PETER OBORNE: Why January 15 is Britain’s most momentous date since the Second World War
Very occasionally — indeed, rarely more than once in a generation — a nation’s whole mood changes.
The unthinkable becomes thinkable. The impossible becomes possible. The tectonic plates beneath the Earth’s crust begin to creak.
Britain experienced such a moment in May 1940. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had lost control of his Conservative Party, opening the way for a deeply distrusted outsider.
Her deal is not perfect by any means, nor will it herald the end of bitter Tory rivalries over Brexit. But as shown by an opinion poll published in today’s Mail, public support for it has grown in the past month from both Tory and Labour voters [File photo]
That man was Winston Churchill and, of course, history eventually proved him to be a national hero.
A lesser example occurred in November 1990. Margaret Thatcher had been omnipotent for more than a decade. Yet suddenly, amid deep social divisions caused by the introduction of her poll tax, the Iron Lady became broken, humiliated and left No 10 in tears.
This weekend, again Britain faces a week ahead of monumental importance. It is no exaggeration to say that the outcome of events over Brexit will affect the lives of each and every one of us. Indeed, that is not often said of political decisions.
At the moment, eyes are on Prime Minister Theresa May. There is a possibility that she will no longer be in No 10 at the end of next week if she loses Tuesday’s Commons vote [File photo]
Forget all the talk of the past 31 months about the 17.4 million who voted to leave the EU and the 16.1 million who said they wanted the UK to remain. What happens over the coming days and weeks will have huge repercussions for every one of Britain’s 66 million people.
At the moment, eyes are on Prime Minister Theresa May. There is a possibility that she will no longer be in No 10 at the end of next week if she loses Tuesday’s Commons vote.
Over the past months, she has clung to office in the face of disloyalty from fellow Tories, abominable treatment by Brussels, irresponsible posturing by rival parties and a series of personal humiliations.
Her stoicism has, in many ways, been admirable. But can she survive if her Brexit deal is rejected by MPs — as seems most likely — on Tuesday? Of course, she could win. I fervently hope she does. If she prevails, the result should be that Britain will leave the EU in relatively good order on March 29.
Mrs May’s political legacy would be secured as the heroine who forced through a version of Brexit in the face of the unforgivable treachery of senior colleagues and against all the odds. Indeed, the BBC has a published forecast — surely very wide of the mark — that the PM could lose by a margin of more than 200 votes.
The biggest defeat suffered by any post-war British government was the 86-vote loss suffered by Labour Prime Minister Jim Callaghan in 1978 over a Scottish Bill.
By the normal rules of politics, Britain would be looking for a new Prime Minister if Mrs May suffers a three-figure defeat. For any government leader unable to get a key policy through Parliament ought by rights to be finished.
But these are not times of normal politics. I believe there is hope for Mrs May if she loses.
Yes, defeat would be devastating. Yes, Mrs May would be humiliated and a husk of a prime minister. She would be in office but not in power — to use the contemptuous phrase levelled against Prime Minister John Major by his sacked Chancellor Norman Lamont 25 years ago.
That said, she could still survive in such extraordinary circumstances. Having seen off a challenge to her leadership from rebel, hard-Brexiteer Tory backbenchers in December, under party rules she cannot face another challenge for 12 months.
Of course, as head of a minority government, she is very vulnerable to a Commons vote of no confidence. Over recent weeks, Labour has huffed and puffed about whether to force such a vote.
My guess is that if there is such a vote, Mrs May would survive. Her mutinous backbenchers, terrified of a General Election, would rally round and she would narrowly win the day.
Britain experienced such a moment in May 1940. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had lost control of his Conservative Party, opening the way for a deeply distrusted outsider. That man was Winston Churchill, above, and, of course, history eventually proved him to be a national hero [File photo]
Even so, she would still be seen as a dead duck PM and be unable to command either her own destiny or that of the nation.
The brutal truth is that whatever happens next week, power is steadily seeping away from Theresa May.
This is because, over the past few weeks, we have witnessed the start of a quiet but profoundly important constitutional revolution which is changing the way that Britain is governed.
