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Westlake Legal Group > Posts tagged "ToryDiary"

If we were staying in the EU, would Honda still be leaving?

It’s an unappealing fact of political life that almost every story gets seized on for its political significance, in opposite directions simultaneously, almost as soon as it breaks. Sometimes events become a political stick or shield, to beat with or fend off a beating, before there has even been a chance to consider their full, real world implications.

That’s somewhat perverse at the best of times, but even more so when the news is one of impending job losses. While the announcement that Honda’s Swindon plant is expected to close in 2022 almost immediately became engulfed in the wider national debate about Brexit, the first and foremost fact ought to be that it is a source of distress and loss for thousands of workers and their dependents. While the political causes or implications of Honda’s decision should of course be investigated, discussed and considered, it would be unforgivable if the human reality of the situation was overshadowed because parties and politicians are in a hurry to use them to score a point.

All sides of politics (I almost wrote ‘both sides’, but this is an issue of interest across two divides – left and right, as well as Leave and Remain) are guilty of such preoccupation with their own concerns in the last 24 hours, and it is a poor look for Westminster politics to have almost skipped over the most important aspect of the news.

That isn’t to say there is no political aspect to Honda’s announcement, or that it shouldn’t be considered. That would be a cop-out, or a cynical silencing tactic of its own. Some have rushed to allocate the bad news entirely to Brexit, and others have dashed to deny it has anything to do with it. Others have blamed the Government or austerity, while some Conservatives have pointed to the generally positive employment figures, despite the fact that national totals and averages offer zero comfort to the specific people who now stand to lose their jobs.

These debates can be distastefully swift, or shamefully loose with the facts, but, done properly and reasonably, they are an essential part of how our democracy is meant to work – to assess when things go wrong in the hope of learning from errors.

Most pressing, given the timescale, is whether these are ‘Brexit job losses’ or not. Having brandished “Leave means they Leave” placards displaying car manufacturers’ logos, some Remain campaigners have been keen to crow “we told you so”, and are working hard to weaponise the issue in the hope of preventing Brexit from taking place. In response, many Brexiteers point to the explanation by senior Honda managers, who explicitly state that “this is not a Brexit-related issue”, in an effort to neutralise it (or at least bat it into the party political world of economic policy instead).

Those Honda quotes do matter – it’s hard for campaigners to parade around insisting that a company has done something for x reason while the company itself says “actually, it wasn’t x it was y”. Frankly, some of the commentary which simply ignores what the company has to say has verged on the dishonest today. The issues involved – diesel’s collapse, green regulations and levies, the rebalancing of global trade eastwards, and the on-shoring of Japanese manufacturing following the signing of the EU-Japan trade deal – are real, and they matter. Ignoring them to aid your Brexit argument doesn’t help anybody, and doesn’t help resolve those issues.

In that sense, much of the Brexiteer defence has been justified. That Honda is closing its Turkish plant at the same time, for the same reasons, does underscore that this is about more than Britain leaving the EU. Where spin is at play and lies are being told they should be called out.

But, it’s also possible to go too far in the opposite direction. I don’t share Greg Clark’s views on the EU, or indeed on the Brexit negotiating strategy, but he surely had a point when he told the Commons that continued uncertainty and lack of clarity is likely incurring an economic cost in terms of business investment.

In other words, if Britain was remaining in the EU, would Honda still be closing its plant? All the evidence we’ve seen suggests the answer is probably yes, sadly.

Has the continued difficulty in securing an acceptable and ratifiable Brexit deal made the circumstances any easier, either for the company or in finding replacement employment for the workers involved? Most likely not.

Of course, even if we all agreed to accept that view (some hope) we would probably still then disagree on its implications.

Perhaps you think we’d be better able to mitigate the impact of a inevitable loss by staying in the EU entirely, even at the cost of the added and prolonged uncertainty of a second referendum. Perhaps you think we could provide complete and swift certainty at the soonest juncture  by accepting a deal, any deal, to bring stability. Perhaps you think this underscores the need for one last negotiating heave to get the right deal nailed down, even if means the uncertainty continues a bit longer. Perhaps you think the current deal too costly and a further negotiation impossible, so rather than drag out the doubt we may as well just declare No Deal so everyone knows where they stand.

Disagreements like that are called politics, that’s the point of the whole process – it’s how we learn, develop and improve. It’s a bit depressing that sometimes, seemingly more often when the stakes are at their height, the people who are meant to pursue such debates are prone to simply disagree about the basic facts instead.

