Another week in Westminster and another week of confusion, drift, and obfuscation. Theresa May’s government saw off another threatened Tory rebellion but it is not clear — to put it gently — that she achieved or gained very much from doing so. The prime minister is in the business of buying time, however, and each week that passes without significant setback can be considered, since we are grading these matters generously, a success.
Arguments over what constitutes a “meaningful” vote on Brexit may be, at least as far as the general public is concerned, close to meaningless but they confirm what we already knew: there is no convincing majority for very much of anything in the Commons right now. Dominic Grieve and his merry band of “mutineers” — as the Daily Telegraph rather startlingly referred to them — may have put down their pikes this week, but they reserve the right to bring them out again.
We have been here before, albeit with the boot on the other foot. The contrast between Theresa May’s difficulties and the agonies endured by John Major’s government is instructive and only a mirthless person cannot draw some entertainment from the spectacle of Iain Duncan Smith and John Redwood and others condemning today’s Tory “rebels”. The last time there was a tired and limping Conservative government hamstrung by the realities of parliamentary arithmetic, the Tory party’s most committed Eurosceptics were happy to twist the knife whenever and wherever possible.
As the bill ratifying the Maastricht treaty made its tortuous way through the Commons, 41 Conservative MPs rebelled at its final reading; some 15 of their number had defied the government whip on more than 40 occasions. So much so, in fact, that plenty of them were happy to be deprived of that whip as a consequence of their actions. The likes of Theresa Gorman, Tony Marlow, Bill Cash and their comrades might have been the motliest of motley crews but they were in full possession of the courage of their convictions. And from those convictions the mighty oak of Brexit grew.
So, again, we may chuckle when IDS, for instance, suggests that today’s Tory rebels are far too happy to “plunge a knife into the heart of the government” as they seek a softer, calmer, Brexit. One MP’s conscience is another member’s betrayal I suppose, even if it seems a trifle rich for Eurosceptics to complain about other people’s rebellions.
Then again, the old bastards could be forgiven for looking upon today’s rebels with a measure of disdain. Not because they thoroughly disagree with Nicky Morgan and others – thought they do, of course – but because they’re such limp-waisted rebels. They bring a plastic fork to a knife fight.
If you’re going to be a bastard you have to do bastarding things. Dominic Grieve is a most unconvincing bastard. In ordinary times this might be a helpful, even admirable, thing. In these times, however, a bastard who doesn’t bastard isn’t enough of a bastard. Perhaps Grieve is too decent a cove for this shop-soiled Parliament but it is hard to avoid the thought that rebellions which are cancelled as soon as the government whispers “assurances” is a rebellion that exists more in thought than deed.
Admittedly some of Grieve’s colleagues are made of sterner stuff. Ken Clarke is irredeemable and so, rather splendidly, is Anna Soubry. The abuse Ms Soubry receives from Brexiteer monomaniacs has filled her soul with iron; she appreciates that no Rubicon can be re-crossed. As for old Ken, a troll in hush puppies, he cheerfully shambles around Westminster without a care in the world. My colleagues’ determination to lose their minds, he suggests, imposes no requirement on him to misplace his. On the contrary, the prime minister must be “rescued” from her own ministers.
Now, as it happens, I think the Maastricht bastards were entitled to their rebellions. They were following their conscience and their interpretation of the national interest. If this weakened the government then so be it. That, they might argue, should have been reason enough for the government to think again. Sometimes, in any case, issues arise that are greater than party politics or manifesto commitments. It’s quite obvious that this is one such occasion.
Indeed the government tells us that Brexit is no ordinary event. On the contrary, it is one that justifies overriding parliamentary conventions. Hence the manner in which the government has jettisoned the Sewell convention and over-ruled the Scottish Parliament’s refusal to give its consent to the EU Withdrawal Bill. That is a defensible position, albeit one that does not command universal approbation. Even so, however, it also undermines any argument that softer-Brexit Tory rebels are behaving disgracefully or in a manner which threatens the integrity of the Conservative manifesto. If the government may claim these are extraordinary times then so may the humblest backbencher.
This week’s shenanigans were not, it is true, a particularly stirring moment of parliamentary drama, not least because the number of people who can plausibly claim to understand the procedural jiggery-pokery at Westminster this week is not very much greater than the number of people who once had a half-decent grasp of the Schleswig-Holstein question.
Nevertheless, they did confirm one thing: if you are going to rebel, do it properly and with conviction. The government is in the business of purchasing time but the rebels should demand something more than that. If only for their own dignity. Otherwise the sense will grow that the first rule of Tory rebel club is that you don’t actually rebel.