Pants on fire!

15 July 2018

Politicians have never had much of a reputation for straightforwardness - it is of the essence of their calling that hard lines get softened. We are more than a century away from Victorian standards of formal probity so these days electors look for reliability in the appearance of consistent values, intentions, character - "authenticity”: a weak check in the face of reckless lies. But here we are: our civic watchword has come to be “Pants on fire!” Let’s take a selection of examples from the last week.

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On Tuesday 10 July, reports emerged of various views, formerly less-publicised, of Michael Gove. Apparently, he likes to invoke the template of the Irish Free State, which achieved dominion status in 1922 but had to wait another 27 years to become a republic. He does extend himself to touch on “some difficulties along the way in the 1920s”, ie, what you or I would call a civil war. (This is a template?)

On Wednesday 11 July, the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, was seen staggering at the NATO summit. He has a reputation for bibulousness, so explanations that he was suffering from an attack of sciatica were - how to put it? - not universally accepted (though you know what? the poor chap did turn up with a wheelchair).

Also on Wednesday, the Sun published its interview with President Trump, who predicted that May’s current plans would “probably kill off” a trade deal between the US and the UK. The following day, however, he seemed to reverse himself at their joint press conference, saying that such a deal was “absolutely possible”, enabling Liam Fox to argue that Britain will have a great deal of freedom to negotiate it. But almost everyone else is taking Trump’s row-back as a belated diplomatic nicety. (No surprise by the way, that he should have told May to sue the EU when she kicked off negotiations; great minds…)

And on Thursday 12 July, HMG published its post-Chequers White Paper on Brexit. This 104-page document addresses “external tariff” and “dispute-resolution” only by ellipsis: neither gets an explicit reference. (I‘m sure I just wrote, “This is a template?”)

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Now let’s turn to the main event, the reputation of Theresa May since the Chequers summit.

  • Steven Baker says she has presided over acloak and dagger“ (paywall) plot to undermine Brexit, in a move that will “blow apart” public trust in democracy.
  • David Davis calls it dishonest (paywall) to claim that he offered no alternative to the Chequers approach, with what purports to be his Department’s alternative leaked here.
  • In Boris Johnson’s resignation letter, he wrote that May’s plans “stick in the throat,” and that he could not “in all conscience champion them”. 

These things have consequences. We do not know what Iain Duncan Smith said to May on Wednesday to make her very emotional” (paywall). I’d guess he intimated that her student politics meant that he and others were no longer able to accept her word.

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So far, May has been lucky with her Commons arithmetic. This week, however, her whips may falter, as Baker is now free to exercise his formidable organisational talents to frustrate them. On Monday, the report stage of the Taxation (Cross-Border Trade) Bill comes to the Commons; the following day, MPs will debate the report and third reading of the Trade Bill. Both sittings will test May’s Commons position after the Chequers summit. This is without taking account of further resignations or letters to the ’22. In a post-truth world, the bar before May is not so high. Even so, a drip-feed of “Pants on fire!” among her nominal supporters does nothing to help her surmount it. Shortly her coup d'état faces its first constitutional test.