12 days of Mayhem
Westminster moves at such breakneck speed these days that few can find time to take stock of what has taken place. Sebastian Whale has documented the key moments from a tumultuous 12 days and spoken to those at the heart of the action to capture another extraordinary period in British politics.
Monday 3 December
"I will still have a job in two weeks’ time,” Theresa May declared on the morning of Monday 3 December. “My job is making sure that we do what the public ask us to. We leave the EU, but we do it in a way that’s good for them.”
Even without the benefit of hindsight, that was a bold prediction for the Prime Minister to make on the smoky blue sofa of ITV’s This Morning. It was 24 hours before the first day of debate on the meaningful vote. Scores of Tory MPs and opposition parties had publicly declared their intention to vote against her deal. And although a vote of confidence had yet to materialise, the threat of more letters being filed was never far away.
That same morning, Geoffrey Cox published a 52-page document setting out his legal assessment of the Withdrawal Agreement. During a three-hour stint at the despatch box, the Attorney General told MPs that the UK could not unilaterally pull out of the backstop arrangement to prevent a hard border in Ireland. “So, it’s a trap,” heckled Brexiteer Sir Desmond Swayne. But Cox argued that political pressure would prevent the mechanism from becoming permanent, insisting that it was worth the “calculated risk”.
Despite the vocal dexterity of the esteemed QC, MPs were not assuaged. And given the Commons had passed a Labour motion in November calling for the full advice to be published, opposition parties felt the Government could be in contempt of parliament. Commons Speaker John Bercow signalled he agreed.
Tuesday 4 December
Theresa May suffered three damaging defeats during a historic hour in the Commons on Tuesday 4 December. The first came on a government amendment to refer the issue of contempt to the Privileges Committee, which was rejected by 311 votes to 307. That set the tone for the subsequent division, where the House voted by 311 to 293 to find the Government in contempt of Parliament. MPs then voted by 321 to 229 in favour of Dominic Grieve’s amendment to grant the Commons a say in what happens next if the PM’s Brexit deal is defeated.
“MPs are tonight starting the process of taking back control,” declared Grieve. The former minister, however, confirmed that his amendment on its own could not block a no deal Brexit.
For some, the defeats were the culmination of a protracted period of tension between the Government and MPs. “We’ve had the curious situation since the referendum where we have an executive claiming it’s acting in the will of the people without a majority in parliament to carry out its decisions,” Grieve tells The House.
“Inevitably it’s been leading to friction. In my view, the Government has been mistaken in not trying to extend a more conciliatory role towards Parliament because that’s the only way in which they’re going to find a way out of this crisis.”
With the aftershocks of that 63-minute period still reverberating around the Chamber, the PM opened the Brexit debate with a look back on the negotiations.
“… I didn’t play to the gallery, I focused on getting a deal that honours the referendum and sets us on course for a bright future – and I did so through painstaking hard work,” she said.
But Boris Johnson argued that no one in the Commons could “sincerely” say they believe in the PM’s deal. Tory MP Ed Vaizey raised a point of order. “I sincerely believe it. I have no stake in this Government any more, but I still think it is the right thing to do,” he said.
“It is a paint and plaster pseudo Brexit,” Johnson argued later in his speech. “And beneath the camouflage we find the same old EU institutions as the customs union and the single market, all of it adjudicated, by the way, by the European Court of Justice. If we vote for this deal, we will not be taking back control but losing control.”
Sir Roger Gale, sitting behind Johnson, was growing increasingly agitated. He asked the former London mayor to give way. “He appears to be one of those who prefers the grievance to the solution. The Prime Minister has come up with a solution. What’s his big idea?” the veteran Tory MP queried.
“I was coming to that!” boomed Johnson.
“I wanted to expose the fact that one of the leading [leadership] contenders has offered nothing in the way of ‘I could do a better job’,” Gale, on a parliamentary trip to Paris, explains to The House. “Indeed, in the past as foreign secretary, he has indicated failure, not success. There’s a lady languishing in a prison in Iran very largely – possibly – as a result of the degree of, shall we say, unfortunate representation on behalf of Mr Johnson when he was Foreign Secretary.”
He adds: “I can’t see that he had anything to offer at all other than criticism. It’s very easy to be critical. We can all criticise something we don’t like. But in his position, you have a duty to actually come up with some viable alternative.”
Gale received “a considerable amount of abuse” from some colleagues and “considerable appreciation” from many others for his intervention.
The first day of debate concluded at 1.02am.
