Theresa May and her Brexit deal are hanging by a thread and few see a plausible way through the mess. But as Lord Timothy Kirkhope reflects on 50 years in politics, he appears to have picked up some useful tips. Arj Singh reports.
Psychological warfare, appeals to loyalty and promises of local rail and road improvements will be the main tactics Theresa May’s whips use to somehow get her chaos-inducing Brexit deal through Parliament before Christmas.
That is according to Conservative peer Lord Kirkhope, who believes he may be the only living politician to have served in local government, as Leeds North East MP in the Commons, in the Lords and in the European Parliament.
One of the authors of Article 50, his time in Parliaments on both sides of the Channel means he has a good insight into Britain and its EU problem.
But perhaps his time as a Tory whip for five years provides the most valuable experience for Westminster watchers wondering just how the Prime Minister gets her draft Brexit agreement through MPs.
Lord Kirkhope’s track record is particularly relevant as he was fighting on behalf of Sir John Major to try and win round the Eurosceptic Maastricht rebel “bastards” that plagued the ex-PM’s minority Government.
Then there were 11 or 12 “very intransigent” Tories, Knaresborough-based peer says, but Mrs May is now dealing with far more.
The 73 year-old believes she will find it “extremely difficult” to get her deal through the Commons because it “creates problems for everyone”, as seen following a week of sensational resignations which ended in Brexiteers calling for a leadership contest.
So what can the PM and whips actually do to persuade MPs?
Firstly, Lord Kirkhope says, “you can go a long way with the argument about loyalty”, although that strategy may not work given current events.
Secondly, Mrs May can use her power of patronage, telling ambitious waverers they can “go to the top of the tree”, and hard Brexiteers thinking of switching sides but worried about the consequences: “Don’t worry we will look after you.”
There will also be MPs now constructing their “conspiracies” and “making demands” which can be met.
“You are suddenly going to find branch railways popping up all over the place that only an individual MP wants,” he says.
“We’re going to see hospitals being built or agreed to, or new roads, an incredible number of potholes filled in.
“I’m sorry I know that’s a cynical remark but the whips are going to do their damndest to persuade people and some, being politicians without quite enough principles, are simply going to fall in line because of that.”
If all else fails, whips can be “quite forceful”.
“I was quite prepared during some difficult days in the Nineties to use whatever methods I could to get people to vote for the Government,” Lord Kirkhope says.
That included using his charm to play ‘good cop’ to a colleague’s ‘bad cop’ - “if you vote for us then the pain will end, that sort of thing”.
“We all had duties as whips and I was the psychological warfare whip,” he adds.
In any case, this fierce Remainer wants MPs to look at Mrs May’s three scenarios, which include her deal and no deal, and pick the third - “no Brexit at all”.
And he does not even think the voters should be consulted again in a second referendum.
Ultimately, MPs should finally take some “responsibility”.
He explains: “I want the MPs to consider carefully where there is disbenefit through what is now being proposed in this treaty, if they believe there is then in my view they are bound to do what they are supposed to do as representatives, be responsible, and don’t accept it,” he says.
He argues the Brexit vote is already impacting Yorkshire, with firms racked by uncertainty, meaning investment decisions are “being taken in a way which wouldn’t normally be taken”.
“Key” workers from the EU are also not renewing their contracts in Yorkshire and instead “going back to where they came from”.
“I’m not a Yorkshireman, everybody knows that, I’m a Geordie. But when I came down to Yorkshire to take the seat in Leeds North East I committed myself to Yorkshire.
“I have analysed very carefully, and I do talk to a lot of people about what we are doing, and there is absolutely no question that what we are doing disbenefits Yorkshire”.
He says his hardline Remain stance must be understandable when he spent 10-12 of his years as Yorkshire and Humber MEP working with Europeans to produce “almost seamless intelligence agency exchange of information, police information, catching criminals and terrorists or deterring terrorists”.
“Ten years of my life 24/7, to see that being dismantled...” he says, trailing off.
That whole system is at risk because the final arbiter of how information is held and used is the European Court of Justice, which Mrs May refuses to submit to, and “you can’t get round that whatever you decide to do”.
The peer was speaking on the day Mrs May was locked in Number 10 clashing with the Cabinet over the Brexit deal for five hours, before resignations sparked chaos in Westminster.
In his final whipping job as an MP, as Vice Chamberlain of the Household he was to provide the Queen an update of each day’s proceedings in Westminster, in his own words, and in longhand.
So what would he have written as senior Ministers argued over the Brexit deal?
“I’d say your Majesty it’s been a very interesting day.”
Dogs crackdown 'biggest regret'
In a political career spanning more than five decades, Lord Kirkhope says he has had some “very difficult” decisions to make on “really tricky” issues like capital punishment and abortion.
But his biggest regret is supporting the Dangerous Dogs Act of 1991, which effectively banned four breeds including pit bull terriers from Britain.
He explains: “I made a serious mistake. It was the worst thing that was ever put on the statute book in my experience.
“The idea was to condemn a whole load of breeds of dogs as vicious and nasty and horrible and unacceptable and therefore banned, whereas in fact we all know dogs that come from all kinds of breeds can be nasty if they are treated improperly by their owners.”