By stealth and cheating, Theresa May has just grabbed the governmental power she was refused by voters

May and the vacuous Andrea Leadsom have used their deal with the DUP to neutralise Labour, as well as cut down every other minority party including the SNP, Greens and Plaid Cymru – all in the name of ‘getting Brexit done’. Should the Speaker not intervene?

Sean O'Grady
Wednesday 13 September 2017 13:10 BST
‘No other figure in modern times combines all the negative qualities of her predecessors in such a formidable cocktail, and at a time when the nation requires the opposite more than ever’
‘No other figure in modern times combines all the negative qualities of her predecessors in such a formidable cocktail, and at a time when the nation requires the opposite more than ever’ (Reuters)

She doesn’t seem such a bad old stick, Theresa May, when you see her palling out with various cricketers, and I noticed some quite sweet pictures this week of her looking delighted at being given a special “May 10” England cricket shirt. However, everyone from the Cabinet down has come to realise that this is a lady who really doesn’t play by the rules, and doesn’t much care if the rest of us think it isn’t cricket. She is a bit of a cheat, in fact.

The latest example is her seizing a majority position on the various parliamentary committees that will be doing the very important work of scrutinising how all that old Eurolaw – 20,000 bits of it – gets turned into British law after Brexit, as well as other vital business.

It is a stunt that would have fitted in well in the world of Stalin or Lenin: seize control of one central committee – in this case the Committee of Selection – and all the other subcommittees and bodies that flow from it by its nominations are also seized, at a stroke. The Tories did so with the aid of the Democratic Unionists of Northern Ireland, who may be termed “useful idiots” for these purposes.

So much for Parliament taking back control. That was supposed to be the point of the Repeal Bill – and Brexit, after all. We were assured that far from being a power grab, there would now simply be a bureaucratic exercise to adapt rules and regulations to the new world: the legislative equivalent of “Find and Replace” in Microsoft Word.

Theresa May watches first cricket match on Downing Street

If so, then why rig the committees so tightly? What’s more, whether it is a power grab or not, why is the will of the people (as expressed at the last election) being so blatantly disregarded? Because it would make a mess of getting Brexit through? Maybe, but that, I am afraid, is what the people voted to do. It was the revenge of the Remainers: the British general election of 2017.

The assumption among fair-minded folk was that the present composition of the Commons, where the Conservatives no longer command an overall majority, would be reflected in the composition of these committees – and that therefore, the Conservatives would not command a majority on the relevant committees either, because they are supposed to be the Commons roughly in microcosm.

You’d imagine that minority parties would tend to hold the balance. Of course for Theresa May and the amazingly vacuous Andrea Leadsom, leader of the House of Commons and her henchwoman in this escapade, that’s not quite what they’d like. So they used their deal with the DUP to ensure that the clearly expressed wishes of the British people at the last general election – to give no party an absolute majority – are thwarted on the Commons committees.

So Theresa May has, by stealth and, well, cheating, got the majority that the voters so resolutely refused to give her just a few months ago. Having failed to gain the personal mandate she explicitly sought for Brexit, she is now simply pretending that she has a majority because of her DUP deal. That is not the same thing at all. It is not cricket.

Theresa May: Corbyn continually asks for money to be spent on "this, that and the other"

That clever up-and-coming Tory MP and junior minister James Cleverly explained all this on Westminster Hour on the BBC the other night. His argument was that the Government does command a majority in the Commons because of the DUP deal, notorious or not, and therefore it is entitled to a majority on those committees.

But that is not how it is done – or should be done – at all. For the DUP are not a governing party; they are not (yet) a part of the Conservative Party; they do not take the Tory whip. They do have a limited “supply and confidence agreement”, but that is that. They can, and I’m sure will, vote against the Government when it suits their interests, as they are entitled to do.

The DUP, in other words, do not even have the closeness of political association that the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats had under the much more far-reaching Coalition agreement of 2010 to 2015. They are there to prop up Theresa May if she faces a vote of no confidence and at Budget time. The rest is up for grabs.

If there were more of them and no other minor parties, then the DUP could be given the casting vote on every committee, but that would be even more plainly undemocratic. Theresa May seeks not only to thwart the people’s will and disable Labour, but to neutralise the Lib Dems, the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the only Green in the Westminster village, Caroline Lucas.

It is an abuse of power. What, I ask, does Speaker Bercow make of all this? Should he not intervene somehow?

Stormzy calls Theresa May a 'paigon' as he accepts award from Jeremy Corbyn

There is a deeper point here too. The point about parliamentary committees isn’t simply that they are efficient rubber stamps which process the Government’s will without let or hindrance. The point of them is to be obstructive and bloody difficult when there is a need to be so, just like the press and the judiciary, and positive and swift to suggest remedies.

If MPs cannot be relied on to point out and remedy the most egregious flaws and errors in legislation and policy, then we will have worse laws and a worse Brexit. Journalists can scribble as much as they like, but only MPs can make law.

For those opposition MPs and judges who try and object to breaches of the law or democratic principle to be vilified as “enemies of the people”, frustrating their will, simply adds to the “dictatorship of the proletariat” that seems to have been created by the referendum vote last year – at least in the fevered minds of some.

The only solace one can draw in this obscure but important democratic outrage – whether a Remainer or a Leaver – is that both the main parties are so divided that whoever gets a majority on a committee cannot be sure that they will get their way all around the Palace of Westminster; after all, the Lords are more independent-minded too.

Of course, the whips on either side will be doing their best to ensure that no troublemakers get on board anything important, but accidents will happen – as is surprisingly often the case in these committees – and some will not be to the Government’s liking. I wonder, too, what might happen if a minority Corbyn government that patched up some deal with other parties tried to pull a similar stunt.

Anyway, the country should, by now, have gained the distinct impression that Theresa May cheats when she needs to get her way. When she told us there’d be no early election and then called one. When she indicated (if only by omission) that she’d quit No 10 after Brexit, and now tells us she wants to carry on and lead her party into the next general election too.

Above all, this is the woman who once declared: “The reality is that we do not know on what terms we would win access to the single market. We do know that in a negotiation we would have to make concessions in order to access it; these concessions could well be about accepting EU regulations over which we would have no say, making financial contributions just as we do now, accepting free movement rules just as we do now or quite possibly all three combined.

“It is not clear why other member states would give Britain a better deal than they themselves enjoy.”

Yet now she is trying to sell us the opposite proposition – apparently sincerely.

In the past, Britain has found itself governed by men and women who were at times principled or unprincipled, competent or incompetent, clever or dim, eloquent or clumsy, and (o be fair to Theresa May) usually cheats. You do get that in politics. I concede.

Yet no other figure in modern times combines all the negative qualities of her predecessors in such a formidable cocktail, and at a time when the nation requires the opposite more than ever. They say countries get the governments they deserve; in which case, one has to wonder what the British have done to deserve Theresa May.

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