This Brexit Will Run and Run

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 Mrs May’s Parliamentary manoeuvres show that we know who wears the leather trousers….

In the heart of London’s exciting Brexit theatreland, two shows went on an extended run, serving up work for the show-going public that was, in the idiom of modern drama, neither short nor gladdening nor comprehensible. Of the Supreme Court’s production Enemies of the People, one reviewer, Isabel Hardman of the Spectator said that it was “like an academic Oxford law seminar”. It seems unlikely that Ms Hardman, an English Literature graduate from Exeter University, has ever attended an academic Oxford law seminar, but you knew what she meant. Theatre criticism is full of critics comparing productions to other productions they haven’t seen or, perhaps more likely, fell asleep half way through.

The Supreme Court is an upstart little company that has set up shop on the other side of Parliament Square from the Palace of Westminster Varieties. It was struck from the bosom of that vaudeville seven years ago by the noted impresario Tony Blair. Its origins lie in the days when performing troupes had evocative and slightly sexy names such as Lord Strange’s Men or the Admiral’s Company or the Law Lords. For many years it plied its trade within the Palace itself, much as the Cottesloe nestles within the National Theatre. It would put on obscure productions that nobody much wanted to see, paid for from the public purse, and quite often attacking the government of the day. No one seemed to mind, and even the Daily Mail would barely notice. Suddenly, however, the Supreme Court has found itself with a commercial proposition on its hands, and it has fallen down.

Wall-to-wall coverage of the Government’s appeal against the lower court’s ruling (which is also called the High Court) that it should be Parliament rather than the Prime Minister who pulls the trigger on Article 50, proved somewhat disappointing.  Alan Ayckbourn it ain’t. An endless succession of rather boring men made an endless succession of rather boring points. One longed for something in the style of Samuel Beckett to elevate this sludge with an injection of vivacity and charm.

Surely it is to escape this kind of prosaic legalism that we are trying to get out of the European Union in the first place. The people want a return to the simple days when disputes were settled by one Anglo-Saxon chopping off another’s arm with an axe. Unwigged, their grey heads dipping and nodding above their grey suits, the court looked like any other bunch of standard issue Eurojustices, holed up in The Hague or Luxembourg, or somewhere else equally unspeakable.  Not only were the Supremes bare-headed, they did not wear their gold dressing gowns in which they had been collectively photographed – the print appearing in all good judge-baiting newspapers. Clearly this garb is for ceremonial purposes only, or for when one of the justices wishes to avoid detection while standing in Donald Trump’s lift.

The court rose in the same sort of unremarkable manner that it had sat down in the first place, and we shall not hear what it thinks until the new year. The Telegraph claimed to have discerned that the verdict against the Government will split 7-4, closer than is otherwise anticipated, though the story seemed so flakily sourced as to constitute almost fake news. It would be an odd indictment of four of what we are told are the country’s cleverest people is that is the way it goes, since we had been assured earlier in the week by counsel for the Welsh government that the UK government’s case was so inept that a child of six could see past it. A child of five one presumes would therefore be completely flummoxed (one learns to split these sort of hairs after watching a week of this stuff). If nothing else therefore, we should learn something important from all this about the mental age of our top judges.

Back on the other side of the Square, the court’s proceedings seemed to have been rendered more or less irrelevant through the Government putting down its own amendment to a Labour motion, inviting the Commons to invite Mrs May to go ahead and pull the trigger when she wants to – that is by the end of March next year.  The Prime Minister is held to have been rather smart in manoeuvring her enemies – that is the Conservative Parliamentary party – to sign up to this, though Ken Clarke remained solidly unmanoeuverable, like a walrus.  The Commons assented to the Prime Minister’s  proposition with a handsome majority, causing the Daily Mail the following day to announce the vote as “The Day MPs Spoke for Britain”. From next year onwards therefore, we should get a two day holiday around now, to commemorate two momentous events on the trot: the day MPs spoke for Britain, closely followed by the day the Daily Mail wrote something nice about MPs.

All of this seemed of only limited significance compared to the row that blew up over the Prime Minister’s leather trousers. The first thing that needs to be said is that this is not the sort of thing that would have happened in Anthony Eden’s day. It is not until perhaps Edward Heath that we started to have prime ministers whom it might be possible to imagine wearing leather trousers.

