose that reflects how Johnson would like to be thought of himself, rather than as a slippery-tongued chancer lying in wait for others to wield the dagger.
As the great away-day approaches, we have David Davis’s ritual coded threat to resign. His chosen means of communication is a letter to the Prime Minister with the Daily Telegraph copied in. Even the pretence of collective responsibility has collapsed. The idea this dysfunctional outfit is capable of negotiating with anyone is risible.
And that, really, confirms why Mrs May has to stick with the position attributed to her at the start of the week. If today’s meeting and Monday’s White Paper result in another attempt to appease the unappeasable, then she will stumble on in an even weaker state. The can will have been kicked further down the road but she is running out of road.
The choice is between clarity and continuing chaos. Any attempt to bridge the chasm within the Conservative Party – fundamentally no different to the one which consumed John Major in the 1990s – would fail in the eyes of the audience which now matters, ie EU negotiators who will have no difficulty spotting the credibility gap.
Clarity in favour of a Brexit that maintains close trade links with the EU – while securing the ability to take some independent actions outside it – does not guarantee it could be delivered. At that point, the real nitty-gritty of negotiation would begin. But for starters, the urgent requirement is a clear objective to aim at, which a majority in Parliament and country could live with.
One can imagine the liberation Mrs May might feel by facing down the Rees-Mogg element and challenging them to do their worst. Their bluff would be called. Would they move to bring her down and if they did, what is the likelihood that a majority of Tory MPs would rally to their cause? Next to zero, I estimate.
The other bluff urgently in need of calling is the Scottish Government’s. The Nationalists have staked the house on a Brexit outcome they can portray as a disaster at which point they will pray for a political dividend from outraged Scottish “remain” voters. So far, the strategy has worked like a lead balloon but they keep plugging away because they have nowhere else to go.
The Scottish fishing industry is a good example – heavily pro-Brexit while the SNP is virulently anti-Brexit. Yet the Nationalists hope to exploit the industry’s frustration if negotiations fail to produce a settlement that is a significant improvement on what exists at present.
It is a position which oozes hypocrisy but the only way to deal with it is to engage in the detail of negotiation. I listened with some amusement this week to comparisons with Iceland and Norway – both of which stayed outside the EU precisely in order to maintain a higher share of their catch. The idea you can be both zealously pro-EU and credibly anti-Common Fisheries Policy is nonsensical, as fishermen well know. If the UK Government can deliver a better solution outside the EU, that will seal the deal, so ministers should get on with it.
In the absence of the World Cup, I watched Wednesday’s debate in the House of Commons instigated by the SNP on the subject of the “Claim of Right for Scotland” which, in 1989, asserted the right of the Scottish people to “determine the form of Government best suited to their needs”. I remember it well for I signed it.
It seemed a bizarre choice, not least because the SNP refused to sign the “Claim of Right” in 1989 and then boycotted the Constitutional Convention which flowed from it. For them now to demand that political parties who wrote, signed and delivered the “Claim of Right” should reaffirm their commitment takes a bit of brass neck. What the Nationalists cannot accept is that Scotland’s “rights” include the majority choice to remain part of the UK, without being hectored into submission.
The SNP’s parliamentary group comes across as a boorish rabble, as I suspect its smarter members are increasingly aware. It wasn’t always so. Their leader, Ian Blackford, delivered a one-dimensional rant devoid of humour, style or subtlety – all around the weary contention that Holyrood is victim of a “power grab” under the furtive cover of Brexit.
The Scottish Secretary, David Mundell, delivered an effective riposte simply by pointing out that Nicola Sturgeon last week justified appointing an additional clutch of ministers on the grounds they are required in order to deal with all the additional powers coming to Holyrood as a result of Brexit. Game, set and match.
Contrary to Nationalist mythology, Scotland as well the UK as a whole has a more nuanced view of Brexit than the fundamentalists can admit. If Mrs May can set out clear, reasonable objectives and negotiate constructively around them, then Rees-Mogg is not the only fox available for shooting.