After my TCW article in mid-July on the stench of treachery surrounding the conduct of Brexit which pervaded the upper echelons of the ‘Conservative’ Party and reached its apotheosis in the person of its leader, I did wonder if I had exaggerated. Needlessly, as it turned out: developments in the week since the party conference ended last Wednesday suggest that, if anything, I underestimated it.
To place it in context, Theresa May’s conference speech justifies careful re-reading. In the light of her subsequent actions it reveals some clues which, albeit with hindsight, should have alerted us to what was coming.
Astonishingly, the word ‘Chequers’ does not appear even once in the speech’s text: curious, considering how often previously she has not been shy about naming it, and how obstinate she has been at promoting it. But given that she was unprecedentedly booed when she attempted to defend it at a conference event two days previously, it’s more than likely that some frantic late redrafting to excise it was ordered.
Eyebrows were raised by May’s proclamation of the imminent ‘end of austerity’, hinting at pay rises for the (predominantly Labour-voting) public sector: especially as the annual budget deficit is only now finally being brought under control, not eliminated, despite the ‘Conservative’ Party having been in office since 2010, and notwithstanding the National Debt, even on a conservative calculation, remaining at a near-record high of approximately 86 per cent of GDP.
Then there were the coded barbs, one of them quite disingenuously out of context, aimed at Boris and, by extension, his European Research Group confrères pressing May for a Canada-Plus or a Plan Alpha-Plus Brexit which are closer, not only to what Britons say they voted for on June 23, 2016, but also to May’s own vision set out in her Lancaster House and Mansion House speeches.
Between the somewhat laboured platitudes about how ‘compromise becomes a dirty word’, and the ‘Even if we do not all agree on every part of this [Chequers] proposal, we need to come together’, there was this:
‘Those of us who do respect the result – whichever side of the question we stood on two years ago – need to come together now. If we don’t – if we all go off in different directions in pursuit of our own visions of the perfect Brexit – we risk ending up with no Brexit at all.’
Given the rapturous reception for Boris’s own speech the previous day, it’s hard to construe this as anything other than an attack on those who challenge May’s dogged adherence to her Chequers Plan.
Because, significantly, there was no corresponding criticism, even in coded form, of the Wollaston-Soubry claque of Continuity-Remainers who are increasingly open about their intention to stop Brexit altogether, or at least adulterate it to the point of meaninglessness.
On this interpretation, again in the light of subsequent events, the soaring rhetoric of May’s warm-up act, Attorney General Geoffrey Cox, with a peroration quoting Milton’s ‘Methinks I see in my mind a noble and puissant nation rousing herself like a strong man after sleep’ to project a vision of post-Brexit Britain, was all part of the theatre. It was designed, I suspect, to lull us into acceptance of the nebulous and signally non-specific bromides about honouring the Referendum result in May’s own speech and disarm us for the deceptions which were to come.
They weren’t long in coming. The following morning, Thursday October 4, on Brexit Central, former Cabinet Minister Peter Lilley exposed the statistical trick that was used to sell the Chequers plan to Cabinet, centred on the proportion of imports which would become embroiled in the plan’s proposed Facilitated Customs Arrangement. At least 16 per cent of other countries’ exports to post-Brexit Britain would face this mechanism, rather than the mere 4 per cent claimed by those seeking to promote Chequers.
The same day, in The Times, Danny Finkelstein explained in considerable detail how May might use the current Parliamentary arithmetic – notably the extent of opposition to Chequers among committed Brexiteers on her own back benches, and the offsetting inclination of many Blairite-rump Labour MPs to support May’s own pro-Chequers, anti-Brexit Continuity-Remain Tory MPs – to ‘concede’ a second EU Referendum, in which ‘Remain’ might be one of the options on the ballot-paper.
How fast things can move when the movers want. As quickly as Friday, October 5, it emerged via The Guardian that May had plans for a secret charm offensive to solicit like-minded Labour MPs to support her – that’s support her in defeating her own MPs trying to hold her to her Manifesto promises – in backing her Brexit deal, even at the cost of disadvantaging their own party leader.
The ostensible reason being given was to avoid, ‘in the national interest’, a No-Deal outcome. Baloney: the purpose looked then, and still does, to a far greater extent being to negate any possibility of May’s Soft-Remain, Brexit-In-Name-Only Chequers Plan being supplanted by either the much more clean-Brexit Canada-Plus deal the EU has already indicted its willingness to offer, or the Institute of Economic Affairs’ Plan Alpha-Plus.
Corroboration arrived late on the evening of Saturday October 6, via an article for the next day’s Observer confirming that May was overtly pitching for so-called ‘moderate’ Labour votes, not only on Brexit, but on a range of policies – explaining, perhaps, the promises in her conference speech to turn on the public-spending taps.
Then, in its edition of Monday October 8, the Daily Telegraph revealed that May’s government, including ministers and whips, had for several months been in covert contact with at least 25 Labour MPs, to push her Chequers Deal through Parliament by relying on their votes against a very substantial minority of her own MPs. We were thus confronted, yet again, with evidence of May’s deceitfully plotting to dilute or even negate Brexit, in secret, against her own Parliamentarians, party and voters, with the shameful collusion of her Cabinet.
A Cabinet, moreover, that appears to have raised not a whimper of objection to the Brexit negotiations not being on the agenda for this week’s Cabinet meeting. Although perhaps we should no longer be surprised at its collective lack of backbone. One of most nauseating sights of the ‘Conservative’ Party conference was that of May’s Cabinet during her leader’s speech. She produced her Chequers Plan in secret behind their backs, then imposed it on them on pain of dismissal after clearing it with Angela Merkel, but just three months later they sat and sycophantically clapped her like performing seals.
The Times divulged yesterday that, unsurprisingly in view of all that has gone before, May is now preparing to railroad her supine Cabinet into even further concessions to, and compromises with, Brussels before EU leaders meet next week, including a commitment to keep the whole of the United Kingdom in what is effectively a Customs Union with the EU, with no guarantees of eventual exit. This is non-Brexit Remain in all but name.
As if that were not enough, May has evidently authorised the renewed ramping up of Project Fear Mk II against leaving the EU without any deal, no matter how abject a state of vassalage the country is reduced to as a result. Also in yesterday’s Times was a story about how Whitehall is making contingency plans for the wholesale slaughter of sheep in the event of No-Deal – wryly, but accurately, summed up by one commenter as ‘Back my Chequers Plan or the Baby Lambs get it’.
Considering all this, and bearing in mind just how far May’s Soft-Remain, Brexit-In-Name-Only Chequers Plan diverges not only from widely-held Brexit criteria but even her own claims in her own party conference Leader’s Speech, it’s now surely impossible to dispute the verdict of Leave Means Leave’s John Longworth in the Daily Telegraph of Monday October 8: ‘We are heading for a monumental sell-out, a great betrayal of the British people, and a fraud on democracy’.
I believe that so much happening in a mere seven days from May surviving her party conference intact is no coincidence; that this denouement was planned well in advance but kept under wraps until the conference was safely in the past, and that May’s ‘negotiations’ increasingly have the look of an elaborate charade, being played to a script, to cover a stitch-up that was agreed long ago behind closed doors. That all-pervading stench of treachery has become even fouler.