Donald Macintyre's Sketch: Skulduggery or stupidity? Even Michael Gove doesn’t know


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To describe the Government as having a rough ride in the Commons on Monday would be a heroic understatement. “A travesty… tainted with chicanery”, said Bill Cash. “Legislative legerdemain… tyranny… an outrageous abuse of parliamentary procedure”, added Jacob Rees-Mogg. And this was just the Tories! 

Alice in Wonderland is an overworked analogy to describe the surreally argumentative, but Wonderland was where we were. A promised motion on the European arrest warrant which didn’t actually mention the European arrest warrant! Indeed, while explaining that MPs would not therefore be voting on the dreaded warrant, Speaker Bercow sounded a bit like the Queen in Alice. You half-expected him to shout “off with her head” at Theresa May. Instead he contented himself with accusing ministers of “trying to slip things through, through some sort of artifice”. “Some people,” he added might think all this was “very clever” but the public was “contemptuous” of what is not “straight dealing”.

Who he had in mind by “some people” was not entirely clear. Was it the Home Secretary? Or was it the Chief Whip Michael Gove, generously described by Mr Rees Mogg as having a “brain the size of a planet” to dramatise his (Mr Rees-Mogg’s) professed incredulity that such a genius could produce such a procedural dog’s dinner.

Certainly, the Chief Whip had the leading non-speaking role in this farce, scuttling between intense discussions with Ms May – looking surprisingly demure given the chaos unfolding around her – and Speaker Bercow.

The result was that Ms May unexpectedly stepped in to wind up the debate on the “business motion”, a seemingly innocent contrivance to ensure that MPs had all evening to debate the warrant which they would not be voting on. Many MPs were worried about how the “public” would see all this. In fact, so arcane were the procedural issues that much of the debate might have been taking place in Finnish.

Ms May’s intervention – and attempted explanation – was required because the “Lord High Chancellor”, as Rees Mogg insisted on describing Chris Grayling, did not convince anyone with his  short opening explanation that the vote would be “taken” as being on all 35 European justice items the Government was planning to opt back into. He understandably rushed through this bit given it was the exact opposite of what Bercow – and indeed the motion itself – had said; before, with slightly too evident relief, saying he wouldn’t be there for the rest of the debate because he had to speak at the Lord Mayor’s banquet.

Which produced the day’s best joke, from shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper. She compared Ms May to Paul Daniels, having conjured the warrant out of the motion and now deploying Grayling as her loyal Debbie McGee. “Do they like it?” she asked, adapting the famous Daniels catchphrase, “Not a lot.” You only had to look at the glowering faces at the Eurosceptic Tories opposite to see how right she was.