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5 December 2018

Sajid Javid’s difficult day is a reminder the Brexit problem isn’t all about Theresa May

Although the Home Secretary had an easier ride than Theresa May, the essential problem of parliamentary arithmetic remains unchanged.

By Stephen Bush

However you slice it – the bookmakers’ odds, chatter about him by journalists, conversations with Conservative MPs, ConservativeHome’s regular surveys of their own readers – Sajid Javid is one of the main contenders for the Tory leadership.

So it was striking how hard of a time he faced in the Commons chamber when he kicked off the second day of debate on the withdrawal agreement. During a debate, speakers face “interventions” from other members of the House. We often talk about “hostile” and “supportive” interventions. Hostile interventions will tend to either be heavily detailed questions or ones designed to put the speaker in a tricky position politically. Supportive interventions – the classic example being “does the right honourable gentleman agree that this debate about cardboard boxes proves our longterm economic plan is working?” – give the speaker a chance to regroup, either because they can reply with a rote reiteration of party policy, or by simply agreeing with the intervention made.

Of course, Javid faced difficult interventions from the Opposition parties, including from the Conservatives’ nominal coalition partners, the Democratic Unionist Party.

But he did quite well as far as interventions from his own side went. Remember that however you slice it, more than half of backbench Conservatives have declared against the deal so the number of people who were going to have anything nice to say about the deal who could intervene in the debate was vanishingly small. In the end, Javid managed to get just one intervention that was supportive of the government’s policy – but he did receive a number of interventions of the “while this deal is terrible, would the right honourable gentleman like to take the opportunity to say that he loves puppies and kittens?” variety.

Those interventions illustrated two things. The first is that one reason why Theresa May has a rough ride in the House is that Conservative MPs don’t believe she will be around for very much longer, while someone whose shelf life is likely to carry on for a bit gets an easier time.

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But the second and more important illustration is that merely changing the identity of the person at the top of the Tory party doesn’t really do anything to change the parliamentary arithmetic or the feelings of the House of Commons about Brexit – feelings it is hard to see being reconciled with any form of Brexit.