25 Jul 2018

Brexit coup d’état?

The written answer from the Prime Minister explaining that David Davis’ old department has been stripped of all pretence that it is leading on the Brexit negotiations will not have come as any surprise to Mr Davis’ successor, Dominic Raab. He was told just that as he took over the job and told the select committee he used to sit on that the re-think was, amongst other things, meant to reduce the “tension” in government over who held the Brexit steering wheel. Mr Raab is believed to have insisted to the PM that “no deal” preparations needed to be stepped up but did not push back against the formalising of what had become the de facto division of responsibilities some months earlier: negotiations are led from No.10 and the Cabinet Office by Olly Robbins acting on the PMs instructions. But Mr Raab does believe that he has secured agreement that he will be properly plugged in to future negotiations and correspondence between the PM and Olly Robbins.

Mr Raab was sitting alongside Olly Robbins for the evidence session. Mr Robbins looked across supportively and respectfully to Mr Raab, occasionally beginning an answer with a deferential “if I may.” He faced some tart questions from pro-Brexit Tory MP Peter Bone. Mr Robbins was asked if he had been writing his own alternative White Paper behind David Davis’ back the whole time David Davis thought he was writing the definitive document. Olly Robbins insisted there was no separate text, no separate White Paper though specific papers were prepared (by him) for the Chequers summit. His questioners seemed dissatisfied with those answers.

They were chasing down what has become one of the central Brexiteer narratives in Parliament these days. Mr Davis, it is argued, thought he’d headed off what he saw as moves towards “harmonisation” and Single Market style rule-taking ahead of the first Chequers summit in February. Mr Davis told No.10 back then at the start of the year that he wouldn’t even attend the summit unless harmonisation on goods was taken out of the document. He and his team now rue that they didn’t spot, as they now see it, a subsequent behind the scenes operation by Mr Robbins to re-insert the same thoughts in the White Paper presented a few weeks ago at the latest Chequers gathering (a revision which prompted Mr Davis’ resignation).

Craig Mackinlay, pro-Brexit Tory MP, said there had been nothing less than “a coup d’etat attempted.” Mr Robbins said he didn’t recognise that and worked closely with David Davis and now with Dominic Raab.

But in a small indication of the different approaches you can see between different Brexiteers, Jacob Rees-Mogg, speaking in measured and sinister tones, made it clear that he saw the Prime Minister herself as the villain of the piece not her dutiful official. Mr Rees-Mogg said he thought the Prime Minister herself had misled MPs by not telling them until today that she had shifted power over the Brexit talks away from David Davis’ old department. Mr Robbins looked slightly relieved that Mr Rees-Mogg had not identified him as his prey but  said that the shift in  had been well advertised quite a while ago.

Mr Raab told the Committee that finishing a full deal with the EU27 on a new relationship would be “a challenge but one that I am up for,” quite a distance from the wording used by his predecessor David Davis who insisted that it was very possible.

Mr Raab at one point in the evidence said the government had no intention of drawing a border down the Red Sea.

How does the session ending yesterday compare with previous sessions in terms of legislation achieved? Look at the bills introduced, as the Institute for Government did last month, and the number of bills is smaller than might be expected but not massively out of kilter with previous administrations, the key difference is the magnitude of what was being attempted in law changes. A government straight after a general election normally has some big ticket items, mandated by the election manifesto it sends some chunky bills re-thinking public services into Parliament. This government has purposely avoided such heavy duty items. The 2017 General Election result has triggered this response but it is also informed by government tactics. Other minority governments over the years have taken risks and suffered defeats. This government has prioritised not losing votes. There’s no reason to think that is going to change.

The thought crossing some MPs’ minds as they walk out the door is whether a random crisis as yet unforeseen could trigger a recall this summer. This looks like a government “peculiarly badly placed to cope” with any such unforeseen pressures, one whip said. Although repair work starts immediately all over the building it is “recess proof.” The committee rooms might be tied up with building work but the chamber (and the main catering outlets) would be ready to be fired up if needed.

As for the question of Tory MPs triggering a vote of no confidence in the PM in the middle of the summer holidays, senior Tories sent the message out very clearly before MPs left the premises that that was not a great idea. It could be felt to require an immediate summons of Tory MPs back to Westminster to vote on the motion. As I say, it is not expected and the message was sent out before today that it was deeply undesirable.

The suggestions that the number of letters already delivered is “around 40” is one that seems surprisingly high to me. The former Chairman of the 1922 Committee, Sir Michael Spicer, has written of how some of  those claiming to have written such letters back in the 1990s hadn’t always delivered them to him and there can be a bit of inflation in such numbers.

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