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
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Theresa May's "clean Brexit" is hard Brexit with better PR

The Prime Minister's objectives point to the hardest of exits from the European Union. 

Theresa May will outline her approach to Britain’s Brexit deal in a much-hyped speech later today, with a 12-point plan for Brexit.

The headlines: her vow that Britain will not be “half in, half out” and border control will come before our membership of the single market.

And the PM will unveil a new flavour of Brexit: not hard, not soft, but “clean” aka hard but with better PR.

“Britain's clean break from EU” is the i’s splash, “My 12-point plan for Brexit” is the Telegraph’s, “We Will Get Clean Break From EU” cheers the Express, “Theresa’s New Free Britain” roars the Mail, “May: We’ll Go It Alone With CLEAN Brexit” is the Metro’s take. The Guardian goes for the somewhat more subdued “May rules out UK staying in single market” as their splash while the Sun opts for “Great Brexpectations”.

You might, at this point, be grappling with a sense of déjà vu. May’s new approach to the Brexit talks is pretty much what you’d expect from what she’s said since getting the keys to Downing Street, as I wrote back in October. Neither of her stated red lines, on border control or freeing British law from the European Court of Justice, can be met without taking Britain out of the single market aka a hard Brexit in old money.

What is new is the language on the customs union, the only area where May has actually been sparing on detail. The speech will make it clear that after Brexit, Britain will want to strike its own trade deals, which means that either an unlikely exemption will be carved out, or, more likely, that the United Kingdom will be out of the European Union, the single market and the customs union.

(As an aside, another good steer about the customs union can be found in today’s row between Boris Johnson and the other foreign ministers of the EU27. He is under fire for vetoing an EU statement in support of a two-state solution, reputedly to curry favour with Donald Trump. It would be strange if Downing Street was shredding decades of British policy on the Middle East to appease the President-Elect if we weren’t going to leave the customs union in order at the end of it.)

But what really matters isn’t what May says today but what happens around Europe over the next few months. Donald Trump’s attacks on the EU and Nato yesterday will increase the incentive on the part of the EU27 to put securing the political project front-and-centre in the Brexit talks, making a good deal for Britain significantly less likely.

Add that to the unforced errors on the part of the British government, like Amber Rudd’s wheeze to compile lists of foreign workers, and the diplomatic situation is not what you would wish to secure the best Brexit deal, to put it mildly.

Clean Brexit? Nah. It’s going to get messy. 

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