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Why an updated treason law would help to further community cohesion

One of the key features of Islamist ideology is that it categorises people by religion rather than by nationality.  Though this is far from the only reason for its anti-semitism, it is an important factor in the mix, and helps to explain a great deal.  Because Israel is a Jewish state, at least in terms of the inspiration that created it, all Jews are seen, in Islamist eyes, as indistinguishable from Israelis.  They thus become targets for terror worldwide.

This way of thinking is all but incomprehensible to most modern British people, used as we are to living in one of the world’s older nation states.  It is thus at the heart of the furore over Shamima Begum.  To her, and to the ISIS fanatics who groomed her, the United Kingdom has no claim on her loyalty.  Hence her departure to Syria in in 2014, her marriage to a ISIS terrorist, and so on.  That people can grow up in Britain without feeling any obligation to it stirs, in most of us, a sense of disgust, bewilderment and danger.  To ISIS and the Islamists, it is the most natural thing in the world.

All this helps to explain why our treason laws need to be modernised, made effective – and used.  For although the concept of loyalty to our country comes naturally to us, its expression has fallen out of use in our legal system.  Bringing it back in an improved form has been proposed by Richard Ekins for Policy Exchange.  His ideas are backed by, among others, a former Lord Chief Justice (Lord Judge), a former head of MI5 (Lord Evans), a former Home Secretary (Amber Rudd) and a former head of former head of counter-terrorism at Scotland Yard (Richard Walton).

An updated treason law would help to solve the problem of what to do with ISIS terrorists and their supporters who are British nationals.  Sajid Javid and David Gauke have illustrated the institutional polarities of the current debate.  Javid, whose focus is on security, says that Begum shouldn’t come back to Britain.  Gauke, whose focus is on the integrity of the legal system, says that she can’t be kept out.  These tensions help to illustrate a wider point.  At present, the policy on ISIS backers and terrorists returning from the Middle East seems to be: hope they don’t come back; hope we can spot those that do; attempt to deradicalise these – and cross one’s fingers for luck.

There will always be problems in identifying people who have slipped away to Syria and now seek to slip back, and in gathering evidence for prosecution here under present laws.  It would be preferable for those who have committed crimes abroad to be charged abroad.  But a treason law would fill an important legal gap.  If there’s enough evidence for the likes of Begum to be charged, then they should be charged.  If there isn’t, then the combination of security surveillance and deradicalisation programmes must do, when appropriate.  At any rate, the reshaping of our treason law is well overdue.

One thinks easily of the need as justice-related, and as security-related, too.  But strange though it may sound, a modern treason law would be a powerful instrument of community cohesion.  Word of it would get about, even to people and communities who don’t speak English at all, and thus aren’t integrated.  The idea that one owes a loyalty to the country in which one lives would be furthered.  It is its absence that helped to create Begum.

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Yes, our system favours the established parties. But it is not invulnerable to change. This could be the start of a breakthrough.

When you leave a political party to which you have remained faithful for the whole of your adult life, and set out to form a new grouping, you have no idea what is going to happen.

Many observers of the departure of seven MPs from the Labour Party say that because the Social Democratic Party, founded in March 1981, failed to win the 1983 general election, the new grouping must be doomed to failure.

And it is certainly true that under our electoral system, new parties find it very difficult to establish themselves. The last to do so at Westminster is Labour, its rise assisted by the split from 1916 in the Liberals.

But that is not quite the end of the argument. In recent years, UKIP has failed to establish itself as a party of government, but it did force the Conservatives to promise a referendum on EU membership. The No vote in that referendum has destabilised both main parties, and may well have created the conditions for a major realignment.

And whether or not such a realignment takes place, the SDP deserves a subtler verdict than outright failure. Labour survived because it adopted many of the SDP’s policies. The 1983 Labour manifesto was from the point of view of the SDP intolerable, but the 1997 manifesto on which Tony Blair led Labour (rebranded as “New Labour”) back into power was in many respects a tribute to the SDP.

The success of Jeremy Corbyn and his friends can in turn be seen as a kind of belated revenge by the Labour Left on Blair. After decades of being marginalised, the Left has seized control of the party.

Its domination has led to the present rebellion. The seven MPs who lead it – Chris Leslie, Luciana Berger, Ann Coffey, Chuka Umunna, Mike Gapes, Angela Smith and Gavin Shuker – are evidently not such heavyweight figures as the Gang of Four – Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, David Owen and Bill Rodgers – who founded the SDP.

