IT spoke volumes when Michael Gove was asked when Theresa May’s Brexit plan would be put to a meaningful vote in Parliament. “I don’t know,” replied a weary-sounding Environment Secretary.
At least his succinctness was candid. Yet, by disclosing so little about the Prime Minister’s intentions just four and a bit weeks before Britain is supposed to leave the European Union, he inadvertently revealed the full truth.
No one in Downing Street knows what is happening, or going to happen, as at least three senior Remain-supporting Ministers – namely Amber Rudd, Greg Clark and David Gauke – call on Mrs May to rule out a no-deal Brexit “within days” while the PM says her plans to be put to Parliament before March 12.
And, worse still, no one in the country knows what is going on as this triumvirate of Ministers become the latest clique to effectively jettison their duties because they are either unable or unwilling to trust Mrs May – and presumably the Foreign Secretary, Brexit Secretary and Chancellor – to seal a deal.
Will they resign or not? Who knows? But, like so many on all sides of the Brexit debate, they have become so blinkered, and insular, that they fail to see how their stance is damaging their own reputations – and the Government’s credibility – as the deadlock deepens ahead of another series of complicated and confusing Commons votes which, depending on their status, may or may not be binding on the PM.
Take Ms Rudd. As Work and Pensions Secretary, she’s responsible for the implementation of Universal Credit and welfare recipients are suffering untold misery because of its botched introduction. This should be her full-time priority, shouldn’t it?
Or Mr Clark. The Business Secretary – a low-key Minister – has only chosen to speak out now after the manufacturing industry was rocked by Honda’s decision to shut its Swindon plant in 2021. He will be judged by the number of jobs, and livelihoods, that he saves. Is he up to it?
Or Mr Gauke. The Justice Secretary clearly wants to divert attention away from his controversial plan to outlaw short prison sentences which have been condemned by opponents as an “amnesty for prolific thieves and burglars”. So much about the Tories being the party of law and order.
Welfare reform, jobs, crime, these are just three of the issues uppermost in the minds of voters. Likewise social care, skills, transport and rebalancing the economy in favour of the North. And what is the Government doing? Very little because, to paraphrase Mr Gove, it doesn’t appear to know where to begin.
It was spelled out by Matthew Parris, a one-time Tory MP, in a devastating critique of the PM’s current modus operandi. “Warnings are delivered to her, and ignored. Plans are run by her, unacknowledged. Messages are sent to her, unanswered. She has become the unperson on Downing Street: the living embodiment of the closed door,” he wrote.
And while this criticism in The Times, not subsequently denied by Downing Street, reflects poorly on Mrs May who should have heeded all those, including The Yorkshire Post, who advised her to appoint a strong deputy to take charge of domestic politics while she focused on Brexit, it shows Ministers in an even worse light as they appear to abdicate their duties while hoping Transport Secretary Chris Grayling’s myriad failings over trains, ferries and much else will mask their own deficiencies.
It is increasingly that they, too, to have no plan, no idea, no gumption and no leadership. Rather than recognising the specific challenges posed by a hung parliament when the governing party has no Commons majority, they appear – along with everyone else – to be going out of their way to look for Brexit confrontation when conciliation, consensus and collaboration should be the order of the day.
And because they’re too busy talking or arguing with each other as they shuffle between TV studios, they ignore all those families who want Brexit settled, a clearer focus on domestic reforms and recognition, for example, of the country’s carers who continue to be taken for granted.
No wonder George Osborne – the former Chancellor who tried, and failed, to persuade David Cameron not to call a referendum on EU membership – feels moved today to unveil a number of new policies on skills, transport and devolution to breathe new life into the Northern Powerhouse agenda that Mrs May allowed her advisers to sideline when she became MP.
Intervening in his capacity as chair of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, he says the policy “is suffering from a lack of vision from the Government” and that “it’s hard to think of a single original idea that has come out of this Downing Street to advance the Northern Powerhouse”.
At least he has a plan. If only the same could be said for his former colleagues still in office – whether it be Brexit or the public’s political priorities. And when might they, too, be in a position to get on with the job? To use the Michael Gove defence, I just don’t know – because nobody does. But I do know that it is no way to run a country at any time.