PETER OBORNE: Theresa May enjoyed a rare laugh after a brutal week…but I have a hunch she’ll be a winner
Let’s take a pause and a deep breath. Let’s contemplate the deep meaning of the week’s frenetic events at Westminster. Let’s count the corpses, praise the winners and be honest about the losers.
For what we are witnessing is one of the great democratic dramas in modern British history.
Of course, many people blame MPs for failing as yet to seal a Brexit deal. But I disagree. I believe that Parliament has done its job well.
A rare laugh: Those who say that Theresa May is finished are making a rudimentary error of judgement
Those who say that MPs are out of touch and letting voters down do not understand how British politics works. Those, too, who vilify Commons Speaker John Bercow as the devil incarnate are misguided. He has allowed our elected representatives the freedom to debate the big issues.
And those who say that Theresa May is finished are making a rudimentary error of judgement.
Let me explain. It is true that Mrs May has suffered a series of humiliations, including a mutiny by some Cabinet ministers led by Amber Rudd.
At moments, the PM looked so frail that one feared for her health. And, yes, she has made blunders.
Mrs May must take much of the blame for Thursday night’s row between No 10 and the Chief Whip, when Cabinet ministers were given the nod that they could ignore a three-line whip.
But regardless of countless headlines of ‘Meltdown’, ‘Chaos’, ‘Despair’, ‘Down And Rout’ and ‘Clueless’, Mrs May is still in Downing Street. Even more crucially, her EU withdrawal deal is still very much on the table. That makes her a survivor.
Those who say that MPs are out of touch and letting voters down do not understand how British politics works. Those, too, who vilify Commons Speaker John Bercow as the devil incarnate are misguided
The Prime Minister was the big winner this week. Which means that as well as Labour, the losers were the Tory Brexit-hardliners.
I believe their risibly misnamed European Research Group, organised by nerdy Steve Baker MP, is in collapse. Thanks to clever generalship by Mrs May, these Brussels-haters are now at war among themselves.
There is no doubt that they are responsible for a delay in Brexit. If they’re not careful, they will scupper it altogether.
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Mrs May’s waiting game has outfoxed No Deal fanatics such as Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg. Vitally, their nutty idea that Britain could crash out of the EU on March 29 has been exploded.
This is a strategic triumph for No 10 of the first order.
The available options have been reduced to either a wait of at least a year before Britain leaves the EU or, alternatively, a short delay that gives time for Mrs May’s deal to finally be approved by MPs and then implemented.
Just imagine what would have happened if she’d sacked Amber Rudd – she’d have won praise for being strong and decisive. But she’d probably have split her party
This means that the members of the ERG face a stark choice. Either they sheepishly admit defeat and back Mrs May’s deal — or they carry on opposing her but risk their long-cherished Brexit never happening. By forcing those hardline Brexiteers on her backbenches into a box is evidence that Mrs May has followed a clever strategy.
Those who doubt me should consider the words of her closest adviser, Brexit negotiator Olly Robbins, which were overheard in a Brussels bar a month ago.
The mandarin predicted exactly the situation we are in today — that a ‘long’ extension was planned if MPs turned down the PM’s deal.
In other words, MPs would ultimately be faced with the choice between backing it or having to engage in what would most likely be yet more fruitless talks with Brussels.
We should give credit where credit is due. Mrs May’s feline statecraft has completely outmanoeuvred the hardline Brexiteers.
This weekend, I’m convinced, she is tantalisingly close to realising her vision of Brexit.
Furthermore, she has reached this point without splitting the Conservative Party.
This is a far greater achievement than many realise. Many (me included) predicted the Party could formally split between Brexiteers and Remainers. That could still happen, but Mrs May has so far averted this calamity.
This brings me to a profound political paradox.
To win her long-term objective, Mrs May has had to endure buffeting defeats. She had to risk looking weak in order to succeed.
Just imagine what would have happened if she’d sacked Amber Rudd and fellow Cabinet rebels Greg Clark and David Gauke for defying a three-line whip on Wednesday.
She’d have won praise for being strong and decisive. But she’d probably have split her party.
It is certainly true that never before in modern political history have Cabinet ministers defied a prime minister in this manner and survived.
But we’ve entered a period in politics where all conventional rules can be forgotten. A typhoon is sweeping through Parliament. The objective is survival by any means.
Mrs May apart, the other winner from this week’s events is Parliament.
Many, including the historian Dominic Sandbrook (writing in today’s Mail on Pages 18 and 19) have condemned MPs for being irresponsible and deeply detached from the lives of ordinary people.
I fundamentally disagree. I have never felt prouder of the British political system than over the past seven days.
Bear in mind that the Brexit debate has divided the country. It’s divided families. It’s split political parties. It’s aroused immensely strong passions.
So it is natural that it’s led to divisions, splits and passion in Parliament. Yet there has been no violence in the streets. This is because all sides of the argument have been aired by MPs.
Parliament has done its job.
Across the political spectrum, there have been the admirable performances of Labour’s John Mann and Caroline Flint, who have stood up for their constituents who voted to leave the EU.
On the Tory side, Sir Oliver Letwin MP has fought valiantly try to bring about cross-party political co-operation.
These are not self-centred individuals representing their own interests or an out-of-touch political class. They are engaged in an honest struggle towards a workable solution.
Readers will know that I have often criticised Speaker Bercow’s vanity and foolishness. That said, over the past few months he has stood up for Parliament.
But if there was a gold medal for the person who has most steadfastly upheld British democracy, it ought to go to Theresa May.
Show some steel
Former Liberal Democrat leader Sir David Steel stands accused, in his own words, of ‘hiding his head in the sand’ over the horrible child abuse allegations against his now deceased colleague Sir Cyril Smith. Lord Steel deserves praise for his belated honesty, but he should nevertheless voluntarily give up his peerage.
Blunderer turned back-stabber
An egregious example is Nick Timothy, chief of staff to Theresa May when she became Prime Minister. Sadly, he was responsible for a series of cack-handed blunders
One disturbing phenomenon in modern politics has been the increasing behind-the-scenes influence of advisers. They have power but are unaccountable to the public.
An egregious example is Nick Timothy, chief of staff to Theresa May when she became Prime Minister. Sadly, he was responsible for a series of cack-handed blunders.
These included being part-responsible for what was seen as ‘the worst election campaign  in living memory’ and putting forward a deeply flawed social care plan which Mrs May was forced to scrap. Following his enforced resignation, Mr Timothy has been firing broadsides in articles for hard Brexit-supporting newspapers. This week, he launched an unforgiveable attack on his former boss — saying Mrs May had lost control of Brexit. Such disloyalty is contemptible.
Justice for all
There has been widespread criticism of the decision to charge a former British paratrooper with murder in the wake of the Bloody Sunday inquiry.
I cannot comment on the facts of the case. However, the British Army is the finest and most decent in the world. If it slips from its very high standards, it is right that any charges should be tested in court.
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