Back in the day, before the arrival of William of Normandy, the Anglo-Saxons had a pretty straightforward set of principles for the governance of England. It was the duty of the king (or queen) to protect and defend the people against foreign aggression. This allowed the rest of the country to get on with their lives and their farms and their businesses in peace. If the king failed in his duty and allowed Vikings to continue marauding over the countryside, then the king was quietly removed from office and replaced. This is thought by some to have happened (briefly) to Alfred the Great after he retreated from Bristol without an army and went into hiding at Athelney where he burnt the cakes.
The general principle was one of consent. The people allowed the king to rule and have the privileges of his station, provided he did his duty with all due competence. An inseparable part of consent is the principle of trust. Without trust, the people will not grant their consent to be ruled over; without consent, there is no trust. These two intricately bound principles were unwritten but have run continuously, unseen, through our nation’s long history. They are the glue which holds together the rule of law – that all men are equal in the eyes of the law – and that none shall be treated differently, whether poor or rich, whether powerful or humble. And it is this which allows the genius of our island the necessary freedom for industrious and inventive prosperity.
Sadly, all three of those related principles – the rule of law, consent and trust – have been seriously eroded in recent history. Mass immigration is just one of those things where the state overstepped its authority and imposed huge numbers of immigrants upon the British people without even telling us that it was going to happen. It was all done without our knowledge or consent.
As the state grew in size and ubiquity, the electorate began to lose interest in elections because there seemed to be so little difference in the political choices that were presented to us. Turnout at General Elections dropped. But when voter turnout is high or very high, it can be expected that the tectonic plates of British electoral opinion are moving. The usual outcome is a punishment beating for the incumbent government. This happened in 1997, when the Conservatives lost 171 seats. The EU referendum gave the establishment a thorough beating; and the 2017 General Election reinforced the message of the referendum. The establishment fails in its duty to the British people at its peril.
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The Brexit White Paper advanced by Downing Street has had a curious evolution. It is now apparent that it was being prepared some months ahead of the cabinet meeting at Chequers on 6th July in total secret. Meanwhile the Department for exiting the EU, DExEU, have been busily slogging away preparing their own White Paper, which had developed during the course of negotiations with the EU, and in the light of experienced gained by those negotiations. This was being done properly and openly as an integral part of the DExEU official remit. Despite this, Theresa May and her advisors prepared their own version. A couple of manifestations of this had briefly reared their heads as plans set out by Olly Robbins – a senior civil servant to whom Theresa May is said to defer on all matters Brexit. These were rejected as being unworkable and unacceptable by the EU. The current White Paper is probably a re-heated and watered-down version of those earlier drafts. Its detail is still expected to be unacceptable to the EU – and is now fully contrary to the promises made by Theresa May over many months and many speeches. The current version crosses all the red lines that she said it would not, and it is presented as the only version that is likely to be acceptable to the EU. The Prime Minister is now repeatedly re-presenting it in different forms in the hope that it will gain public and Parliamentary acceptance. So far, there is every sign that the public are rejecting it because it fails to give the UK sovereignty over our own affairs. Worse still, it allows for continued immigration from the EU. At the time of writing, Justine Greening, a remainer and former minister, is suggesting that the only option is to have another referendum with three options – because “the voters didn’t understand the question” in the first one. Dominic Grieve, another ardent remainer and rebel, is saying something very similar. A pattern of co-ordinated messages is being repeated as Project Fear is cranked up again.
- The Chequers White Paper had been prepared weeks or months in advance of the Chequers Summit.
- There was no consultation with DExEU about this and astoundingly, no knowledge by DExEU of its preparation or existence. Which suggests that DExEU was only ever window dressing – without the knowledge of its staff, it was set up as a phoney department.
- Co-ordinated threats by big industry e.g. Airbus, to move business, were ramped up again, a week/ten days before the summit. These are the same claims which have been made before the referendum and again over the last two years.
