John Humphrys - Is the Government wasting time?

May 10, 2019, 10:27 AM GMT+0

Andrea Leadsom, the Leader of the House of Commons, has announced that MPs will get an eleven-day break over Whitsun. This follows a similarly leisurely holiday over Easter. ‘Nice work if you can get it!’ some will say. But there’s a serious point. Government has virtually stalled while ministerial focus is almost entirely centred on the Brexit conundrum. But attempts to find a way to break it seem to many to be getting nowhere. So is the government guilty of simply wasting time?

Backbench members of parliament could be forgiven for wondering what they are for. Their job is supposed to be scrutinising and passing legislation but there is precious little of that going on at the moment. It’s not that the nation has reached an idyllic state in which everything can be left to tick along happily because all the major problems have been solved. Even as I write that sentence I can hear you muttering: “If only!” On the contrary, most people (including, probably, most MPs) think that the problems are piling up unresolved. It’s just that the government finds itself in a position where, in the wretched modern parlance, it doesn’t have the ‘bandwidth’ to address them.

Instead MPs have not only been giving themselves long holidays but they’ve been clocking off early when they’re actually theoretically at work in Westminster. The government has been scratching around to find minor pieces of uncontroversial legislation to keep them mildly busy but when those have been dealt with there’s not much point in keeping everyone hanging around. Westminster, I’m told by my colleagues who are paid to report its doings, is deathly quiet most of the time.

Everyone knows, of course, why this is so. Until Brexit is sorted, nothing else is going to happen.

It should all have been over by now. Or, rather, the divorce agreement should have been signed and sealed and we should be busily engaged on negotiating our long-term relationship with our former partners. But as everyone knows, we have not even been able to agree how to leave.

Weary European leaders decided last month we could have till the end of October to get our act together. And the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, in his gentle, laconic style, added: ‘Please do not waste time.’ That, however, is exactly what the government is accused of doing.

The Prime Minister denies it emphatically. To her the logic of the position she finds herself in is clear. She has negotiated a withdrawal agreement with other EU leaders which they will not alter. The House of Commons has rejected it three times. It has also thrown out all other suggestions of how to proceed. And it will not countenance leaving without a deal. Deadlock. So, for Mrs May, there is only one way forward: try to do a deal with the Labour opposition that can secure a majority in the House of Commons for her withdrawal agreement. That is what she is spending her time negotiating. Wasting time? Nonsense!

But although the logic of this course of action may be impeccable, in practical, political terms it still adds up to wasting time in the eyes of many of her critics. That’s because they believe there is not a hope in hell that such negotiations could lead to a deal. Both sides may be making sweet noises about ‘constructive discussions’, ‘positive movement’, ‘the joint wish to make progress’ and the like, but such statements reveal more the mutual interest of each side in stringing the other along, they claim, rather than providing real hope that Brexit is about to be unblocked.

The reason for such scepticism is clear, they argue. The most the two main parties might agree on is some sort of fudge on a continuing customs union between Britain and the EU: Labour wants a permanent one, the government has offered a temporary version up to the next election. If a compromise could be found, then, on its own, it might get through the House of Commons even though there are plenty of Tory MPs who would oppose it. But the Labour leader is under intense pressure to make it a condition of any such deal that it must be put back to the voters in a second referendum. If he were to refuse to make that demand of the government, the majority Remain supporters in his party would regard him as selling out. But Mrs May has a problem with it. She could never get a second referendum past her own party.

So, the sceptics say, the talks with Labour are virtually bound to lead nowhere. Put in simpler terms, oppositions don’t rescue governments in trouble. So their conclusion is that Mrs May is indeed wasting time.

For many Conservative MPs who fear that that is exactly what is going on there is an additional problem. Many of them want rid of Mrs May. She has come some way towards them by saying she is prepared to go, but only once she has got Britain through the first stage of Brexit and out of the EU. Presumably she must think that if she leaves office before having done that, history will regard her premiership as having been a total failure.

But for impatient Tory MPs the delay in getting Brexit done is a delay in getting rid of the Prime Minister. We were supposed to be out of the EU on 29 March. Then it was mid-April. Then the end of June. This week, David Lidington, Mrs May’s de facto deputy, said it wouldn’t be before 1 August (if we were lucky). Some are even suggesting that if we reach the EU’s own deadline of 31 October without having sorted anything out, EU leaders will extend it again. Mrs May could find herself still in Downing Street writing her Christmas cards.

Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 committee of Tory backbenchers, went to see the Prime Minister on Tuesday armed with the demand that she provide a more detailed timetable for her departure. But he came away with no assurances, or at least none that he could reveal in public. Mrs May, we learned, was quite prepared to carry on into the autumn. In short, as her critics would see it, more time-wasting.

Many Tory MPs believe the only way to stop the time-wasting is for the Prime Minister to go soon and for them to elect a new Tory leader and new prime minister who can start afresh. They may be hoping that their party will do so badly in the European parliament elections which that none of them ever imagined they would have to fight - that she can be pushed out then. Those elections take place on 23 May. The Whitsun recess conveniently starts on 24 May so furious Tory MPs will be away from Westminster at the moment of greatest danger to Mrs May. Whether that fury will abate by the time they return remains to be seen, but few think the Prime Minister can survive an electoral drubbing that may make last week’s dire local election results seem like a mild disappointment.

But would the fall of Theresa May and the emergence of a new Conservative prime minister put an end to the time-wasting? Optimists say a new leader would change the whole ‘chemistry’ of the situation (politicians like such metaphors). But would the arithmetic change?

Those who think little will alter argue it like this. If a hardline Brexiteer such as Boris Johnson or Dominic Raab were to be elected, it’s likely their Brexit policy would be to demand a renegotiation of Mrs May’s withdrawal agreement. But the EU has said as emphatically as it can that it’s not prepared to open up the agreement again. So, deadlock again. If, on the other hand, a more centrist figure, such as Jeremy Hunt or Michael Gove were to emerge as leader, they probably would not try to go that route but instead try to find some way of persuading the House of Commons to accept the current deal. But why, say the sceptics, should we expect them to succeed?

Where all this leads is to the conclusion that the real cause of the deadlock and the time-wasting is the current House of Commons. Only a general election has any chance of changing that and any new Tory leader, whether a hard Brexiteer or a more centrist figure, will come to see that, they say, and call an election. That’s why more and more commentators are predicting that, although we don’t have to have another general election until 2022, it is very likely that there be one later this year. If there is, then many current MPs may discover that they will have even more days away from Westminster than they are being given now.

So is it fair to accuse the government of wasting time, or do you think Theresa May is right to take time to try negotiating a deal with Labour? Do you think such attempts will bear fruit? And if you do think time is being wasted, how do you think it should be stopped? Should Theresa May give up now, or later? Do you think a new Tory leader could make progress on Brexit? Or do you think we need a general election as soon as possible?

Let us know what you think.