But a rebellion of this kind can benefit from being underestimated. The unremarkable nature of the seven MPs may lead Corbyn and his friends to tell each other that no change of course is needed.

And a movement of this kind does not only depend on its leaders. One might even say that the SDP was hindered by having too many leaders.

What matters even more is the volume and enthusiasm of the followers. The creation of the SDP revealed the existence of a large number of people who were totally fed up with the existing parties, but were prepared to throw themselves body and soul into a new movement.

When Rodgers was wondering in the summer of 1980 whether to break with Labour, he records in his memoir, Fourth Among Equals, that

“David Marquand…urged me to make the break even if only three or four MPs were to follow. By staying, I might, he said, be able to keep the Labour Party from total self-destruction but I would not save it. The most I could achieve was ‘a ten-year (or 20-year) labour of Sisyphus, endlessly pushing the boulder up the hill only to see it roll down again’. It was a convincing image given the legitimate left’s continued tolerance of the wreckers, and the lack of stomach for the fight of Hattersley and others like him.”

In January 1981, when Rodgers, along with Jenkins, Williams and Owen, signed the Limehouse Declaration, in which they declared their intention to “rally all those who are committed to the values, principles and policies of social democracy”, and added that “the realignment of British politics must now be faced”, they could not tell what would happen:

“We knew that eight or nine other MPs would immediately join us and believed that we would soon get 100 names from amongst the great and the good to endorse our Council for Social Democracy. But otherwise we were in the dark about the response we would provoke, expecting to build steadily over a period of months to the launch of a new party. But the publicity given to the Limehouse Declaration brought a snowstorm of letters, which became an avalanche when the names of the first signatories to our Declaration for Social Democracy appeared in The Guardian on 5th February. I had letters from old school friends, former civil servants and, more predictably, men and women who had supported the Campaign for Democratic Socialism 20 years before. Instead of having to recruit, like Garibaldi, a thousand political irregulars with whom to start our bold campaign, we found that we had placed ourselves in the leadership of an army already formed and waiting…we decided to bring forward the launch to 26th March.”

Such things are inherently unpredictable. So are the changes and chances which may be offered in by-elections. When the Warrington by-election came up, Jenkins stood for the SDP, and astonished almost everyone by finishing in a strong second place, with 42 per cent of the vote.

Had Williams been the SDP candidate in Warrington, she might well have won, and become the new party’s leader, with a wider appeal than Jenkins. She was instead returned to Parliament at the Crosby by-election in November 1981, with Jenkins following at Glasgow Hillhead in March 1982.

Those were famous victories, which few would have predicted when the Limehouse Declaration was signed. Disappointment followed when at the general election of 1983, the SDP gained 25.4 per cent of the vote, but only 23 seats, while Labour, with 27.6 per cent, had 209 seats.

But although the obvious lesson of this is that the first-past-the-post electoral system favours the established parties, that law should not be regarded as immutable.

There comes a tipping point, not quite attained by the SDP in 1983, at which an insurgent party finds that first-past-the-post works in its favour. In the 2015 general election in Scotland, the SNP won 56 seats, compared to six in 2010, while Labour won a single seat, compared to 41 in 2010.

Our politics can be astonishingly volatile. If Corbyn and his advisers treat what happened yesterday as insignificant, it is all the more likely to turn out to be the start of something big.

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Conservative education policy is up for grabs

Education is a journey from primary through secondary to tertiary.  Or so we may think of it.  But perhaps it would be better to view it the other way round.

The best of the universities are the glory of our system.  Seven of the world’s top 50 universities are in Britain.  Three are in the best ten.  Two of these, Oxford and Cambridge, top the table.  No country other than the United States, which dominates the tables, performs better in them.  The exam system, based on GCSEs at 16 and A-levels at 18, is tailored for the university sector – enabling colleges to pick out the most promising students from the results (a function that it by and large fulfills).

Put aside for the moment claims that the sector is too large; that polytechnics and universities should never have merged; that for students to push on to the less meritorious of them makes no economic sense.  For all the defensibility of these propositions, the university sector works.  Debate, if you wish, the wisdom of saddling young people with large debts through tuition fees.  These have not deterred a record number of students from the most disadvantaged areas from going to university.

At the heart of this academic system is the academic ideal: that study is worth undertaking for its own sake.  Taxpayer funding and accountability, the needs of business, utilitarian thinking, the demands of research – all these are present and correct (up to a point), but the notion that it is civilising for people on the threshold of adulthood to join a community of scholars for a period of time dies hard.  And the presumption that knowledge is its own reward reaches down deep into the school system.

