The first wobble came on Saturday. After weeks of refusing to budge on plans to hold a Commons vote on her Brexit deal, Theresa May let slip to staff that maybe, just maybe, there could be movement.
On Sunday, the clamour from key cabinet ministers for a postponement grew louder. When she rang Irish PM Leo Varadkar and the EU’s Donald Tusk, May still insisted she was pressing on with the vote planned for Tuesday. But they were told it would be easier to sell the deal to her MPs if she had some extra assurances on the vexed issue of Northern Ireland. Once more, the idea of Britain pleading for more time became palpable.
And yet even if Brussels smelled doubt and could feel the timetable slipping, some around her felt that May still wanted to stick to Tuesday. As he was briefed on how to handle the breakfast media on Monday morning, Michael Gove was certainly convinced the famously stubborn PM was not for turning. In a pool clip for TV, he said not once but three times that the vote would go ahead as planned.
Within minutes of Gove’s broadcast round ending, cabinet were told to expect an emergency conference call. The ministers who had been pushing for a delay knew at that point they had won. When the call was made, at 11.30am, there was no dissent.
Ostensibly, the cabinet was being ‘consulted’ but in fact Chief Whip Julian Smith and Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson were among eight ministers who had driven the postponement. The PM had been left with little choice.
Unsurprisingly, the news was leaked within seconds.
When May got up in the Commons to confirm the news, there was a mix of derision and laughter from opposition benches – and stony silence from the Tory benches behind her. “On one issue, the Northern Ireland backstop, there remains widespread and deep concern…” she admitted.
The house was packed tighter than a Budget Day, with cabinet ministers David Gauke, Chris Grayling, Damian Hinds, Jeremy Wright, Karen Bradley forced to stand. Gove arrived late, his earlier broadcast humiliation still ringing in his ears.
The chief whip was initially missing from his perch at the end of the government front bench, but arrived mid-way through the PM’s statement. “There is such a weird, unsettling atmosphere in here,” one former minister told HuffPost via text. “Julian looks like he’s just eaten a wasp”
Perhaps the most wounding of all the criticism May suffered during another gruelling, three-hour session came from Nigel Dodds, the Westminster leader of the DUP. “Frankly, what the prime minister says today simply is not credible, is it?... Please, prime minister, really do start to listen and come back with changes to the withdrawal agreement, or it will be voted down.”
As Dodds spoke, Gavin Williamson, who had also entered the chamber late behind the speaker’s chair, was looking avidly at his smartphone. It was apt that he was operating literally behind the scenes, because in many ways it has been Williamson – the former chief whip who hammered out the DUP-Tory alliance in the days after the snap election disaster – who has quietly tried to save the PM from herself in recent weeks.
For some Tory backbenchers, the most telling vignette came on the night of November 19. The DUP had just fired a ‘warning shot’ across the bows of the government by voting with Labour and against the Tories on the budget.
In the wood-panelled Members’ Dining Room overlooking the Thames, Williamson decided to sit with DUP MPs and chat to his old friends to rebuild bridges, despite their apparent break with the confidence and supply agreement that props May up in power.
Yet when Chief Whip Julian Smith happened to arrive in the same room, he acknowledged his colleague but blanked the entire DUP gathering. The snub did not go unnoticed. “He was incapable of dealing with disappointment and of moving on to the next vote,” one backbencher said.
The DUP also ‘heartily loathe’ new Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley, another MP confided. “She makes absolutely zero effort to understand them.” The minister’s admission in a House magazine interview in the summer, that she hadn’t previously realised that nationalists and loyalists vote along sectarian lines, was just one example.
“He’s beloved by the DUP. He gets their concerns, they have contempt for Bradley and for their official handlers, Damian Green and then Lidington, aren’t on their wavelength at all. So even if they had been minded to dilute the sell-out, they were in no shape to sell it,” says one who knows the Northern Irish party well.