Wednesday 5 December
“Frankly, any parliamentarian who wants at some point in the future to be in government is going to live to regret their vote last night,” said Andrea Leadsom during a tour of the airwaves on Wednesday morning. After the Government apparently became the first to be found in contempt of parliament, the Commons Leader said MPs who voted in favour would rue their decision. As talk drifted towards other matters, the Cabinet minister said Theresa May was the right person to be PM – with the delicious caveat – “at the moment”.
The legal advice on the Brexit deal was published late morning. Nigel Dodds, the deputy leader of the DUP, said the document was “devastating” and showed Britain was “treated as a third country” by Northern Ireland.
In the Commons, some Brexiteers were digesting the consequence of the Grieve amendment. “Does [he] not accept that the majority yesterday shows that the game is up, and that there is now a majority in this House against leaving the European Union?” Desmond Swayne asked John Redwood during an intervention. “And the game for us must be to find some orderly way around that, irrespective of the majority now against us.”
Thursday 6 December
Tracked down by BBC Newsnight following a meeting in No10, Sir Graham Brady called for changes to be made to the backstop arrangement – and to push back the meaningful vote if necessary.
“I was prepared to compromise in order to get an agreement through, but this was a compromise too far. I had already advised that I thought it was not a runner with a backstop from which we couldn’t exit,” Brady, who edits this publication, tells me.
Lobby journalists meanwhile were having lunch with Tony Blair, who also pondered: “I don’t personally think it is very sensible just to plunge along and be defeated very heavily.”
The Brexit debate claimed another scalp in the shape of Stephen Lloyd, who resigned the Lib Dem whip to vote for the deal. The party’s chief whip, Alistair Carmichael, had assured the Eastbourne MP that such a move would not be necessary. “The parliamentary party didn’t want to remove the whip because they believe rightly in the old liberal tenet that I may disagree with you, but I’ll fight for the right for you to have that opinion,” Lloyd told The House. But ever cognisant of his pre-election pledge, and after his fellow MPs received grief for not acting against their colleague, Lloyd resigned the whip. “I thought it was the honourable thing to do.”
Friday 7 December
By Friday morning, efforts to win over DUP and Tory rebels by giving MPs a say on whether the UK enters the Northern Ireland backstop were falling on deaf ears. “Domestic legislative tinkering won’t cut it,” tweeted DUP leader Arlene Foster.
In an interview with The House, David Davis called on Brexiteers to drive a stake “through the heart” of the PM’s deal. John McDonnell and Len McCluskey had contrasting views over whether Labour should back a referendum. And the mass exodus from Ukip continued apace as former leader Paul Nuttall joined Nigel Farage and others in leaving the party over its direction under Gerard Batten.
Saturday 8 and Sunday 9 December
In a Saturday interview with The Times, Amber Rudd outlined her support for a so-called Norway Plus Brexit if the PM’s deal is defeated. By the end of the week, newspapers had contrasting reports about whether the meaningful vote was going ahead. The Sunday Times said not; the Sunday Telegraph said all systems go. Gavin Williamson’s PPS, Will Quince, quit the Government over the Withdrawal Agreement.
Fresh from being likened to Aslan from The Chronicles of Narnia, Johnson, sporting a leadership-contender-worthy mane, told the Andrew Marr show he feels a “deep sense of personal responsibility” for Brexit. Esther McVey told Sky News she would give “serious consideration” to standing for Tory leader if asked to by friends, and Dominic Raab refused to get “sucked into personalised politics” when asked the same question.
Heading out to bat for the Government, Stephen Barclay denied reports that the Prime Minister was going back to Brussels to resume talks. The Brexit Secretary told Marr: “The vote is going ahead”. We would later discover that the PM had calls with Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker.
Monday 10 December
The vote is 100 per cent going ahead, Michael Gove declared during the 8.10 interview on Radio 4’s Today programme. That line held at the 11am lobby briefing from the PM’s official spokesman. But, at 11.30, Theresa May told the Cabinet she was delaying the vote.
Official confirmation did not arrive until 3.30 when the PM delivered her statement to MPs, during which time her opponents had their chance to stick their ore in. Jacob Rees-Mogg said: “We cannot continue like this. The Prime Minister must either govern or quit.” May told MPs it was clear her deal would be rejected “by a significant margin”. She confirmed she would appeal to EU leaders for movement on the Irish backstop and that the Government would ramp up planning for no-deal Brexit.