It was at the heart of the Gove reforms under the Coalition.  The former Education Secretary used two main levers to winch schools to roughly where he wanted them to be.  The first was pressure from above: the Nick Gibb-led phonics teaching and checks, reformed GCSEs and A-levels, an overhauled OFSTED ,a new national college for teaching and leadership.  The second was pressure from below through academisation, the new wave of free schools, and the nurturing of such campaigning bodies as the Free Schools Network.

Now along comes Robert Halfon.  The Chairman of the Education Select Committee – and our columnist – is challenging the status quo on school exclusions, itself is a Govian creation.  More broadly, he proposes to stand the Coalition’s revolution on its head.  Where Gove originally wanted to make GCSEs more like the old O-levels, Halfon wants to sweep both them and A-levels away altogether, introducing instead what he calls a baccalaureate at 18.

The Education Chairman offers up a pinch of incense to study for its own sake, and comes close to denying that there is an academic and vocational divide at all.  But it is hard to dispute that his focus is vocational and not academic; applied, not theoretical.  There is talk of the fourth industrial revolution, skills shortages, artificial intelligence, “the march of the robots”, a Royal Commission and of a new curriculum to replace one “conceived in 1904”.

On these pages, he has demanded that Oxford open up “to skills, degree apprenticeships and technical education”.  The emotional pulse that powers Halfon’s beliefs has a long and distinguished history.  Since the rise of the public schools and of a Prussianised Germany, through the missing technical element of the Butler reforms and the hastily jettisoned proposals of the Tomlinson report, we can hear a common chorus.

It is that the English education system went wrong on the playing fields of Eton, that the system is still preoccupied with turning out gentlemen rather than players, and that Britain lost its industrial edge precisely because of the academic-led system that the opening of this piece tried to describe.  It will be objected that the picture it painted is false, anyway: for most pupils, even now, education is not a journey from primary to tertiary. It ends at sixteen.

The Government wants to address the vocational side through T-levels and new colleges.  Critics will argue that this is yet more alphabet soup, and maybe laud Halfon’s more radical programme instead.  Our purpose today is not to argue the toss about whether his approach is right or wrong.  Rather, it is mull its narrower significance.  Who else in the Conservative Party is pushing a post-Brexit education programme that catches the eye?  Would it be right to U-turn on the Gove revolution?  Which way – as Nick Boles used to put it – is up?

It is self-evident that Brexit, or rather the Government’s handling of it, is sucking the life out of debate elsewhere.  But the absence of discussion within the Party about the future of education is striking.  One has come to expect a certain timidity about health policy, perhaps understandably given the electoral risks.  None the less, there is no history of Labour owning the education half of that odd, inseparable couple, schools-and-hospitals.  The quiet is uncanny.

In an interview with Andrew Gimson on this site last week, Damian Hinds said that the post he holds sometimes requires “a bold and vociferous and constant presence, at other times less so”.  This read as an admission that he sees himself as a consolidator rather than a trailblazer: a healer rather than a warrior, as Patrick Cosgrave used to put it.  And it is perhaps inevitable that the role of an Education Secretary in a government with no majority will be incremental – tweaking away at the teacher workload, T-levels and character education.

But this pause for breath leaves questions for the future.  Should education reform indeed be fixed on incrementally improving early provision and technical education – on some of the most visible gaps in the system?  Or should the Gove system be recharged, with faster academisation and more backing for free schools?  What has happened to the Theresa May Mark One vision, powered by Nick Timothy, of more grammar schools, and some universities compelled, in effect, to become technical colleges?

Or instead should Halfon’s ideas gain free rein, with a Royal Commission to look at overhauling the exam system, and presumably the University settlement too, from top to bottom?   What about further education? Where do adult and refresher courses fit in?  How can teachers and schools cope with supplementing the role of parents and homes?  Above all, what is education for, anyway?  Is the academic ideal at its core, and to be honoured and preserved, or simply outdated – a vanity to be hurled on the bonfire?

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that ConservativeHome will be running a mini-series on reform tomorrow, Wednesday and Thursday.  Brexit will be robbed of purpose if politicians and parties have no idea what to do with it when it happens.

