Commons Confidential

Mata Hattie's mutiny

I for one didn't think she had it in her. But the Talibrown mutters that Harriet Harperson was the cabinet end of A Very Rubbish Coup. The word in Westminster is that Gordon Broon's disloyal deputy admitted that her long chats with Patsy Hewitt over the holidays were about more than their old days at the National Council for Civil Liberties. She was, I hear, poised to play the role of Mata Hattie, until a loss of nerve turned "the snow plot" to slush.

Weeping under the £134.50 pair of lamps he bought at our expense is Michael Gove. The Tory educashun spokesman was forced to give up his £65,000 column for the Times when David Cameron ordered frontbenchers to ditch outside earners. When Ken Clarke was asked how he got away with making his BBC jazz programme in January, the rogue chuckled that he had slipped under the wire by making it last year.

A disgruntled insurrectionist whispered that Hattie resents Premier Broon's unwillingness to pull out his finger to land Mr Harperson, Jack "the Knife" Dromey, a safe parliamentary seat. Local flak has unsettled plans to parachute the union baron into Leyton. Scurrilous MPs whisper that Tessa Jowell, a family friend, is willing to lay down Dulwich, a constituency neighbouring Hattie's Peckham patch. Lady Jowell certainly has a ring to it.

Witches feared ducking stools and politicians worry about Mumsnet. In pursuit of votes, the PM's human shield, Sarah Brown, is to endure the questions of yoghurt-knitters and political plants. Yummy Mummy Sammy Cameron was due to appear with her insignificant other until Tory spinners began to fear abuse over her £995 Smythson handbags.

Labour boasts many amateur actors but only one true thespian, the Oscar-winning Glenda Jackson. The Rada-trained MP has a Shakespearean command of the English language. Asked her view of the plotters by a whip, she was more Merry Wives of Windsor than Henry V. "They're a bunch of arseholes," was Queen Glenda's considered view.

The rarefied surroundings of the Cholmondeley Room in the House of Lords made an incongruous venue for the Electoral Reform Society's New Year bash. Perhaps the all-party CND group should check whether Aldermaston is available.

Kevin Maguire is associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

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.