Theresa May has served the aperitif to what is rumoured to be a seasonably hearty New Year’s honours list. With the rescheduled meaningful vote looming on 11 January, three backbench Tories have been appointed to the Privy Council: Philip Dunne, Roger Gale and Edward Leigh.
Though technically – as with all government appointments – made by the Queen, the choice is really Downing Street’s and the identities of the newly right honourable gentlemen reflect the Prime Minister’s immediate priorities: shoring up existing support, and clawing back some of that lost.
The appointments of Dunne and Gale, whose votes for the withdrawal agreement are guaranteed, are very much of the former category. Both have proved reliably sympathetic questioners for May in the Commons of late – a rare quality in the current climate. Gale provided one of the more memorable moments of the meaningful vote debate when he told Boris Johnson that he “appears to be one of those who prefers the grievance to the solution. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister has come up with a solution. What’s his big idea?”
Their loyalty has been rewarded. But will Leigh’s be induced? Of the three, the former chair of the Public Accounts Committee is the only stated opponent of May’s Brexit deal. Unlike many of his colleagues in and around the European Research Group, however, he is personally loyal to the Prime Minister if not her policy, and was the most senior of a number of veteran Eurosceptics to have cautioned against ousting her in November (a gambit that led disgruntled Brexiteers to suspect he was a “nark” for the Whips’ Office).
In short, Leigh is precisely the sort of MP who May will need to convince – by patronage or otherwise – if she is to snatch a slightly less humiliating defeat from the jaws of the comically lopsided one she was heading for before the vote was postponed. While lots of Tory MPs are Eurosceptic and opposed to the deal, the calculation is that few of them are pathological wreckers.
It’s worth noting, of course, that dispensing baubles hasn’t convinced other Brexiteers to recant: former minister John Hayes accepted a knighthood before coming out against the withdrawal agreement, while the elevation of the DUP’s Brexit spokesperson Sammy Wilson to the Privy Council earlier this year has achieved less than nothing.
But the hope is nonetheless that MPs like Leigh will come in from the cold, as Jack Lopresti, an ERG stalwart now serving as PPS to Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay, did last month. With several such government jobs as parliamentary private secretaries to senior ministers still being kept vacant by whips as “poor man’s knighthoods” for wavering MPs (as I revealed in November), and the announcement of actual knighthoods still to come, the road that Downing Street believes it can take to an unlikely victory – or at least a respectable defeat – is becoming plainer to see.