The trousers came up, as it were, because the PM wore them while conducting a newspaper interview. While Mrs May may be shy of making policy statements, fashion statements tumble from her like the water careering over High Force.  A soft feminist who likes occasionally to portray herself as hard, she goes all mushy in her principles when it comes to getting people to talk and write about what she wears. It distracts them from talking or writing about what she thinks.

That the leather apparel have been talked about was confirmed by Nicky Morgan, the former education secretary. “They have been discussed”, Mrs Morgan said, offering a solemn insight into the goings on of the latest meeting of the Theresa May Denigration Society. Mrs Morgan and her co-denigrationists apparently consider it unlikely that anyone with expensive tastes in clothes can have any insight into or empathy with the lives of the Just About Managing classes to whom we must these days all defer. Her lower half encased in expensive brown leather, Mrs May’s entire political credo is thus rendered vacuous and hypocritical, or, as unkind critics might put it, rendered rather Nicky Morgan.

One might have expected this kind of facile class warfare to have emanated not from a fellow Conservative, but from, say, Jeremy Corbyn. The Labour leader has not been heard from however in a couple of weeks. Presumably he is still in official mourning for Fidel Castro. Besides he cannot be said to possess the rank envy that afflicts Mrs Morgan, a Just About Managing erstwhile corporate lawyer. “I never spent £1000 on anything except my wedding dress”, she wailed. Clearly we must club together somehow to buy NiMo a pair of expensive trousers. Whether this should be done through charitable endeavour or through an extension of the welfare state shows where we must re-pitch the ideological divide.

The welfare state may, in any case, have other priorities since Mrs May revealed in the same interview that she does not have a professional stylist. She must, it seems, rely on her husband Philip for fashion advice. Getting your husband to choose your handbag presumably constitutes the epitome of Just About Managing. Tell that, however, to the truly impoverished – the single mothers on sink estates where absent fathers are also absent husbands and therefore not on hand to pop down to Accessorize to help them choose their earrings. How out of touch can you get?

Loudly Let the Liberal Trumpet Bray

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The Liberal Democrats captured Richmond Park, while the Scottish Nationalists failed to do the same with Tony Blair…. 

On the grey, slushy, banks of the Thames, a small measure of the established political order was restored. The Liberal Democrats won a by-election.

Older readers will remember when this sort of thing used to happen every other week. It was as recurrent a part of the indelible pattern of British politics as the Queen’s Speech or Speaker Bercow making an ass of himself. It is true that every time it occurred the Liberal Democrats would claim that the indelible pattern had been rubbed out, but we knew they were only kidding. From Orpington onwards, on a geographic march that took us to Croydon and Eastbourne, Newbury, Brent and Romsey, the appearance of a hitherto obscure local government officer or primary school teacher with a smile as bright as their yellow rosette would tell us that everything was going to plan. They and their smiles would be gone by the next election. The Liberal Democrat advent always turned out like predictions of a bird flu epidemic – solemnly anticipated, but never quite as devastating as it was supposed to be.

Whether the worldwide rout of liberalism stops now, with the election of Sarah Olney, an accountant from Kingston, as the MP for Richmond Park remains, of course, to be seen. Ms Olney, with a proclivity to run away in the middle of radio interviews, and bewilder herself over what she has written on social media, may seem like a fragile receptacle for the hopes of millions of the planet’s progressives, but for the moment she looks like all they have available. Besides, she succeeded where Hillary Clinton failed. It was a laudable achievement,  especially in circumstances where her opponent Zac Goldsmith, for all that he tries very hard, never quite achieves a level of asininity that is Donald Trump’s second nature.

Many people welcomed the downfall of Mr Goldsmith and his ego, and it would be churlish to deny them the pleasure. Loyal to his brother’s sense of self-esteem, a younger member of the clan, Ben, bemoaned the “Brexit tantrum” that had substituted an “inspired MP” with an “utterly dreary” replacement. Earlier Ben had called Ms Olney “unimaginably drab”, leading one to wonder just how many of these formulations he had tucked up his Twitter sleeve (“unbelievably discombobulated?”, “uncannily distrait?”, “ungallantly derided?”). Nor were these intended as absolute insults: in each case he added the rider that his target was these things “even by Liberal Democrat standards”. One senses immediately what young Goldsmith means. The party’s leader, Tim Farron, casts a long shadow. Yet the stereotype should not be pressed too far. The liberal tradition has managed to accommodate Gladstone, Churchill and Lloyd George as well as giving us a salacious legacy of drunks, roués and child molesters.

