It was the worst day of Theresa May's political career, until next week

The prime minister lost more parliamentary votes in a single day than Gordon Brown lost in three years. Next week, she will lose the big one. 

Tom Peck
Political Sketch Writer
Tuesday 04 December 2018 20:35
Parliament votes to allow MPs more control of Brexit if Theresa May's deal falls in Commons

The door of the flat above 10 Downing Street flat clicks shut. In the kitchen, Philip May stops rotating the tin opener around the rim of the baked bean tin and turns his head toward the hallway.

“Hello darling. How was your day?”

An exhalation is heard, followed by the sound of breaking glass. In the living room, the cat quietly turns to stone.

“Well I lost more votes than Gordon Brown managed in three years. My own government became the first in history to be found in contempt of parliament, which means that in the morning I’ve got to publish the legal advice on just how terrible my own attorney general reckons Brexit will be. Yes, Philip, yes, the same chap who I got to introduce me at party conference. Yes, yes I know he said Brexit was “an eagle mewing her mighty youth” and yes, now it turns out he’d rather be imprisoned in the Tower of London than admit in public to how bad he has said it will be in private.

“The TV debate where I wanted to show the people just how useless Jeremy Corbyn is isn’t happening and everyone is already saying it’s because I’m too useless to do it. My oldest friends voted against me. The EU has decided Article 50 can be revoked unilaterally, which means Brexit could be stopped altogether. No, Philip, that’s not a good thing. What do you mean why? I can’t remember why. Oh, and I’ve just opened a five day debate on my Brexit deal that’s going to end with my last two years work being chucked out, and barring a miracle that isn’t going to happen, me being chucked out after.”

On a less busy day, the prime minister might have had time to include the fact that the Governor of the Bank of England is now at open civil war with the previous Governor of the Bank of England. And he had to tell MPs on the Treasury select committee who had accused him of ratcheting up Project Fear by publishing his analysis of what might happen if the UK leaves the EU without a deal, that he had only published it because they themselves had asked him to.

On an even less busy day, she might have mentioned the Governor of the Bank of England stating in no uncertain terms that Britain’s ports “are not ready” for no deal Brexit. She might have mentioned infighting in her own cabinet over whether fruit and vegetables should take priority over medicines in the flotilla of emergency ships that don’t yet exist but will be required to take supplies to Southampton, Hull and elsewhere to alleviate unimaginable pressure on the port of Dover. (The port of Dover’s own MP, by the way, Charlie Elphicke, a Tory in theory but currently suspended from the party, is in favour of hard Brexit. And he was one of the ones to whom the Governor of the Bank of England had to patiently explain there’s no point being outraged by the publication of analysis you yourself asked me to publish.)

In the moments before the House of Commons voted to find the government in contempt of parliament, Andrea Leadsom had warned that precedents were at risk of being set. “What we break now may be difficult to fix later,” she said. You don’t say.

The real precedent, of course, is parliament attempting to do one of the most difficult and certainly the most divisive thing it’s ever done, while it is led by a minority government that is itself in open civil war. It is, as Abraham Lincoln never quite said, government of the people, by that old viral video of a chimpanzee picking up an AK-47.

It is all very well that the government should be so deeply concerned about how the business of government is being rendered impossible. But the people didn't vote for Theresa May to have an easy time of it, much as she hoped they would.

Where do we go from here? The country is ungoverned and ungovernable. The cabinet can no longer receive confidential legal advice on complex legal documents because the opposition can force the government to publish them. And it will do so with the assistance of the Democratic Unionist Party, who are still, in theory, meant to be propping up the government in return for a £1bn payment given to them last year.

It was a day of chaos the like of which has rarely been seen, which made it all the more disconcerting that it should end with Theresa May talking what bore every outward resemblance to common sense.

“It is time to bring the country back together,” she told the House of Commons. “This debate has gone on long enough. It is corrosive to our politics. Life is about compromise.”

Too late for all that prime minister. The will of the people must be respected. And the people voted for chaos delivered by chaos.

Life isn’t about compromise anymore. It’s about everyone holding everyone else in contempt and no one being able to do the slightest thing about it.

In such circumstances, the best a leader can do is lead by example. At least the prime minister has embraced a canned food diet.

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