Leading Brexiteer Iain Duncan Smith said the postponement was a “tipping point” in Parliament. “Initially, there was hope this was in recognition of the Withdrawal Agreement’s total unreasonableness. Sadly, the line we later received from Downing Street seemed to be that ‘nothing has changed’,” he told The House.
In a remarkable intervention, Speaker Bercow said it was rude of the PM to shelve the meaningful vote at late notice. He said while the Government had the power to unilaterally ditch the vote, it would have been “infinitely preferable” to ask MPs first. Instead, ministers used a Commons procedure to bypass a division. Andrea Leadsom later questioned the Speaker’s impartiality over Brexit.
Such was Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle’s displeasure at proceedings that he grabbed the mace and ventured out the Chamber before being stopped by a clerk. “Disgusting!”, “shameful!” irate Tory MPs shouted. “Name him!” one cried. By now in the safe confines of the Red Lion pub on Whitehall after being temporarily suspended, Russell-Moyle told my colleague, Matt Foster: “It was a spur-of-the-moment decision.”
Another to be tracked down by an enterprising journalist – albeit this time in person – was David Cameron, who told Sky News he had no regrets in holding the EU referendum. The former PM did admit, however, that he was “very concerned” by events going on in Parliament.
Tuesday 11 December
Theresa May began her tour of Europe by having breakfast with Dutch PM Mark Rutte in The Hague before heading onto Berlin for talks with Angela Merkel. The PM got trapped in a living metaphor when she couldn’t open her car door to greet the German Chancellor. She then moved on to Brussels for a meeting with Juncker and separate talks with Tusk ahead of Thursday’s EU council summit. A healthy number of European leaders had already ruled out renegotiating the Withdrawal Agreement.
Owen Paterson, the former Cabinet minister, announced he had handed in his letter of no confidence to Sir Graham Brady. It had become clear “during the course of the day” that the threshold had been reached, Brady tells The House. He rang No10 to request a meeting with the Prime Minister after PMQs – but the press caught wind of it. Instead, the chair of the 1922 committee spoke to May over the phone upon her return to the UK. Tory chair Brandon Lewis and Julian Smith, the Government Chief Whip, were seen entering No10 late on Tuesday evening. The 48-letter threshold had been reached.
Wednesday 12 December
Sir Graham Brady emailed the officers and executives of the 1922 committee at 7.28 with a statement confirming the no confidence vote and the timetable to follow. At 7.30, it went out to Tory MPs and the media.
“The threshold of 15% of the parliamentary party seeking a vote of confidence in the leader of the Conservative party has been exceeded,” the statement read. “In accordance with the rules, a ballot will be held between 18.00 and 20.00 on Wednesday 12 December in committee room 14 of the House of Commons. The votes will be counted immediately afterwards and an announcement will be made as soon as possible in the evening.”
At 8.30, the Prime Minister spoke on Downing St, saying she stood to be leader because she believed in a better future, a thriving economy, with nowhere and nobody left behind. “I have devoted myself unsparingly to these tasks ever since I became prime minister and I stand ready to finish the job,” she added.
College Green, decked out with gazebos, was full of MPs giving their sixpence on the confidence vote. In a bizarre scene, Andrew Bridgen opted to leave a BBC interview when offered the chance after his Conservative colleague James Cleverly joined the discussion. “I’ll go, that’s fine,” said Bridgen. Philip Hammond argued the vote was an opportunity to flush out the “extremists” in his party.
Just before Prime Minister’s Questions, Liam Fox suggested the Cabinet might oppose MPs getting a vote on the Brexit deal without changes to the backstop. Ken Clarke was among those on the Tory benches to rally around Theresa May. Jeremy Corbyn said the vote would “make no difference to the people of Britain”.
The Telegraph reported a Brexiteer MP claim it was an “absolute outrage” that the vote was being held on Wednesday evening, and not on Monday as they said they were led to believe. Noting that, under the party’s guidelines, the vote must be held as soon as is practically possible, Brady explains: “We followed the rules and it wasn’t a particularly difficult judgment to do so. One might also comment that those who were keen to hold a vote of confidence and to remove the leader of the party had been working on this for at least the last six weeks.”
Suspended Tories Charlie Elphicke and Andrew Griffiths had the whip restored to allow them to take part in the ballot. Labour’s Dawn Butler described the decision as a “betrayal of women”.
At 5pm, Theresa May addressed an emotional meeting of the 1922 committee. The PM said she would not fight the 2022 general election and pledged to get tangible movement on the Irish backstop. Conservative MPs started voting from 6pm. Gavin Williamson was thought to be the last to vote at around 8pm.