It may be difficult to see Sarah Olney fitting in to this piquant mix, though in an attempt to give her colour, the Evening Standard has pointed up her love of Gilbert and Sullivan. She has portrayed Iolanthe in an amateur production and so will be aware of that work’s message about the indispensability of the House of Lords. This is perhaps what makes her a Liberal Democrat: having worked loudly and piously to abolish unelected members of Parliament, her party now sees them as a vital and, quite literally, noble antidote to its lack of the elected variety. Gilbert and Sullivan specialised in the portrayal of essentially comic figures cast in roles of authority for which they are ill-suited. The party’s newest MP should therefore get on well with Mr Farron.

The Liberal Democrat revival was delayed a few weeks by its failure quite to materialise upstream along the Thames in Witney, in the by-election caused by the vamooshing of David Cameron. The victor of that contest, a Tory barrister called Courts, made his maiden speech earlier in the week, choosing to do so in a St Andrew’s Day debate sponsored by the Scottish Nationalists. The subject was the perennial one of the evils of Tony Blair. One wishes that Gilbert and Sullivan had still been alive to capture Mr Blair, a task well beyond the International Criminal Court or, on this occasion, Alex Salmond. Mr Salmond did good Bannockburn with the handful of Labour backbenchers still willing to battle for their former leader; but as an exercise in futility it could be taught in business school. “Sofa government had driven us to war”, he said. Better then to prosecute the sofa. If Parliament really wants to get him, it should pass a law making it illegal to be Tony Blair. Not only would this be popular in the country, it would create a charge which even he would be unable to wriggle away from.

Mr Courts of Witney stepped in to this ensemble of Scottish disapproval to speak with impeccable lyricism about his constituency. It is a place where red kites soar over Bladon and the Windrush, Glyme and Evenlode gurgle expensively past the gardens of bankers, barristers and television personalities. Its MP took us on a tour of its towns and villages, alighting, like Edward Thomas in Addlestrop, upon Chipping Norton, yet forbearing, with admirable originality, to mention its set. Forbearing to mention Winston Churchill however, who is buried in Bladon churchyard, apparently a stone’s throw from where Mr Courts himself lives, was beyond him. Churchill once got engaged in a Parliamentary tussle of his own with a Labour backbencher called Albert Stubbs, who was also Mr Courts’ great-grandfather. He listened to his intervention, called Stubbs “ignorant” and went on with his speech. Great orator that he was, Churchill lacked the Goldsmithian flair to add “even by the standards of the Labour Party” as he did.

Do not presume that Mr Courts’ was a lonely shaft of English optimism to penetrate an otherwise cheerless Scottish afternoon. He was more than matched in chirpiness by Gavin Newlands, the SNP member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North, whose adjournment debate addressed the unlikely topic of Paisley’s cultural contribution to the world. If the world has yet to recognise this contribution, the Union might at least be about to do so, by possibly making it the UK’s City of Culture in 2021. The irony of a Scottish Nationalist seeking this UK accolade for his constituency, and especially for five years hence, by which time Scotland must surely be aspiring to independence, was not lost on Matthew Hancock, the minister replying to the debate.

It would be wrong though to chide Mr Newlands for this liturgical anachronism. Impeccably dressed in a three-piece suit and Paisley pattern tie, he unveiled an impressively long list of cultural figures born in or associated with the town. This may be readily compared with the somewhat shorter list of cultural figures anyone has heard of outside Renfrewshire, but if the “musical superstar” Paolo Nutini (a fine old Paisley name, one imagines) isn’t on your A-list, it is your loss and not Mr Newlands’. By the time he was down to detailing the weather forecasters Paisley had given to the world, the point was well made. Sarah Olney, when the time comes, will do well to make Richmond Park live as vividly in the chamber as Mr Newlands managed for Paisley or Mr Courts for Witney. That is assuming that, when she rises for her maiden speech, she doesn’t sit down again half way through it and hand over to her press officer.