You can sometimes tell how much of a state No 10 is in by its choice of minister for the morning media rounds. And sending out the junior Foreign Office minister James Cleverly – living proof of the fallibility of nominative determinism – rather proved that Downing Street was in full panic mode over the progress of its Brexit trade talks. At a time like this, only a minister too dim to sense the danger he was in would do. Cleverly may have his talents, but the only one that he doesn’t keep hidden – apart from to himself; in his own world he is one of life’s winners – is his inability not to make a bad situation worse.
It was unfortunate enough for him to claim that there were “plans to get the coronavirus vaccine into the UK in the event of a no-deal Brexit”, just that he couldn’t say what they were, as no one had trusted him with the details. That at least did ring half-true – in a desperate situation, Cleverly is one of the last people you would keep in the loop – but the look of confusion on his face rather suggested that no such details yet existed.
Worse was to follow, as Cleverly went for the hat-trick on Sky, ITV and the BBC by insisting that Boris Johnson hadn’t lied when he talked about an “oven-ready” deal, because all that he had promised was a withdrawal agreement that was oven-ready. To no great surprise, James got thoroughly rinsed by Kay Burley, Piers Morgan, Susanna Reid and Dan Walker. There can’t have been a conscious being in the whole of the UK – even Boris, who can usually manage to believe his own fibs – who thought that “oven-ready” only applied to the withdrawal agreement.
Especially not those who had bothered to read the paragraph in the Conservative 2019 election manifesto that said the Tories were the only party with a deal signed, sealed and ready that put the country on a path to a new trade agreement with the EU based on free trade and friendly cooperation. If the new government line that Cleverly had been sent out to defend is to suggest that the public had either been too stupid to understand its message or had been conned, it’s not a great look. Cleverly merely shrugged and repeated his nonsense over and over again. When in doubt, keep digging.
Not quite so useless was the paymaster general, Penny Mordaunt, stepping in for Michael Gove, who was holed up in Brussels, to answer an urgent question from Labour’s shadow chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, Rachel Reeves, on the state of the ongoing Brexit negotiations. But only because she made no pretence of knowing anything about anything. Rather, she sounded like a presenter on a 24-hour news channel trying to fill dead air by reading out the same headlines over and over again, telling nobody anything that they didn’t know already. The talks were at a critical stage. She couldn’t say how they were progressing. The sticking points were the level playing field, fishing and governance. And that was about it. Thanks for that, Penny.
Reeves sounded rather nonplussed, as if she had expected something a little more detailed from a government minister. She raised the issue of GDP falling by a further 2% with a no-deal Brexit than it already would with a bad deal; she wondered how many of the 50,000 new customs officials had been recruited and trained, and she referenced Cleverly’s inspired new take on the semiotics of “oven-ready” and suggested the deal must have got sent to the wrong address, before sitting down with a sense of impending futility.
As well she might, because Mordaunt yet again pleaded ignorance. Please don’t ask difficult questions, she begged, because they were all well above her pay grade. And seemingly above everyone else’s in government. Penny felt everyone’s pain, not least her own. Normally quite composed at the dispatch box, she seemed on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Unlike Cleverly, she has the self-awareness to realise when she’s out of her depth. And right now, she was drowning.
What followed was an entirely predictable clash between the Tory Brexiters and the worried well on the opposition benches. Iain Duncan Smith, Bernard Jenkin and Liam Fox led the charge for the headbangers, insisting that the government had already delivered on its promises and that the talks going down to the wire were entirely the fault of untrustworthy Johnny Foreigner. Mordaunt agreed – “No retreat, baby, no surrender” – but you could pick up the reservation in her voice. She was buggered if she was going to be the one who had to break the news to them that the choices were either making the country broker still, or accepting a deal that would have most of them shouting, “Betrayal!”
As for the opposition, Mordaunt had nothing to offer other than to suggest that businesses worried about going bankrupt should log on to the government website. Failing that, she had heard there were some vaguely useful webinars in which she herself had not bothered to participate. Perhaps she should, as she might learn something. Mordaunt had excelled herself at knowing nothing. The unbearable lightness of being as performance art.
Suggesting that you won’t break international law after all – on a treaty you agreed less than a year ago – providing the EU agrees to your other demands on a free trade agreement doesn’t sound like the strongest negotiating tactic. A bit like promising to obey the Highway Code, so long as your car’s defects are overlooked during its MOT. But it was enough to render the debate on the Lords amendments to the internal market bill, which proposed to break the Northern Ireland protocol, almost anodyne. So much so that the government sent out Paul Scully, the most junior of junior ministers in the business department, to open the debate. To put this in perspective, the departmental cleaners are generally considered better informed.
After Scully, a man not even known unto himself, had wittered on for 20 minutes, Ed Miliband had the opportunity to enjoy himself at his adversary’s expense. Though the shadow business secretary couldn’t help looking as if he knew his virtuoso display was wasted on such a low-rent opponent. Like shooting fish in a barrel. But never one to look a gift horse, Miliband pointed out that it wasn’t just the opposition who were queasy about breaking international law; it was almost every grandee within the Tory party. Scully wished he could make himself invisible. Which, in a sense, he already was.