Three days after Theresa May had imprisoned the entire Cabinet at Chequers and unleashed Olly Robbins to administer a day-long punishment beating, I received an e-mail from my local Conservative Association. It was an invitation to attend a meeting at which two local constituency MPs would attend, along with the star turn – Claire Perry, MP for Devizes and Minister of State (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Clean Growth). With a title like that, and the possibility of finding three MPs in the room at the same time, how could I miss it? I responded that I would be there and waited eagerly for the great day to arrive.
About two dozen local stalwarts were there on time and Claire Perry was late by getting on for an hour. Fortunately, we had saved some of the lunch for Mrs Perry and she was able to scoff a pasty before getting up on her hind legs and delivering her speech. First came the warm words about her two colleagues and then it was into the Brexit stuff. It quickly became obvious that Mrs Perry was something of an accomplished verbal steam roller.
(A Marshall steam roller, Trevithick Day, Camborne 2018. When talking, Claire Perry MP has very similar characteristics to this machine. Image: David Eyles)
The speech was all about the virtues of the Chequers agreement – how it was all going to be lovely; how it was going to fix the Irish Border question; how it meant freedom from EU regulation and the ECJ; how it was something we could all get behind and bring the party together; how we were all going unite again and get on with each other absolutely fabulously.
And so on.
Mrs Perry does a good line in unstoppable bullshit – all fresh and carefully wrapped up from the party machine. When she wound up with her message of party unity, there was some polite applause and then the questions. I opened the batting with a question about the contrast between her message and that of Boris Johnson’s resignation speech in the House of Commons – would she please explain why she is right and Boris Johnson was wrong. Basically, it was a kind of informal ‘compare and contrast’ sort of question. She immediately launched into a tirade about Boris having made a leadership bid. That may well be case, but I was not interested in Boris’ leadership ambitions. So I stopped her by saying that she was not answering the question. She drew breath and continued slagging off Boris. Mentally, I gave up and contented myself with correcting her on a couple of details. This, after all, was a Conservative local event and I did not want to appear to be unnecessarily rude.
A couple more questions and then a final one from a Young Conservative. He asked how she assessed UKIP as a threat. Well, that was it. Another tirade about how UKIP are a busted flush, their day is over and how they will never get anywhere in British politics.
And so on.
Afterwards, I tapped the young man on the shoulder and told him he was right about UKIP. He responded, with some heat, “I know I am” and it became clear that he was hacked off with being flattened by the Perry steamroller in the same way that I was.
Little scenes like this are happening all over the country. This article is an amusing account of one such, conducted by Michael Gove in his Surrey Heath constituency. It seems Mr Gove is a little over-sensitive at the use of the word “betrayal” and goes off on one if you you use it in his presence. In this case, the “b” word was used in the context of Theresa May’s production of a white paper that DExEU had never seen before, and which she had first shown to Angela Merkel before she had shown it to her own cabinet. Perhaps Mr Gove shouted because he thought the word “betrayal” was being applied to his own shafting of Boris and David Davis at the Chequers meeting. We shall never know.
Elsewhere, Mrs May is thoughtfully touring the country in a series of carefully choreographed events to garner support for the May/Robbins white paper. This seems to be mostly with sixth formers, who may be only just about old enough to vote, but who are probably thought to be sufficiently malleable to get a good response for the newspapers. Sadly, that little plot has fallen on stoney ground. The young people in these tweets appear to have been steamrollered too:
The Chequers summit and its aftermath is a fascinating study in Theresa May’s control freakery. Not just ordinary freakery, but carefully planned freakery. The main points of the Chequers betrayal are set out here. But in these subsequent nationwide little choreographed events, we are witnessing the second stage of the plan.
The Chequers meeting itself was an exercise in psychological manipulation. Even before the meeting, the Cabinet were told that if they wanted to resign, they would not have a ministerial car to take them home from Chequers. Their phones and iwatches were to be handed over and they were to be kettled in the room until agreement had been reached. The audacity of this plan could only be achieved by Theresa May’s demand for total control – and her known ability to ‘go nuclear’ in an instant. Fear is a powerful manipulator of people into acquiescence.
It seems that David Davis first gave a presentation of the proposed DExEU white paper (which had been a year in the making) and then they were presented with the May/Robbins version. This had obviously also been a long time in the making, but which had been kept absolutely secret from everybody until that moment (including DExEU). The only draft white paper that was actually on offer was the May/Robbins version; and it seems that discussion was centred solely around that.
In terms of manipulation, the meeting was designed to remove all sense of individuality from the participants and control their movements and actions. The unexpected production of a “new” alternative paper (the May/Robbins version) served to bounce it into acceptance by the Cabinet. This clearly worked, but it was done so suddenly that no-one with a deep knowledge of the negotiations terms could read and properly assess the implications. Only afterwards, when many expert eyes could read it and assess it, could the full implications be realised.
The fact that Michael Gove went from an ardent Leaver into a hardened supporter of the May/Robbins paper during the course of the meeting suggests to me that he had been ‘softened up’ in some way, prior to the meeting. This would bring the arithmetic of any vote into Theresa May’s favour. Of course, that is pure speculation on my part, but the behaviour of Gove has started to fascinate me (and others). There is no question that Gove is a highly talented politician who is able to hide his real intentions behind a façade of consummate charm and witty affability. But his primary motivation is raw political ambition. This needs to be borne in mind when considering his behaviour.
In first instilling fear and then acquiescence into the doubters in the Cabinet, Theresa May and the de facto deputy Prime Minister, Olly Robbins, had achieved their aims thus far – and transformed most Cabinet members into the robotic creatures of her will. It is true that there were a few resignations afterwards, but that was just acceptable collateral damage. The point is that May had had her way. The little obedient clockwork creatures then travelled across the country to spread the Good Word of Mrs May’s Wisdom.
In the case of Cornwall, we got Claire Perry – who, as I have previously suggested, is not so much clockwork as heavy duty and steam driven. But however they are powered, the little May automata have been unleashed upon the country to persuade us all into acceptance. But notice that they are not talking directly to the public. It is almost always to their own party members. Theresa May is clearly hoping that we humble local members will accept her version of the White Paper and will not therefore be clamouring for a leadership election. She thinks we are too thick to question her wisdom. Likewise, she expects to get it past the Parliamentary party, and then through the Commons as an Act of Parliament. Even if she succeeds in all this, there is just one tiny little fly in this particularly sticky tub of political ointment:
The electorate will not believe a word of it.