Theresa May keeps saying that her Chequers Agreement has brought unity. She’s right. It has practically united the Tories in their contempt for this prime minister.
Yesterday we had the Government’s long-awaited White Paper on how she intends to take us out (or rather not quite out) of the EU.
Former Brexit Secretary David Davis had his own version of this White Paper all ready to go.
It was markedly more Eurosceptic. But DD kept being told by 10 Downing Street that he must not publish it. Mrs May plotted secretively with a civil servant, Olly Robbins, to bypass him.
Catch! Labour’s Ben Bradshaw throws copies of the White Paper yesterday
Their milquetoast version of the White Paper was the one launched yesterday. It proved unpopular with all sides. Sorry, chef. No takers for your dish of the day.
The White Paper was brought to the Commons by Mr Davis’s replacement, Dominic Raab, making his debut.
Mr Raab is a lawyerly Brexiteer. In normal circumstances he is a tidy batsman at the despatch box. Yesterday he was hobbled by Whitehall ineptitude and the clumsiness of the Chief Whip, Julian Smith, who seems a complete fool.
MPs, not unreasonably, wanted to see the White Paper before asking questions about it. They would normally be given an hour or so to read it before a Commons Statement. Yesterday there was a balls-up, or worse.
The document was kept locked up until the very moment Mr Raab stood to begin his remarks in the Commons. Yet more neurotic, puerile secrecy from Mrs May’s gang, perhaps.
As Mr Raab started his remarks, Labour MPs were going nuts, shouting ‘disgrace’ and ‘where is it?’ Speaker Bercow suspended the sitting and allowed them to race outside to grab copies. Bercow is becoming daily more cocksure as he senses Mrs May is in a death spiral.
Ben Bradshaw (Lab, Exeter) arrived with a whole box of the documents and threw them to colleagues like sardines to sealions. A hush fell on the scene briefly as they devoured the contents.
Speaker Bercow suspended the sitting and allowed them to race outside to grab copies
When the sitting resumed, Mr Raab, himself innocent of any jiggery-pokery, had to keep his composure as Opposition MPs laughed and jeered ‘what a total shambles’. Beside him sat Chancellor Philip Hammond, tight-lipped.
Sarah Wollaston (Con, Totnes), a Remainer Tory who presumably approves of how the May Government wants to cave in to Brussels, extended the agony for Mr Raab by making a point of order.
Then came Mr Smith. Chief Whips were once Sphinx-like figures who would sit in inscrutable silence. But Smith is a fidget. He likes to whisper elaborately to skulking sidekicks. He loves to make a theatrical show of his cerebral cogitations.
Yesterday he crouched down in front of Mr Raab and started to speak quietly to him while Labour’s Sir Keir Starmer was making his speech.
Bercow again interrupted proceedings, considering it rude that Mr Raab was not listening to the Labour man. More hog-whimpering from gleeful Labour MPs. Again, it was Mr Raab who had to take the brunt of the mockery, yet others who were to blame.
Come the policy content of the White Paper, the responsefrom Tory Eurosceptics was quietly lethal.
Time and again came detailed questions to Mr Raab, asking him to explain concessions to the EU.
As a ‘recovering lawyer’ (as he put it), he was able to make his answers sound elaborate but they did not meet with much evident approval from the Leave Means Leave Tories, who were yesterday very much a majority of those in attendance.
Polite but firm questions from the likes of Sir Bill Cash (Stone), Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough), Owen Paterson (N Shropshire), Sir Roger Gale (N Thanet), John Baron (Basildon & Billericay) and the recently resigned Steve Baker (Wycombe) left little doubt of the scale and gravity of their opposition.
This is what happens if you try to ignore the political imperatives and cook up cave-ins with your civil servants.