The stalled Brexit negotiations have led to power steadily shifting from the executive — the Prime Minister, her No 10 machine and the Government as a whole — to Parliament.
The architect of this revolution is Commons Speaker John Bercow. Personally, I am torn over his antics. On the one hand, I abhor his abuse of power, blatant favouritism and noxious brand of show-off politics.
All this demeans the high office he holds. Yet as a believer in our traditional system of representative democracy, I welcome a rebalancing of power from an over-mighty Downing Street to the mother of Parliaments.
As part of that recalibration, last week Bercow gave MPs the right to force the Prime Minister to make a statement about her Brexit intentions if she is defeated on Tuesday.
Also, Parliament has secured for itself the power to amend Mrs May’s plans, thus enabling MPs to dictate to the Prime Minister the shape of Brexit.
It is impossible to overstate the importance of this development.
In the face of these changes to the levers of power, a debilitated Theresa May would have to accept being ordered about by MPs as the price for staying in office.
The stalled Brexit negotiations have led to power steadily shifting from the executive — the Prime Minister, her No 10 machine and the Government as a whole — to Parliament. The architect of this revolution is Commons Speaker John Bercow [File photo]
I fear she would become the hapless victim of events. Equally humiliating, she could be at the beck and call of Labour and Lib Dem MPs. For talks are under way to form a cross-party coalition capable of taking control and managing British policy towards Brexit.
Indeed, there’s already a drive towards a Labour/Remainer Tory coalition which would try to force Britain to remain a full member of the EU’s Customs Union.
Also, there is the growing clamour for a second referendum. Underlying all of this is the breakdown of the British party political system.
Rebel Labour MPs are conspiring with like-minded Conservatives (in defiance of Mrs May) behind the back of their own leader, Jeremy Corbyn. It is impossible to say where this may lead.
That is why I believe it is in the national interest for all Tory MPs to rally behind the Prime Minister next week. Her deal is not perfect by any means, nor will it herald the end of bitter Tory rivalries over Brexit.
But as shown by an opinion poll published in today’s Mail, public support for it has grown in the past month from both Tory and Labour voters.
Theresa May has a closer feel for the national mood than her mutinous MPs and opposition parties are prepared to admit.
A too cosy deal between No 10 Fixer and Mandy
The name Alex Dawson is probably unfamiliar to most Mail readers. Until recently, he’s been a member of Downing Street’s backroom staff as Theresa May’s political director.
But he has just announced his departure —having been poached by Lord (Peter) Mandelson’s shadowy consultancy group, Global Counsel. I am appalled by the move.
It epitomises the disgraceful way that public duty is increasingly less valued.
The name Alex Dawson is probably unfamiliar to most Mail readers. Until recently, he’s been a member of Downing Street’s backroom staff as Theresa May’s political director [File photo]
After years working for Mrs May (at taxpayers’ expense), he will be taking his inside knowledge and expertise to a commercial outfit whose New Labour boss is stretching every sinew to stop Brexit happening.
Worse, much of what he has learnt in No 10 will become available to Global Counsel’s clients, who in the past have included Russian oligarchs and the Chinese.
Indeed, Mandelson is president of the Great Britain China Centre, which promotes ties between the two countries. Global Counsel has a reputation for furtiveness, with very little known about its work.
Mandelson, above, is president of the Great Britain China Centre, which promotes ties between the two countries. Global Counsel has a reputation for furtiveness, with very little known about its work [File photo]
But we do know that it has worked on behalf of BP, the giant mining company Glencore and the firm Asia Pulp and Paper, which has been accused of covering up massive environmental destruction.
Dawson’s appointment is routinely subject to vetting by Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill, who would be well advised to demand a list of all Global Counsel’s clients, past and present.
Even if they have unblemished reputations and Mandelson’s firm’s dealings with them are innocuous, Sir Mark should consider blocking Dawson’s appointment.
That would be unfortunate for Dawson personally, but it must be a cast-iron principle that people who have worked in the highest echelons of government should not move to any commercial organisation where their inside knowledge potentially becomes available to anyone ready to pay for it.