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Analysis

PM’s tricksy actions to blame for Cabinet chaos

by Hugo Dixon | 14.03.2019

Theresa May went back on her word about last night’s “no deal” vote and then flip-flopped on whipping arrangements. No wonder four Cabinet ministers rebelled against a three-line whip.

Amber Rudd, David Gauke, Greg Clark and David Mundell are all heroes. They put the national interest ahead of personal ambition and party politics.

Normally, they would have been fired for such a breach of collective responsibility. But the prime minister has decided to keep them, as well as another nine junior ministers who rebelled. Only one minister, Sarah Newton, who voted against the three-line whip rather than abstaining, has resigned.

The country is now close to ungovernable. What is to stop the rebels from defying another three-line whip on Brexit in the coming days or weeks? What is to stop ministers from the hardline wing of the party also rebelling?

The prime minister is to blame for this mess. Her first mistake was to go against a solemn pledge she made at the House of Commons despatch box on February 26. She said she would table a motion by March 13 “asking this House if it supports leaving the EU without a Withdrawal Agreement and a framework for a future relationship on 29 March.”

But when the motion was actually published, she had added a nasty sting in the tail. She added the phrase: “and notes that leaving without a deal remains the default in UK and EU law unless this House and the EU ratify an agreement.” This was a sop to hardliners in her party which she had not previously mentioned.

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Not surprisingly, a group of backbench MPs, led by the Tory Caroline Spelman, proposed snipping off the offending phrase. They also suggested removing the reference to March 29 so that the motion said we should never leave the EU without a deal.

The prime minister then engaged in further tricksy behaviour. On Tuesday night, she had said there would be a free vote on the “no deal” motion. But yesterday she decided to whip against Spelman’s amendment while allowing a free vote on the so-called Malthouse amendment.

This was another blatant sop to hardline Brexiters in her party. The Malthouse amendment proposed another of their cake-and-eat-it fantasies – that we could enjoy the “transition” period agreed with the EU to cushion the blow of Brexit while refusing to sign our divorce deal.

The prime minister was pandering to populism. Although the Malthouse scheme was eventually roundly defeated by MPs, allowing a free vote on it further damaged her credibility with our EU partners.

May also tried to strong-arm Spelman to pull her amendment. But after Labour’s Yvette Cooper pushed it instead, that ploy failed too – and the amendment passed narrowly.

The prime minister then engaged in yet more trickery. She decided to whip against her own motion since it had been amended by Cooper. If she had succeeded in defeating the motion, we would be heading for the precipice in two weeks’ time.

It was at that point that Rudd and the others abstained. The Commons then voted by a fat majority against quitting the EU without a deal. The prime minister was left with the double humiliation of losing the motion and keeping the rebels in her government.

One might have hoped for more straightforward behaviour from a vicar’s daughter. But May’s trickery seems to be a character trait. The brave ministers will have to be on watch for further backsliding in the coming weeks – including when the whipping arrangements are decided for tonight’s big vote on delaying Brexit.

Edited by Luke Lythgoe

5 Responses to “PM’s tricksy actions to blame for Cabinet chaos”

  • If only she would put as much effort into honest governance as she does trying to bamboozle us with her slight of hand trickery we would be in great shape.

    What a truly awful woman. She and Cameron will share the podium for the worst ever when it comes to the day of reckoning.

  • Ken Clarke called her “a bloody difficult woman”. How true.

    She seems to have totally lost it. If she still intends to honour the awful brexit, then she should ask the EU for the full 21 month delay they’ve been discussing and that will give us time for both a new referendum and, maybe, a GE. Better by far to ring Brussels and tell then she’s cancelling Article 50. I can dream.

  • So, let me see: a peoples’ vote/second referendum is undemocratic; any criticism of brexit is undemocratic; Commons opposition to govt policy on brexit is undemocratic; Lords opposition to govt policy on brexit is undemocratic; court rulings against govt policy on brexit is undemocratic…But bringing back a motion for the third time after previous ones had been overwhelmingly defeated is democratic? Refusing to resign when the PM’s flagship policy is repeatedly and overwhelmingly defeated is democratic? The lack of shame & decency? The contempt shown for Parliament, that’s democratic? Mugabe must be proud that Maygabe has learned his teachings on democracy so thoroughly.

  • Mrs May goes to church and would say she is a Christian. How do you square this with her terrible attitude to the Windrush generation, her van telling immigrants to go home, her callous use of EU nationals in the UK as a ‘bargaining chip’ etc?

    She has been closeted in a middle class bubble all her life and has no idea at all about everyday life for ordinary people. The drudgery, the financial worries of providing for a a family on low wages? Not for her. Instead she wears trousers worth £1000 and has more shoes than Marie Antoinette.

    In 2015 she told us her mission was to improve life for the ‘just about managing’. She has achieved absolutely nothing. How could she when she allowed austerity to continue unabated? She is a hypocrite. Most of her colleagues are as well. Hammond’s patronising words when he said he was giving schools a ‘little extra’ to enjoy some luxuries when many schools are struggling to provide even the basics. Clueless man.

    What is more, for a prime minister, May lacks intellect and statesmanship (sulking and chiding Juncker in public over his use of the word ‘nebulous’ ). She is cunning and sly and goes back on her word. She is not fit to lead the country and has much to answer for. She would take us to a no deal Brexit, whatever it takes for her to brag that she was the PM that took us out of the UK.

    Instead, she is the laughing stock of the world. Even Trump thinks she’s rubbish.

  • The way brexit went in a nutshell: lying, cheating and lying again. I sincerely wonder what future historians make out of all of this given those many years of reasonably rational government that preceded this mess (well, except where it concerned public transport). As far as religion and being honest is concerned, I am just reading Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature again and hemakes a good case of saying that religion and the wish to be truthful do not naturally go together. It is a personal matter and May just proved that as a politician, just like e.g. Don Trump, one uses religion to give people positive ideas about oneself. There is nothing further that can be concluded as far as personality characteristics is concerned.