Political sketch: The perks of being PM

Referendum guns are out.

 

One of the perks of being Prime Minister is when you address the House of Commons you always have your back to your own side, providing the perfect answer to those who say you can only tell the truth when it stares you in the eye.

Thus in theory only Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition is really able to see just how shifty you are - unless of course you speak.

And this was the mistake that David Cameron made, not for the first time, as he turned up in the chamber to answer charges of confusion and obfuscation over his position on Europe and referenda.

If there is one thing that those members of the Tory Party, who need written permission from their doctors to be out on the streets, hate even more than the Lib-Dems and John Bercow it is Europe - or at least those bits that don’t involve skiing and the French Riviera.

So extra pills were ordered and taken when they heard this weekend that Dave had at last said he was in favour of a referendum.

His conversion bore no relation of course to the plan by former Defence Secretary Liam Fox, who qualifies in both the doctors' and recidivist camps to trundle out his referendum guns today.

But as befits a Tory Party in chaos ever since Chancellor George produced the budget-from-hell, more chaos was just around the corner.

Even as the faithful were reading the good news in their Sunday papers Foreign Secretary William Hague was being trundled out himself to say Dave had not meant it.

And so the scene was set for the perfect appearance by Dave in front of a less than happy government party and a delighted opposition.

Missing in action yet again was the back end of the coalition horse, deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who has taken to displaying his increasing contempt at being treated increasingly with contempt by not turning up.

Earlier he had made it clear that once again unwarned about Dave’s latest attempt for party popularity, he believed the issue (if not himself) irrelevant at the moment.

And so it was a Nick-less Dave who stood to clear the confusion and announced that this was no time for a referendum.

Just to make it quite clear there might be a time - some other time but not this time - and then he moved on to the bankers.

An hour of excruciation followed as Dave equivocated his way through the minefield of his own members egged on by Labour, delighted at another afternoon of car-crash politics.

Ed Miliband had kicked off the sport by accusing the PM of a long-standing position on renegotiation; long standing because it's not getting anywhere.

Dave sweated on, his head looking increasingly big for his hair, as Tory after Tory asked him the one question he could not answer: when?

He had planned to escape after an hour when George would take his place in the dock over Barclays but that took no account of the master of ceremonies at the event, Speaker Bercow. 

He mercilessly let the session run an extra 25 minutes. And it's PMQs again on Wednesday.

 
Photo: Getty Images

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Will Britain end up agreeing a lengthy transition deal with the EU?

It's those seeking to prevent a referendum re-run who have the most to fear from a bungled exit.

You can check out, but you'll never leave? Today's papers all cover the growing momentum behind a transition arrangement after Britain leaves the European Union, whereby the United Kingdom remains in the single market and customs union.

The FT reports on the first meeting between Theresa May and her new “business council”, in which business leaders had one big message for the PM: no-one wants a “no deal” Brexit – and Confederation of British Industry director Carolyn Fairbairn repeated her call for a lengthy transition arrangement.

The Times splashes on government plans drawn up by Philip Hammond that include a two-year transition arrangement and private remarks by David Prior, a junior minister, that Britain was headed for “the softest of soft Brexits”.

A cabinet source tells the Guardian that the transition will last even longer than that – a four-year period in which the United Kingdom remains in the single market.

Broadly, the argument at the cabinet table for a transition deal has been won, with the lingering issue the question of how long a transition would run for. The fear among Brexiteers, of course, is that a temporary arrangement would become permanent.

Their long-term difficulty is Remainers' present problem: that no one is changing their minds on whether or not Brexit is a good idea. Put crudely, every year the passing of time winnows away at that Leave lead. When you add the surprise and anger in this morning's papers over what ought to be a routine fact of Brexit – that when the UK is no longer subject to the free movement of people, our own rights of free movement will end – the longer the transition, the better the chances that if parliament's Remainers can force a re-run on whether we really want to go through with this, that Britain will stay in the EU.

A quick two-year transition means coming out of the bloc in 2022, however, just when this parliament is due to end. Any dislocation at that point surely boosts Jeremy Corbyn's chances of getting into Downing Street, so that option won't work for the government either.

There's another factor in all this: a transition deal isn't simply a question of the British government deciding it wants one. It also hinges on progress in the Brexit talks. Politico has a helpful run-down of the progress, or lack thereof, so far – and basically, the worse they go, the less control the United Kingdom has over the shape of the final deal.

But paradoxically, it's those seeking to prevent a referendum re-run who have the most to fear from a bungled exit. The more time is wasted, the more likely that the UK ends up having to agree to a prolonged transition, with the timing of a full-blown trade deal at the EU's convenience. And the longer the transition, the better the chances for Remainers of winning a replay. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.