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A cold climate for younger voters

If you believe that human activity is the main driver of climate change, this Government has policies for you.  Its framework was set by the Climate Change Act of 2008 – introduced by the last Labour Government, supported by the Conservatives and sustained by the Coalition – which set a greenhouse gas reduction target.  This is to reduce emissions to 80 per cent of 1990 levels by 2050.  You might reply that what matters is reducing emissions, not setting targets, let alone setting them law.  But successive Governments have done so: emissions in the UK have fallen by 42 per cent since 1990 – faster than those of any other G7 nation.

This record presumably doesn’t satisfy the pupils who took a day off school on Friday – mostly unauthorised – to demand that the Government declare a ‘climate emergency”.  It doesn’t satisfy some 50 Conservative MPs, either.  They want that emissions target for 2050 to be zero.  The Parliamentarian who organised a letter that they signed was Simon Clarke.  He will be known to readers of this site as one of our most committed pro-Brexit writers.

Elsewhere, Michael Gove has picked up the green ball and run with it.  He has upped the pace of activity at the Environment Department.  There are bans galore: on microbeads and ivory, on new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2040 (assuming successor governments don’t back off), on plastic straws, drinks stirrers and cotton buds (at least, if Gove has his way).  Elsewhere, he is setting up a plastic bottle deposit return scheme, has slapped up CCTV in slaughterhouses, and ensured that businesses will pay the full cost of recycling or disposing of their packaging waste.

It is worth setting all this out in the context of the Government’s miserabalist response to the Youth Strike 4 Climate event.  Theresa May said that “disruption increases teachers’ workloads and wastes lesson time that teachers have carefully prepared for”.  Andrea Leadsom added that: “it’s truancy, not a strike”.  Ministers and Downing Street are overwhelmed by Brexit and most of them don’t seem to have thought their reactions through.

Yes, yes: we know.  Pupils should indeed be at school on weekdays.  The planners of the march doubtless selected Friday as the day most likely to swell numbers: choose the day before Saturday, and so make the weekend longer.  If one wants to get an accurate measure of how much young people care about the climate, try holding an event over a weekend and see how many turn up.  As it is, only 15,000 turned out of some three million secondary school children.  You will point out that there is limited utility in engaging with people who chant “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn” or “f**k Theresa May”, whatever their age may be.

You will add, too, that those who really care about the environment don’t tear up grass, and that swigging champagne in public is a novel form of environmental protest (though also not unusual, you will concede, among young people of all political persuasions, including those who pass through the Bullingdon Club).  All true enough – but beside the point.  It is one thing for a right-of-centre website to say all this; quite another for a right-of-centre party to do so.

The Conservative Party has a problem with younger voters.  You may not care for the response to the march of Claire Perry – who is the Government’s lead minister on Climate Change, operating out of the Business Department rather than Gove’s – but her psychology was sound: “I suspect if this was happening 40 years ago, I would be out there too,” she said.  This was at least a way of beginning to gain a hearing among the mass of young people who neither went on the march nor vote Conservative.  (Some will doubtless disagree, but the most vociferous of these are likely to have right-of-centre views in any event.)

Only once one has gained a hearing can one start a dialogue.  How many younger voters know about the emissions reduction record with which we opened this piece?  If they really want zero emissions by 2050, are they conscious of the potential trade-offs?  If they wish to get there now, what would that mean to the public services who rely on present patterns of energy consumption, or for poorer peoples’ electricity bills, or for younger peoples’ jobs and opportunities?

Even were voters prepared to pay this price, what about emissions in other countries – which produce the overwhelming majority of emissions?  How can we weigh the balance of the human activity in relation to climate change against that of other factors, such as the activity of the sun?  Above all – and getting down to brass tacks – what is each person doing to reduce his or her own emissions footprint?  That draws the conversation to a very conservative theme indeed: personal responsibility.

Some will doubtless claim that there is name for approaching the subject in this way: appeasement.  If this is so, then any attempt by any politician to engage with a view other than his own is appeasement.  Another name is more accurate: politics.  Political engagement by a political party means persuading those who don’t already support it to at least think about doing so.  Oh, and as for “f**k Theresa May”: don’t we now hear this message each day, in effect, from rather a large slice of Conservative MPs?

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Letwin’s wildcat executive would reduce ministers to marionettes

To listen to Oliver Letwin’s speech of Tuesday – which we have a video clip of, if you missed it – is to gaze a long, long way through the constitutional looking glass.

In it, he admits to what had previously only been hinted at: that if the House of Commons passes the bill known as ‘Cooper/Boles’, the legislature will fundamentally usurp the proper role of the Government in running the country.

