Tom Richmond: Crisis? What Crisis? Summer of discontent as Brexit rows engulf Theresa May and Ministers fob off MPs

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EVEN though James Callaghan never actually uttered the immortal phrase ‘Crisis? What Crisis?’ which was attributed to him when he returned from the West Indies to the chaos of the Winter of Discontent, they do encapsulate this Government’s contempt for the country.

These three damning words – they were, in fact, a front page headline in The Sun – came to mind when Ministers thought it prudent to bring forward Parliament’s six-week summer recess by five days in a desperate attempt to stem the Tory party’s Brexit bloodletting.

Theresa May as she left Downing Street yesterday for Prime Minister's Questions.

Theresa May as she left Downing Street yesterday for Prime Minister's Questions.

With Parliament deadlocked and voters exasperated by the inability of politicians to work together in the national interest, the botched attempt by chief whip Julian Smith and others to send trouble-making MPs off on an early holiday was just as reprehensible as his Cabinet colleague Chris Grayling’s mismanagement of the 
railways. How idiotic, stupid and cavalier can you get?

For, while there may not be any crucial business between now and next Tuesday night when the recess begins, the work of Parliament is supposed to continue and this includes MPs scrutinising proposed laws, and holding Ministers to account, rather than being fobbed off.

Even though the Government did not put forward its ‘early holiday’ motion on Tuesday night after a wave of opposition, it’s clearly no longer capable of running its own business, never mind a country facing, arguably, its biggest peacetime political crisis since the war. Brexit is not going to go away – the reason why the Government is in such turmoil is because it has tried to delay difficult decisions and Mrs May only survived this week’s knife-edge votes thanks to four Labour rebels.

Yet, if the Government has nothing to discuss, the next few days could and should be devoted to practical debates on how best to implement Brexit.

Theresa May's government is no longer in control of events.

Theresa May's government is no longer in control of events.

Alternatively, the time could be spent on regional affairs to coincide with next Monday’s Cabinet meeting in Newcastle to mark the Great Exhibition of the North – the scandalous state of the region’s railways, the North-South education divide and Yorkshire devolution all demand urgent attention. And, if this is too much for tetchy business managers like Mr Smith, the Skipton and Ripon MP, there were myriad issues raised by the region’s MPs at Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy questions on Tuesday.

The non-responses offered a snapshot of the country’s political paralysis as Ministers ‘fobbed off’ their inquisitors – presumably because they don’t have the necessary political dexterity, acumen, leadership and authority to act. There is no vision, or plan, for Britain. To paraphrase one of Mrs May’s soundbites, she’s ‘just about managing’ to survive.

First Rachel Reeves. The Leeds West MP wanted to know when the Taylor review into employment rights and the gig economy, published a year ago, was going to be implemented.

Business Minister Claire Perry said lamely and tamely: “We want to get this right because this legislation will have to last not just for six months or a year, but for many years as our economy develops.” Yet this was one of the burning injustices championed by Mrs May when she became PM two years ago.

Jim Callaghan during a visit to Huddersfield in 1977.

Jim Callaghan during a visit to Huddersfield in 1977.

Next Stephanie Peacock. The Barnsley East MP asked whether the Government will legislate so care workers are, following a landmark Court of Appeal ruling, paid the minimum wage for sleep-in shifts when they’re responsible for looking after the frail and vulnerable.

“I am afraid that I cannot answer her question from the Dispatch Box,” said the aforementioned Ms Perry whose response showed a lack of concern or consideration for carers, the unsung heroes of society, and their historically low pay.

Then Julian Sturdy. The York Outer MP asked for an update on the creation of new institutes of technology which are supposed to underpin the Government’s education reforms. An announcement, said Ms Perry, is due in the autumn.

Rachael Maskell then joined the fray. York’s MP called for a review of business rates to stem High Street shop closures and job losses. She also said 200,000 firms have been taken to court for non-payment. Yet junior minister Richard Harrington, born in Leeds, dismissed her. “There has been significant help for small businesses on business rates in previous Budgets and this is being looked at all the time,” he said.

Finally Anna Turley. The Redcar MP pressed for an update on the former SSI steelworks and whether the Government will commit £200m to regenerating the site and, in doing so, create 20,000 jobs. Business Secretary Greg Clark was at least sympathetic – he was born in nearby Middlesbrough – and said there had been “very positive discussions”.

Yet this is the problem. The public are tired of the broken promises and Brexit battles. Warm words no longer suffice when the leadership vacuum impinges upon their day-to-day lives to such an extent. And, if Ministers can’t see this as whips threaten a vote of no confidence and a general election if mutinous MPs don’t now toe the line, Theresa May really is facing a crisis to compare with the strife that brought down James Callaghan in 1979 and who, in another ominous omen, was the last premier to have the misfortune to lead a minority government.