- The White Paper was shown to Merkel in advance of the summit – before cabinet had even seen it. This is the first time, to my knowledge, that a Prime Minister of the UK has consulted with a foreign power before her own Cabinet. There is a strong suspicion that these lines of communication have been open for some time.
- The White Paper was presented as a fait accompli to Cabinet at Chequers, with the DexEU option not even considered.
- DexEU were deliberately undermined from the beginning.
- There were threats by May that this is the only option in town: “buy this or get Corbyn and McDonnell” as a message to both Tories and voters (but mostly for consumption of Tories).
- The “No agreement, WTO rules” option is being rubbished, so even this last resort option is deemed untenable despite its obvious value.
- MPs with marginal constituencies, and who are also critics of the Chequers document, are now being threatened by the Party Chairman (Brandon Lewis) with having funding cut off.
- The new Secretary of State for DexEU, Dominic Raab, has had to accept that 50 of his best negotiators have been moved to No.10 and that they will keep Raab “fully consulted”. This means that DexEU’s ability to negotiate with the EU will be severely constrained. DexEU has been politically castrated and Raab is just a fig leaf for the continued respectability of Theresa May.
- The Chequers summit involved locking the cabinet in and without means of communication with the outside world. In the meantime, James Cleverly tweeted an animated version of the Chequers paper that had been prepared well in advance and on the assumption that agreement had been reached. It was almost as if the PM knew in advance that agreement would be reached on her terms.
Items 7 to 11 have happened since the Chequers Summit and are a symptom of increasing panic by Theresa May because of the very public backlash that is growing daily. The number of resignations from government by ministers and junior ranks, which are currently happening at the rate of about one per day, along with very adverse polling, are adding pressure.
The more you think about this list, the more it becomes obvious that the groundwork for these betrayals has been planned and executed out months in advance. Olly Robbins has been quoted as saying to EU negotiators that they should ignore DExEU and speak to him directly.
This is the most brutal and sustained nastiness in British politics I have seen in my lifetime. Even John Major has said that it is worse than the Maastricht rebellion. Theresa May is now resembling Cardinal Richelieu – and Olly Robbins fits in nicely as her éminence grise. Disturbingly, Robbins now has more power over the Brexit negotiations than the Secretary of State for DExEU. He seems to have sufficient trappings of power to be a de factoDeputy Prime Minister.
The parallels with Richelieu are uncomfortably close. Richelieu was appointed Foreign Secretary to King Louis XIII in 1616 and became his Chief Minister in 1624. He died in office in 1642 having forged the disparate collection of feudal aristocrats – who answered only to the king – into a single, highly centralised state with the king as absolute monarch. France became the biggest power in Europe and in North America, where French colonialists spread from the Mississippi/Missouri basin to the north of Canada.
But he did this by means of a huge spy network, blackmail and subterfuge of all kinds, including the arrest and execution of his political enemies. His principle factotum in all this was Father Joseph, a Capuchin friar who wore a grey cloak over his habit and so became the original éminence grise– someone who exercises power but without holding an official position. By means of espionage, intrigue, instilling fear into their enemies and the exercise of raw power, Richelieu and Father Joseph together helped to weld France into a power capable of holding off the Habsburg empire, whilst at the same time stabilising the internal factions of the French aristocracy.
Three quotes from Richelieu are apposite to Theresa May and her management of the Brexit affair:
“If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him.”
“Secrecy is the first essential in affairs of state.”
“To know how to dissimulate is the knowledge of kings.”
The unscrupulous methods used by Richelieu and Father Joseph are echoed, in a much milder form, by those used by Theresa May and Olly Robbins (Jacob Rees-Mogg has not yet been arrested, imprisoned and tortured in the Tower of London). However, it looks as if long term planning; placement of sympathetic individuals; covert treachery towards colleagues (not just by May); civil service power grabs; emasculation of Secretaries of State and appearing to say the right things in public whilst manipulating events in completely the opposite direction, are all techniques used by May and her chosen team to suppress dissent and opposition.