As he puts it, the House of Commons will be the Cabinet. It would be, as he acknowledges, a situation almost certainly unique in the uniquely long history of Parliament as a representative institution. He asserts, perhaps sincerely but inevitably falsely, that this upheaval would be temporary.

Brexit has prompted a huge volume of writing about the constitution, and spurious allegations of ‘constitutional outrages’ are not hard to find. But the consequences of what Letwin and his confederates propose are truly mind-boggling.

Earlier this month, I wrote about the unwisdom of the ‘Meaningful Vote’ as a constitutional innovation. So much of the incoherence which critics of the Government claim are making the UK a laughing stock on the international stage are rooted in the fact that the Commons has deprived ministers of their normal powers to conduct foreign relations and conclude treaties.

Of course, the impact of the Meaningful Vote pales in comparison to what Letwin proposes to unleash. But they each have their roots in the same dogma: that it is right and good to expand the power of the House of Commons, regardless of the circumstances.

So let’s consider just some of the issues raised by the Cooper/Boles plan to “fundamentally realign the relationship between civil service, government and parliament”.

As Letwin admits, the plan will take more than one law to take effect. Once underway the establishment of what will effectively be a wildcat executive will require further legislation, introduced by backbenchers and imposed on the Cabinet. The more of this there is, the more fatuous suggestion that the consequences will be containable: both the precedent and perhaps much of the legislative architecture of the Letwin Ministry will remain in place, to be wielded against any future minority government.

Moreover, what becomes of the actual ministers? Are they expected simply to remain obligingly in office, rendered an extension of the civil service as they wield executive power at the behest of the government-once-removed? To remain politically accountable for the policies of a shadowy parallel executive?

And not just politically accountable: all the mechanisms our system has evolved for scrutinising executive decision-making will remain trained on Ministers of the Crown. It is they, and not the officers of the new order, who can be called before the House, field questions, and so on. Yet what is the point of quizzing the Prime Minister, or indeed any Secretary of State, on Britain’s Brexit policy if they are not directing it?

As Letwin acknowledges in his speech, the actual Government is accountable to Parliament. But if Parliament becomes the Cabinet, what steps up to take the role of Parliament? There is nothing, save perhaps the judges and political scrutiny is not their function.

That’s just a small portion of the questions thrown up by these proposals. Elsewhere Nikki da Costa, the parliamentary and procedural expert, has sketched out an entirely distinct, political problem with how the Cooper/Boles plan would severely degrade not only procedural scrutiny but political accountability to the electorate.

It’s all worth a read, however right at the end she hits on something particularly important.

There’s a reason that the measures Letwin is advancing have not been tried before, and it is not because this country has never before faced a serious crisis. It is that the House of Commons always has the power to dismiss a government in which it has lost confidence, and either install a new one or take the argument to the people. Even outside a formal vote of confidence individual MPs can resign the whip or even cross the floor, should they wish.

But doing so involves taking responsibility: for renouncing your party loyalty; for withdrawing your confidence in the Government; for taking your case to the country.

Cooper/Boles, by contrast,  involves deliberately maintaining a public-facing theatre of constitutional normalcy – of confidence in Her Majesty’s Government; of ministerial responsibility; of the party system; and so on – whilst wresting and then wielding power beneath it, far removed from all established mechanisms of scrutiny and accountability.

You cannot honourably claim to have confidence in the Government whilst usurping its power to direct policy on the single most crucial challenge facing the country. The Prime Minister would be within her rights to treat Cooper/Boles as a de facto confidence measure.

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Why did the Government craft its own defeat yesterday evening?

The crucial words in yesterday’s Government motion were that the Commons “reiterates its support for the approach to leaving the EU expressed by this House on 29 January 2019”.

That risked being read as a reference not only to the Brady amendment (which supported the removal of the backstop) but also to the Spelman amendment (which effectively called for No Brexit if the choice was between No Brexit and No Deal).

Remainers such as Guto Bebb and Justine Greening were never going to vote for Brady.  And Leavers such as Steve Baker were never going to vote for Spelman.

There are more members of the European Research Group than Conservative second referendum supporters, which helps to explain why the former are in the spotlight this morning.  But most of both joined in not backing Theresa May.

So why did the Government not slap down a bland motion that didn’t risk giving second referendum supporters and ERG members alike  reasons or excuses to revolt?

One explanation being floated by Government loyalists is that Downing Street or the whips or both were attempting to stave off the resignation of pro-Soft Brexit and Remain Ministers over the prospect of No Deal.

But most of these seem to believe that they don’t need to quit yet to achieve that end.  And there is a questionmark over whether many will at all.

