PM’s attempts to sound Churchillian merely reek of desperation’

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Posted by Geoff Bishop.

Written by Iain Macwhirter.

LAST week, the New York Times described Brexit as “controlled suicide”, but that could equally characterise the state of Theresa May’s government. Ministers are falling by the day. The PM is in her Number Ten bunker, increasingly detached from reality, issuing slightly deranged decrees, as Corbyn’s Red Army approaches. Her latest is that MPs must back an amendment compelling the UK to leave the EU at the 11th hour, precisely, on March 29, 2019.

This was presumably intended to sound affirmative and vaguely Churchillian, but it reeked of desperation from a Prime Minister who’s long since lost control of events. The edict only drew attention to the fact that, as Lord Kerr, one of the authors of Article 50 has pointed out, Brexit is eminently reversible. Admittedly this seems like a remote possibility now – but a lot could happen in the next two years. Theresa May is presumably worried that the forthcoming turbulence in the Brexit negotiations, over issues such as the Irish land border, might inspire British voters to exercise their democratic right to change their minds. But she’s damned if she’ll let them. We all sink together.

It is now obvious that Theresa May cannot remain as Prime Minister for much longer. Her inability to deal with the recent sexual harassment scandals was bad enough. That was always going to be difficult because the alleged ministerial misdemeanours were so imprecise. But it was up to May, as party leader, to make explicit where the line is to be drawn in future between improper behaviour and consensual flirting. At the very least, she should have had something significant to say about sexism and misogyny.

But last week cabinet affairs descended from bawdy Carry On comedy to black farce. The intensely ambitious International Development Secretary, Priti Patel, resigned after admitting she’d misinformed the PM about secret meetings she’d had with senior Israeli politicians on the Golan Heights in Israeli-occupied Syria. Well, it’s what everyone does on holiday isn’t it, like touring the local ruins.

As if that wasn’t enough, a typically misinformed remark from the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson before a Commons committee could, some fear, lead to an innocent woman, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, serving a longer sentence in an Iranian prison. Johnson has long been the favourite son of the UK Conservative Party, and if the membership had their way he would be in Number Ten tomorrow. But after a succession of gaffes and worse, his must surely be one of the least safe pair of hands ever to hold the reins of British diplomacy. If Theresa May wasn’t so enfeebled he would be gone tomorrow.

Boris is regarded as a bad joke in Europe and an elitist buffoon at home. His attempts to wriggle out of responsibility for saying incorrectly that Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been “training journalists” – tantamount to treason in paranoid Iran – is a reminder of his casual relationship to the truth. Johnson was, after all, once sacked from the Times for making up a quote. He was sacked again from the Tory front bench in 2004 for apparently misleading his boss Michael Howard about an alleged affair.

Boris had, as always, just let his mouth run away with him about Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s activities, but Priti Patel’s freelance diplomacy is perhaps more alarming. It seems improbable that the UK Foreign Office, and therefore Boris Johnson, could have been unaware of these meetings, since one of them was with the Prime Minister of Israel himself, Benjamin Netanyahu. Apparently the talks involved the eye-popping suggestion that Israel should become a recipient of British overseas aid. This for field hospitals in the Golan which, as our own David Pratt has reported, may have been used to treat fighters from al Nusra, an offshoot of al-Qaeda.

The suspicion must be that Patel, under cover of a family holiday, was sounding out Israel as a potential new best friend for the UK, post Brexit, as part of the Global Britain strategy. The fact that these meetings were under a cloak of secrecy suggests that she, and perhaps the UK Government, is not sure the British public is ready to swap the EU for closer relations with this controversial Middle East power.

Patel was effectively sacked last week for breaking the ministerial code, but have you ever seen a cabinet minister look so cheerful about their dismissal? Patel clearly believes that being dumped by Theresa May is no dishonour, and that she’ll be back. It might seem inconceivable that someone who only became an MP in 2010, reportedly lobbied for the tobacco industry and once wrote that “the British are the worst idlers in the world” could become Prime Minister of Britain. But she ticks a lot of boxes for pro Brexit Tories, and they still have the upper hand. Who better to have as the new face of Tory xenophobia than the daughter of Ugandan Asian immigrants?

The bookies’ favourite for replacing Theresa May is still the Brexit Secretary, David Davis, even though he has let it be known that he intends to retire after Brexit Day when he’ll be 70. But he could easily postpone his retirement party. However, those pictures of his 2005 leadership campaign, which featured women in tight T-shirts emblazoned with “It’s DD for me”, won’t reassure female voters that he has really caught up with the post-sexist times.

There is a new generation of Tories just outside Government circles who are much touted as possible future leaders. Our own Ruth Davidson is one, as is the Foreign Affairs Select Committee chair Tom Tugendhat and the former minister, Nick Boles, who received wide coverage last week for saying on BBC’s Today that: “The age of austerity is over; the age of investment must begin.” But there are two problems: the newbies are too young and those three are Remainers.

The Tories are still deeply divided over Brexit and the single market and when Theresa May finally goes, this may break out into open civil war. This, of course, is one reason why both sides have been so keen to keep her in place. When there is a weak leader at the top, the various factions are relatively free to manoeuvre and plot with impunity. However, after last week, I think they’re all beginning to realise that the real winner from the cabinet of chaos is likely to be Jeremy Corbyn.

Where does this leave Scotland as the government of the UK commits collective suicide? Well, very much out in the cold as the First Minister said last week, and kept in the dark about Brexit. The last thing on UK ministers’ minds right now is the fate of devolution and the distribution of powers repatriated from Brussels. Since indyref 2 was effectively cancelled in June, most Tory MPs think that the SNP has shot its bolt and can be safely ignored.

But events are having an impact in Scotland. There is increasing alienation from the culture of politics in Westminster, on everything from ministerial misbehaviour to Brexit. If the EU negotiations fail spectacularly, as it appears they might, and if the zombie cabinet staggers on, it may be that Scottish voters will think again about their options. Most observers have written off the prospects of an early independence referendum, but as the UK ship of state sinks, it will only be natural for Scots voters to start thinking about a lifeboat.

The Herald, Scotland