People's Vote 20 November 2018 | 11:34

Brexit Deal-Watch 6: Who do you think you are kidding, Mrs May?

20 November 2018 11:34

‘I’ve always admired Captain Mainwaring,’ said Jacob Rees-Mogg this morning when asked by Nicholas Watt of Newsnight if there was a bit of a Dad’s Army feel to the faltering mutiny against Theresa May mounted by the hard Brexiteer European Research Group. Rees-Mogg may see himself as a Mainwaring but, these days, he more closely resembles a classically-educated Private Pike – the ‘stupid boy’ of the classic wartime sitcom.

Though the ERG is apparently delighted with its latest policy paper rubbishing the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal, its credibility as a political faction has collapsed in the past two days. At the end of last week, Steve Baker, the group’s deputy chairman, was confident that the 48 MPs’ signatures required to trigger a confidence vote in the Tory leader would have been collected by yesterday. But by close of play on Monday, the threshold had still not been reached: nowhere close, according to most back-of-the-envelope calculations. Rees-Mogg today counselled ‘patience’ – and it is true that the total may yet be reached. But it has certainly strengthened May’s position – relatively speaking – that the attempted coup has so far been such an embarrassing shambles managed by embarrassing people.

She has also been assisted by the spectacular uselessness of Jeremy Corbyn, whose performance on Sky’s Sophie Ridge on Sunday was a case study in how not to look like a prime-minister-in-waiting. The Labour leader simply had no answer to Ridge’s questions, beyond an unexplained conviction that he would be able to negotiate a deal with Brussels that would not only be approved by Parliament but be better for the UK. No details, no structured argument. He did the same at the CBI yesterday, making clear only (first) that he is temperamentally inclined to embrace Brexit and (second) that his plans for the economy after we leave the EU would weaken business confidence further.

So was May singing ‘Maybe this Time’ from Cabaret last night? I seriously doubt it. As she leapt from the frying pan of the ERG plot, she landed in a fire that had been set ablaze by her notional partners in the Democratic Unionist Party. Remember, the PM depends upon these 10 DUP MPs to keep her minority government alive. And they are not happy: not happy at all.

Furious about the ambiguous status of Northern Ireland in the deal brokered by May, the DUP failed to back the government last night in a number of votes on its Budget legislation. Sammy Wilson, the DUP’s Brexit spokesman, said that promises concerning the future integrity of the Union had been ‘seriously broken’ and that ‘since the government has not honoured its side of the bargain we tonight tried to spell out some of the consequences of that’. This, in other words, was but a warning shot. If May loses the support of the DUP, she will struggle to govern at all, and another general election will become very hard to avoid.

What else? Oh, yes – Gibraltar. Just when we all thought that the Irish border question was the issue that enshrined the intractability of the problem, along comes another thorny dilemma from Britain’s expansionist past to add to May’s nightmares. Pedro Sanchez, the Spanish Prime Minister, now says that Spain will thwart the Brexit deal unless it is granted a veto over future trade arrangements over the Rock of Gibraltar.

You can tell that the PM is feeling the heat because she played the foreigner-bashing card, accusing EU nationals of ‘jumping the queue’ in the pre-Brexit immigration system (that is to say, quite properly exercising their right to freedom of movement guaranteed by Britain’s membership of the Single Market). This is tawdry stuff, smacking of desperation.

Still, Number Ten maintains that the deal is moving forward, full steam ahead. Best for jobs, best for Britain, best for the rest of Europe. Who do you think you are kidding, Mrs May?