Hordes of journalists and Tory MPs congregated in Parliament’s Committee room 14 to hear the result at 9pm. Cheers broke out as Brady, flanked by 1922 committee officers, revealed: “The parliamentary party does have confidence in Theresa May.” But the jubilation turned to gasps as he revealed 117 had voted against the Prime Minister – more than a third of the Conservative benches – with 200 in favour.
“Announcing the result wasn’t particularly nerve-racking,” Brady tells me. “Being sure to get the process right and ensure that it was done in a scrupulously fair manner without any danger of any mistakes is more nerve-racking.”
Jacob Rees-Mogg said it was a “terrible result” for May and called on her to resign. Appearing on ITV’s Peston, fellow Eurosceptic Steve Baker predicted the PM could end up in a comparable situation to Margaret Thatcher in 1990, and see her own Cabinet calling for her to depart. But one pro-May MP told The House: “The calling of the confidence vote was irresponsible and self-indulgent. It exposed a number of my colleagues for what they are, which is fundamentally opportunist.”
Dominic Grieve concedes that the decision to pull the meaningful vote prompted some of his colleagues who have no affiliation with the ERG to lose confidence in the PM. But he adds: “Changing the Prime Minister isn’t going to solve the problem because the problem is inherent in Brexit, it’s not in the leadership that we’re getting for the country. It could be led by the Archangel Gabriel, frankly. We wouldn’t be doing any better.”
In her second statement of the day outside No10, May recognised that a “significant number” of MPs had voted against her and she had “listened to what they said”.
Thursday 13 December
The jet-setting Prime Minister headed to Brussels to attend a European Council summit. Doorstepped by reporters, Dominic Raab suggested a change at the top was needed. “We will have to back her as best we can,” he said. “But the problem is that both in relation to Brexit and the wider sustainability of the Government, the given likelihood of any changes to the deal, given the likely scale of opposition, it looks very difficult to see how this Prime Minister can lead us forward.”
Arriving in the Belgian capital, May stated on the record: “It’s right that another party leader takes us into that 2022 general election.”
During Business Statement, Labour MP Jess Phillips read out texts sent by former minister Andrew Griffiths to women as she attacked the decision to reinstate the Conservative whip. Phillips tells me: “The Prime Minister gave up her last shred of dignity by giving Elphicke and Griffiths the whip back. She claimed that she would never let political friendships get in the way of protecting women from sexual harassment and abuse, she promised she would make processes. She lied; her power and protecting her mates came first as usual.”
No10 confirmed the meaningful vote would not take place before Christmas. Taking matters firmly into his own hands, the Lib Dem’s Tom Brake said it would be “an insult to the British people” if MPs went on holiday without holding a vote – and called for the Christmas recess to be cancelled.
Friday 14 December
May’s hope for a bailout from Brussels was squashed in the early hours. EU officials hardened their stance and insisted there would be no renegotiation of the Withdrawal Agreement, but only clarifications. Jean-Claude Juncker said: “Our UK friends need to say what they want, instead of asking us to say what we want.”
He added: “There will be no legally binding obligations imposed on the withdrawal treaty.”
In remarkable footage, an irate Theresa May was seen confronting Juncker ahead of the second day of the EU summit, before Dutch PM Mark Rutte intervened. The PM later confirmed she had a “robust” discussion with the European Commission President over claims he called her “nebulous”. And she claimed it was still possible to get the assurances necessary from the EU for MPs to back her deal.
Iain Duncan Smith tells the House: “Conservative MPs genuinely want Theresa May to deliver a strong statement to EU leaders making the case for a legally binding assurance to address the very obvious failings of the Northern Irish Backstop. It is frustrating that even now having been clear she wants changes to made, the Irish and the French as well as Junker continue to play political games.”
He added: “The response in Europe since the vote was postponed has been one of intransigence. Where some, including the government, see this as an impasse I believe it is a clear statement that the EU are not interested in reaching a settlement agreeable to both parties and therefore we must be prepared to deliver the referendum result by moving to WTO rules.”
Watching on, a Labour source says: “The Tories’ deep contradictions over the causes of and solutions to this political crisis are there for all to see. May won’t resolve them. She must stop playing for time and bring her botched deal back to parliament – and see it voted down.”
And asked to articulate what it has been like to observe the Conservative party self-implode, the source replies: “Schadenfreude.”