Another is that the whips or Number Ten or both were trying to thwart the Letwin/Cooper/Boles attempt to make the legislature, in effect, the executive.  But there was no prospect of the Commons voting for that plan yesterday.

Then there is a conspiracy theory – that the whips were seeking to flush out the number of ERG members who might in due course oppose a deal with an amended backstop, but miscalculated.  This is fantastical.

To date, the EU appears to have decided that it would rather negotiate with Theresa May than the Commons.  That is the most natural reading of its decision to engage in further talks with the Government after the House voted for the Brady amendment.

So a further question this morning is whether the EU will pull the plug during the next few days.  If it doesn’t, then the consequences of the Government’s defeat yesterday will be few.  If it does, they could be many.

Either way, experienced hands like Robert Syms and Nicky Morgan were asking yesterday afternoon what on earth the Government was trying to achieve.  Perhaps today will bring answers.

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May’s new Brexit hell. An alliance of hard and soft Brexiteers humiliates her. And any sense of Government progress is lost.

Had Anna Soubry insisted on putting her amendment to the vote – and the Speaker would surely have selected it for that purpose – Theresa May would on balance have been helped rather than harmed.

This is because although the Government would have been subject to the embarrassment of releasing papers relating to No Deal (or risk being found in contempt of Parliament), it would not endured the greater indignity of losing its own main motion.

For if Soubry’s amendment had been passed, the Prime Minister’s motion would then not have been put to the Commons at all.  So it would not have been subject to defeat by 303 votes to 258.

The motion was defeated precisely because some Remainers and Soft Brexiteers, such as Phillip Lee, and the bulk of the European Reseach Group – Bernard Jenkin and others – joined together to abstain.

By crafting a motion that seemed both to back the Spelman and Brady amendments passed last month – the first explicitly opposed to No Deal; the second implicitly preparded, however reluctantly, to accept it – the Government created not so much a rod as a hammer for its own back.

Lee and his like didn’t like the Brady amendment; Jenkins and his ilk didn’t like the Spelman one.  Furthermore, and as we wrote this morning, Olly Robbins remarks in a Brussels bar have revived fears in the ERG that Downing Street is seeking to play them.

The sum of all this is that May, having laboriously sweated her way to the top of a hill last month, has now fallen back down it.  She briefly got most of the Conservative Party behind her for a vote, and has now promptly lost its backing once again.

This afternoon, Oliver Letwin was speaking in the Commons of turning the legislature into the executive, and the Commons taking control of the negotiation altogether.  That would have profound and baleful constitutional implications.

Labour seems to be on the verge of a split, with some of its own MPs defying the Whip.  But the Prime Minister has to lead a government, not the opposition, and her exposure to political damage is therefore greater.

The EU’s conduct since the January votes has implied that it still seeks to give her more time.  Hence its decision to allow new deadlines for new discussions.  Whether it will continue to do so in the light of this latest debacle remains to be seen.

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The consequences can be argued either way.  If the Government is defeated again in the Commons later today, and the cause is European Research Group or other pro-Brexit MPs withholding support, this could turn out be to helpful to the Prime Minister – because the EU will conclude that she needs concessions on the Brexit deal she has agreed to get it though the House.

More likely, a loss of this kind would be harmful, because the EU would judge in consequence that Theresa May really can’t get MPs to back her for very long about anything whatsoever.  That would make them less inclined, not more, to rework the backstop.  Which in turn would risk the Cooper amendment, or something like it, being carried in the Commons sooner rather than later.  Which would make Brexit less likely to happen in any form at all.

Either way, the central problem for Downing Street is that trust in it, from all parts of the Parliamentary party, is very low indeed.  The success of the Brady amendment a fortnight ago only masked this problem, rather than solving it.  The ERG doesn’t trust the Prime Minister to seek meaningful changes to the backstop.  Nor does it believe that she will pursue the solution proposed by the Malthouse Compromise – but, rather, will aim for additions to the backstop rather than changes in its text, let alone scrapping it (as the Brady amendment proposed).

Furthermore, the ERG itself isn’t united on its own aims.  Some of its members, plus other Brexiteering MPs, could live with a codicil to the backstop.  Others insist that the problems posed by May’s deal reach much wider than the backstop, anyway: this point was obscured by the whole group throwing its weight behind the Brady amendment.  There is no way of knowing how the numbers break down.  What is clear that Olly Robbins’ overheard conversation in a Brussels bar has done her no good whatsoever.