Moreover, Williamson – who actually proposed that May should give the DUP ministerial posts in 2016 – has told friends that “burning the DUP is madness”. He sees the danger as a threat to the life of the parliament, May’s main weapon with the vast bulk of Tory MPs, who are indifferent to Brexit either way.
But most of all it is the whips’ office under Smith that is being held responsible for the fiasco of the last few weeks, with its roots starting last year.
He is being blamed for misreading last summer how dangerous it was to break with precedent and force MPs to abstain on opposition day motions. And when Labour started using an ancient procedural device of a ‘humble address’ to force the government to act on key issues like releasing Brexit impact assessments, Smith failed to spot how toxic it would ultimately become.
Smith’s allies point out he’s lost just a handful of votes since taking over in 2017, no mean achievement given the wafer-thin, DUP-backed majority. Still, the ’63 minutes of May-hem’ last week, in which the Government lost three votes in quick succession, is what critics say confirmed the whips’ failure to carry out their basic duty: ‘count and then warn’.
“They should have spotted they were going to lose the Contempt of Parliament motion and pulled that vote and published the attorney general’s legal advice,” one Tory MP said. “They got their numbers wrong, badly wrong. If they’d got it right, we wouldn’t be in the mess we are now.”
To make matters worse, the government whips’ office seemed split on the Dominic Grieve amendment that aimed to give parliament more of a say on Brexit alternatives. One whip confided that they felt as if the chief and his deputy, Chris Pincher, were actually encouraging some MPs to back the Grieve plan, while others were advised by more junior whips to oppose it. “It’s like they so wanted to scare brexiteers, they didn’t really know what they were doing,” one of those involved said.
Each junior whip has to tend their ‘flock’ of MPs, normally split up on a regional basis. But several backbenchers have been surprised that their whips appear to have given up on them, and that the PM showed no interest in meeting them.
Pincher, known as ‘Pinch’ to colleagues, is now getting his own share of the blame. “He’s got no relationship with the DUP and has no idea about policy. The best whips know the policy and the numbers, these guys know neither,” one particularly furious rebel said. “Julian is so often at No.10, it’s Pinch who is the one over here [in the Commons]. And it ain’t working.”
With the big Brexit vote now expected to be delayed until January, one MP ridiculed the recent whips’ empty threat to make parliament sit longer to eat into their festive break. “It’s the Pinch who stole Christmas! He can’t count so he’s lucky there’s an advent calendar to help tell him which day is which.” Others point out that Pincher earns the same salary as the chief whip [£109,000]. “If the PM needs a scalp, surely it’s his that’s for the taking?”
One grandee said that the most telling incident in recent days was that many MPs had gone to Williamson rather than Smith to pass on their concerns that the party would split if May went ahead with the vote. And cabinet ministers relate that Smith has gone from reassuring the PM that she had ‘the numbers’ to becoming one of those warning postponement was vital to protecting the government.
What still rankles for many on the Labour side is the way Smith personally ordered Tory MPs to break their ‘pair’ with opposition MPs to win a vote on the Trade Bill this summer. Party chairman Brandon Lewis was told to vote even though he paired with Lib Dem Jo Swinson, who had only recently given birth.
Opposition whips are reluctant to criticise their opposite numbers and in many ways sympathise, though not for long.
“Whips always get the blame when things go wrong but rarely get the credit when things go right,” one said. “But the government’s big mistake is trying to build relationships with MPs only at times of trouble.” Labour also sees the Smith set-up as very hierarchical, with junior whips unable to be trusted with delegation. Every decision goes through ‘The Chief’, as he is known.
Most puzzling to Labour has been the total absence of any attempt by either the whips or No.10 to engage with MPs in leave seats who could possibly be tempted to back May’s deal as at least a way of delivering the 2016 referendum. MPs like Lisa Nandy had no contact at all.
Others on the Tory side point out that the entire government whips’ office lacks experienced, older hands needed to calm nerves in what is increasingly feeling like a minority government. As the ConservativeHome website has pointed out, Smith and Pincher and their loyal colleague Mark Spencer have been in post just two-and-a-half years, and the rest of their team on average just 18 months. “There just aren’t any grown ups,” one rebel says.
