Defeats and defects

A week ago, for about seventy-two hours, Theresa May seemed to be in charge. At last, she had produced  a route march, which appeared to be acceptable to the Europeans and to her own Party. At a purely tactical level, there had been progress, But that was last week, for three days.

When it came to Wednesday evening's vote, no-one was in charge. The Government was faced by a number of related difficulties. First, there are the MPs who hate Theresa May, mainly because she sacked them from the Government. Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan are the obvious examples, especially Mrs Morgan. In his desire to promote more women to the Cabinet, David Cameron made her Secretary of State for Education. Parliamentary Secretary would have been quite high enough. The over-promotion went to her head. Her self-knowledge has never recovered.

Nicky Morgan would take any opportunity to attack the PM. Others are more scrupulous, and the Government has an intellectual problem. 'Take back control' urged the Brexiters. But the British people exercise their control through Parliament. So how could any conscientious Brexiteer oppose a measure to strengthen Parliament's control? If Enoch Powell had been in this House of Commons, he would have supported the rebels.

So why were most Brexiteers so neuralgic? There is a simple explanation. They are afraid of being cheated. A lot of them did not expect their side to prevail in the Referendum and fully expect to be ambushed by a Europhile establishment determined to thwart the will of the people. That explains the hysterical language in some quarters, most notably the Daily Mail. But MPs are entitled to exercise their consciences. Politics is a team game and if every MP behaved like Sarah Wollaston, a chronically rebellious Tory, the British system of government would be unsustainable. Yet on an important occasion, when principles are at stake, a conscientious man like Dominic Grieve, who has always been a Euro-enthusiast, is entitle to quote from Burke's Speech to the Electors of Bristol, which vindicates the right of MPs to exercise their judgment. That text has become an adornment to the history of Parliament - and a Whips' Office nightmare. If successive generations of Whips had been allowed to have one book burned by the public hangman, that volume of Burke's would have been a popular choice. In their way, the Whips are also a Parliamentary adornment. A great house must have plumbing as well as state rooms. Even so, the plumbing must be kept in its place, as it was on Wednesday.

That was partly Mrs May's fault. In the last mini-reshuffle, she changed plumbers and promoted the Chief Whip, Gavin Williamson, to be Defence Secretary. In these embattled times, that was a bad move. Wednesday night was a tough test for a new Chief Whip and there were signs of panic. His predecessor might have been able to scrape home.

But changing Whips was not the Prime Minister's greatest mistake. That is easy to summarise: an entire absence of vision. During the Referendum campaign, she made one tepid speech in favour of remain, without convincing anyone that she believed it. It seemed to be a cynical positioning exercise for a Leadership campaign. As hardly anyone took her prospects seriously, that did not receive much attention.

 Now that she is Leader, more is required. Imagine Margaret Thatcher at the head of a Brexit government. She would have gloried in the opportunities to expound her convictions, proclaim her leadership and generally conduct events as if she were leading a cavalry charge. Obviously, Theresa May cannot do that, but she has got to do better. She cannot run the government as if she were a mouse peering from behind lace curtains. The people want to know where the country is going. Take back control: what does it mean? Does she begin to understand the difference between control-freakery born of insecurity, which leads her to surround herself with mediocrities - and a calm strategic control based on thought-out objectives. That is what the country needs. That is what she seems incapable of delivering.

There are more fundamental defects than passing defeats.



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