Theresa May’s performances at the despatch box have tended to yield only wooden platitudes, empty of substance. Her assurances of a “good” Brexit have turned out to be hollow. We can therefore conclude that secrecy – or not giving anything away until it’s too late for opponents to react – is her watchword.
Hand in hand with her secrecy goes her ability to say things which appear to be sincere and direct, but later turn out to be modified into something else entirely. There is a suspicion that Theresa May thinks that if sufficient time has elapsed between now and her last utterance on the subject, people will somehow have forgotten what she said in the first place. In other words, she is banking upon the perceived stupidity of her parliamentary colleagues, and the possibility of working them around to her objective with a series of compromises, fudges and political chicanery. In this model, the opinions of the voting public are not thought to be of any consequence at all, and so are not even considered. Boris Johnson has just made his personal statement in the Commons and has neatly contrasted the approach to Brexit as set out in May’s Lancaster House speech, and the approach now. It is as if the Lancaster House speech did not occur. Where Richelieu did not have to consider the voter in his statesman-like manoeuvrings because there weren’t any, Theresa May does not consider them because she has forgotten all about them. Her statements in Parliament and on television are therefore couched in terms where there is always implied exceptions onto which she intends to fall back upon later.
And finally, we must consider Richelieu’s first dictum that he could find almost any statement to be grounds for hanging a man. There is an element of fear in Theresa May’s government. David Cameron is once said to have remarked to a visiting foreign statesman (I forget which) that the only person he was afraid of in his government was Theresa May. This was uttered in Cameron’s usual semi jocular manner, but there seems to be an element of truth in it. May is said to be able to flip from normal to nuclear within seconds; and there is something about that smile in response to awkward questions from her own side that suggests that she doesn’t forget a difficult backbencher. There is a lingering suspicion in the minds of the cynical that May’s rise through the leadership campaign was choreographed in such a way as to remove the favourite candidate (Boris). This was the first time that an intervention from Michael Gove effectively stabbed Boris in the back. Something similar seemed to happen at the Chequers summit when Gove manufactured a reason for supporting the Chequers version of the White Paper. It is as if May has Gove in her pocket for reasons we can only speculate upon.
However, the parallels with Richelieu must stop here. Cardinal Richelieu’s achievements amounted to building France as a great nation. His methods were undoubtedly open to criticism, but his achievements were solid and in the interests of his country. It is fair to say that much of Richelieu’s ambitions were for his own power and wealth, but his primary motivation was for France. Furthermore, he succeeded magnificently and laid the foundations for modern France as we know it today.
This is in stark contrast to Theresa May and her own éminence grisewho seem to have adopted the cunning machinations of Richelieu; but with the object, not of re-building the United Kingdom into an outward looking international force for free trade and democracy, but as a poor, miserable, inward-looking, helpless creature which is a vassal to an undemocratic monster. Theresa May is not a Richelieu, but a Wormtongue whispering defeat and decay into the ears of the peoples of these islands.
But above all, the lessons of the Chequers Summit are that May has exhibited not only a manifest contempt for her colleagues in government and Parliament, but also the electorate, whom she clearly despises. On an almost weekly basis, she insults our intelligence with her virtue signalling about this or that insignificant matter. She seems to be saying to us that, despite our fears that she might be making yet another royal cock-up of sending the country into exactly the wrong direction, she gives us pictures of fluffy kittens to distract us from our child-like angst.
Her record as Home Secretary was dismal. Her record as Prime Minister has been to take the Conservative Party from having a small but workable majority into being a minority government. She has now betrayed her colleagues and the electorate with a Brexit In Name Only proposal which she has shown a foreign power before she showed it to her own cabinet. The British public are no less intelligent and informed than members of the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The public have seen through her and her schemes and reversals and dithering and genuflection to the EU.
Theresa May has lost the trust of the British people; and thus has also lost their consent to govern. It is time for her to go.