To make things worse, May has removed some of the better rated whips out into ministerial office. Former ministers who have sent warning shots in various votes have been ignored. Those with experience of Northern Ireland have not been approached for advice on handling the DUP either.
Defenders of the whips say they shouldn’t be blamed for what are ultimately Downing Street’s tactical and strategical errors. Triggering Article 50 too early, ramping up expectation of a hard Brexit, triggering a doomed snap election, misreading the DUP a year ago, and even creating a ‘meaningful vote’ are all blunders laid at the door of May and her top team.
One loyalist MP also pointed out that Jacob Rees-Mogg and his European Research Group (ERG) allies had proved even worse ‘counters’ than the whips, not least when it comes to the 48 signatures needed for a vote of confidence. Yet the ERG has in fact deployed a disciplined whipping operation when its votes are needed to send a message to the PM, a former minister said.
Others sympathise that this set of whips is facing a group of hardened brexiteer rebels who have learned from the Maastricht rebellions under John Major in the 1990s. Crucially, they have built an almost impregnable alliance with the DUP.
Ironically portraits of some of May’s strongest critics, like David Davis and Michael Fallon, stare down from the cabinet office walls near No.9 Downing Street, official home of the chief whip. Both Davis and Fallon were whips themselves, and know all the tricks of the trade.
One incident last week highlighted the inadequacies in the current set-up. When ‘independent’ backbenchers tabled an amendment to give parliament more of a say over the ‘backstop’, a trio of Hugo Swire, Bob Neill and Richard Graham were all keen to stress it was one way to prod the Government into assuaging brexiteers’ fears.
However, the semblance of independence was blown when Pincher allowed himself to be spotted in the Commons Table Office, literally signing an extra name to the amendment. The fiction that this was anything other than a Government ploy was swiftly exposed.
One Tory had Pincher on the phone asking him to ‘consider’ signing the Swire amendment. When told it wouldn’t solve deeper problems, the deputy chief whip said he wanted names “even if you don’t like it because we want to make sure the speaker selects it.” It was also pointed out that the motion was vital to showing the broader views of the Commons, as a counterbalance to the Hilary Benn motion (opposing ‘no deal’), if both should be passed.
Smith’s decision to allow in the ITV News cameras to follow his efforts to win round MPs was also seen as woefully naïve, given he later had to tell the PM he just couldn’t win the vote. No.10 found out about the plan a week after the filming started, one source confided.
On Monday evening, the chaotic nature of this ‘zombie’ government on its most shambolic day yet was underlined with yet more ridicule. In line with convention, a junior whip tried to shout ‘tomorrow!’ to formally defer the Brexit vote to an unspecified date.
“It’s common in the House to say ‘tomorrow’, this allow the Government to bring back a debate on a date of its choosing. This does not mean the debate will continue tomorrow,” a No.10 source said.
The move worked, but it left a sour taste in the mouth of both Tory Brexiteers and Labour MPs. Veteran Conservative Peter Bone complained that he wanted Parliament to decide its own timetable, Labour wags heckled ‘manana!’
Labour’s Helen Goodman channelled Macbeth. “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, Creeps in this petty pace from day to day ..will it also be to the last syllable of recorded time?” With Tory leadership contenders all gearing up for a Shakesperean contest of thwarted and unsated ambition, all eyes are indeed on the few days and weeks ahead.
Meanwhile, ‘The Chief’ likes to joke to colleagues that he’s had to deal with more sex scandals and reshuffles (nine in total) than he’d bargained for. He has also told them his five-year-old is thoroughly sick of hearing the word ‘backstop’ at home. But so too are Tory and DUP MPs.
The next few weeks will give the PM some breathing space. Yet for many in her ‘flock’, May’s Brexit plan is slowly suffocating their party. That’s why the ‘sheeple’ are waking up.