Whatever Number Ten’s intentions when it drafted the terms of its motion for debate today, the ERG is now even more suspicious of May than it was before – over her intentions in relation to extension, and to the Customs Union, as well as to the backstop.  And no wonder, since it is clear that under the latest timetable the Government will almost certainly need a short technical extension, at best.

This is because she is simply running out of time for a Withdrawal Bill, and other necessary measures, to pass Parliament before March 29 even if a revised deal wins MPs’ approval next month.  That Downing Street continues to deny this helps to explain why trust, as well as time, is almost exhausted.

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The most pro-intervention speech by a Defence Secretary since the Iraq War

Some of the Conservative Party’s most knowledgeable foreign affairs specialists are a bit sniffy about Gavin Williamson’s defence policy speech earlier this week.  One of its centre pieces was the announcement that “the first operational mission of the HMS Queen Elizabeth will include the Mediterranean, the Middle East and the Pacific region.  “Significantly, British and American F35s will be embedded in the carrier’s air wing,” he continued, with a nod to our close relationship with America, before speaking of enhancing “the reach and lethality of our armed forces”.

That sounds a lot like a metaphorical, though certainly not a literal, shot across China’s bows in that last case.  One senior MP with an interest in security policy told ConservativeHome that he is all for stepping up activity in the South China Sea.  But “if you go out every few years for a few months, there’s no point.  It doesn’t show strength, it advertises weakness”.

Williamson’s answer to that might be to highlight the £1 billion that he screwed out of Philip Hammond in last autumn’s Budget, which itself came on top of an £800 million increase during the summer.  One point of the speech was to signal that he will soon be back for more: after all, there is a £7 billion black hole in the Ministry of Defence’s equipment budgets.  Without money to help reduce it, and more, the Defence Secretary will have no chance whatsoever of achieving the aims he set out.  These were so striking that it is well worth pondering their implications.

Only a few years ago, when the Coalition Government was formed, Russia was not considered a serious danger to national security at all.  It was only last year that Williamson tore up previous assumptions and told the Defence Select Committee that it is now a bigger threat to us than terrorism.  And earlier this week, he duly added China to the list of British security problems: “all the while, [it] is developing its modern military capability and its commercial power,” he said.  It was the most pro-intervention speech that any Defence Secretary has made since the Iraq War, listing “Kuwait, Bosnia, Sierra Leone and Kosovo” as earlier, successful, valuable incursions.

Hence his reference not only to cyber and to new drones for the RAF, but to new Poseidon P-8 Maritime Patrol Aircraft, new equipment for the army, and two naval “littoral strike groups complete with escorts, support vessels and helicopters. One would be based East of Suez in the Indo-Pacific and one based West of Suez in the Mediterranean, Atlantic and Baltic”.

All this raises three questions.  First, is it the Government’s collective position that China is no longer the friend that George Osborne saw it as, but is instead, in effect, a foe – or at least to be treated with a premis of suspicion?  Second, are the voters really up for a more interventionist-leaning foreign and defence posture, especially at a time when America seems to be entering a period of relative isolationism?  (“We stand ready to support our friends in Ukraine and the Balkans,” the Defence Secretary declared.)  Finally, Williamson’s programme implies higher defence spending still.  Is the Treasury willing to fund it?

The speech might have been delivered in much the same way were Britain not due to leave the EU.  There is no necessary connection between the re-ordering to which the Defence Secretary referred and Brexit.  But quitting the EU does make a difference to defence policy.  If we are to remain committed to our common continent, that implies solidifying the army presence in Eastern Europe – at a time when its manpower is at its lowest for more than a century.  And if we are also to become Global Britain, that suggests extending our reach and capabilities.

Unlike many of his colleagues, Williamson has no military background and, in the Conservative Party, the post that he holds is greatly prized – and seen as almost on a rank with the great offices of state.  His promotion was therefore not a popular one, and he has been widely briefed against.

Furthermore, the speech is bound to be read, by a cynical Westminster Village, as a leadership election preparation exercise.  Our plea for the Defence Secretary is that he is damned if he does and also if he doesn’t.  If he sets out a policy direction, he will be accused of ulterior motives. If he doesn’t, it will be claimed that he has nothing to say.

At a time when Brexit is all-consuming, and most Cabinet Ministers other than Michael Gove seem unwilling to make an impression, it ought to be thoroughly welcome that one of the others is developing a policy, even if you don’t agree it – which by and large we do, as believers in higher defence spending.

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