Cyclone Brexit continues its destructive path through British politics. Wrecking careers and upturning certainties, it sends most of us fleeing for shelter every time the evening news comes on.
This week, the tempest claimed the political life of Theresa May, who vowed to stand down if MPs backed her in the third meaningful vote on her withdrawal agreement. The offer did not sway the Commons and yesterday afternoon what had been dubbed ‘MV3’ went down to defeat by 344 votes to 286.
To foreign observers, it was an apt metaphor for the mercurial Brexit project: the very best victory the Prime Minister could hope for was her own defeat. To Britons, it was just another day in Brexitland, the rollercoaster that opened to passengers before the tracks were completed.
Today was supposed to herald the first day of a post-EU Britain. Instead, as you read this, we remain, hokey-cokey style, with one foot in and the other out. Brussels has allowed a short extension for a deal to be reached but the clock is ticking. The European Commission greeted the news of the Prime Minister’s latest humiliation by saying a no-deal Brexit on April 12 was now a ‘likely scenario’.
Even though she conditioned her resignation on passage of the meaningful vote, it is hard to see how the Prime Minister can cling to power much longer. The mountain will not come to Mohammed and Mohammed can’t even reach the foothills. Mrs May has lost her majority and her authority; a fresh face is needed to take the country forward.
Tories are not a sentimental lot and have already begun auditioning for the top job. A dozen potential runners and riders have been mentioned, from Cabinet Office minister David Lidington, the continuity choice, to Chief Secretary to the Treasury Liz Truss, the wildcard.
The big beasts are Environment Secretary Michael Gove (bookmakers’ odds: 4/1), former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson (5/1), Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt (9/1) and Dominic Raab, briefly the Brexit Secretary, who is 10/1 to find himself living above Number 10.
Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd is the favourite of the Left of the party but her 346-vote majority in Hastings and Wry, the 24th most marginal seat in the country, makes her too risky a proposition for Tories seeking stability.
I am told the Scottish Conservatives won’t endorse a candidate, even informally or off-the-record, but they are not shy about their animosity towards Boris Johnson. The very name invites torrents of invective from every wing and rank but one senior party figure was more measured and yet more damning.
This insider told me: ‘This is actually a sad story in that Boris could have been somebody that would have appealed to many Scottish Tories, going back to the Boris who was a break-out Tory, back when he was Mayor of London and could speak outside the bubble.
‘But he threw in his lot with the English nationalist side and has therefore shown that he doesn’t appeal to people up here at all.
‘He’s just not relevant to the debate. He’s shown no interest. I can’t remember the last time he was up. He’s alien to what’s going on in Scotland.’
Johnson may have built up a chat show following but among MPs he has few fans. He is considered entitled, lazy, uninformed, blundering, crass and insincere, winging his way through life like one long Balliol tutorial he didn’t bother doing the reading for.
Prime Minister Johnson would not necessarily mean a shift to the Right for Johnson doesn’t have an ideology, just a series of bombastic flourishes. His boundless confidence is the product of Eton, wealth and the columnist’s delusion: that having an opinion means you have a clue.
Johnson presents as a latter-day British imperialist — the Empire was a spiffing Boys’ Own adventure, old chap — but by temperament he is an arid English nationalist and by instinct a poll-taking populist, which usually leads him to the same conclusions. He has no special feeling for the Union and was largely absent from the fight to save it in 2014.
Scottish Conservatives know what they expect from a UK Tory leader and Johnson fails on both counts.
My insider explained: ‘There are two big things Scottish Tories will have in mind when looking at the contenders: 1) How do you intend to strengthen the Union, make sure it can take on nationalism and reassure people that it is still fit for purpose? 2) How will you advance Scottish interests and issues that are important to Tory MSPs and members?
‘We’re not going to anoint a favourite; we want to hear what they have to say to us. MPs and MSPs will have their personal favourites. “Team Ruth” isn’t going to support one candidate. We’re just as broad a church as in the rest of the UK. All of the candidates will have to make their case to us.’
Rival contenders go down much better with the Scottish party. Michael Gove is deemed thoughtful, policy-minded and lacking the tribal prejudices that scar too much of politics. He is also, though, one of the lead authors of our misfortunes, for his endorsement of a Leave vote was a watershed moment in the EU referendum campaign.
Home Secretary Sajid Javid is considered a One Nation liberal who can appeal to voters who wouldn’t ordinarily give the Tories a second look. Plymouth Moor View MP Johnny Mercer is admired for his Army service and his candour.
Whoever replaces Mrs May would do well to learn from one of the success stories of her premiership: the Union. The future of the United Kingdom looked perilous when she took over from David Cameron. The SNP had just been elected to a third consecutive term in government at Holyrood. Scotland had diverged sharply from England and Wales on the question of EU membership.
Nicola Sturgeon was busy firing up her grievance collider in hopes of sparking momentum for another referendum on independence.
Mrs May made clear in her first speech on the steps of Downing Street that the mealy-mouthed, half neglectful, half apologetic approach of David Cameron was over.
She told the waiting cameras: ‘Not everybody knows this, but the full title of my party is the Conservative and Unionist Party, and that word “unionist” is very important to me. It means we believe in the Union: the precious, precious bond between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.’
Her first prime ministerial visit was to Scotland, sending the message that this was her country just as much as it was the Nationalists’. And when Ms Sturgeon demanded her second referendum, it was Mrs May who said calmly and politely what a majority of Scottish voters have been saying to the First Minister for five years now: ‘No’.
With just one word, the separatist spell was broken, that myth worked up by the Nationalists and readily echoed by their fellow-travellers in the Press and Civic Scotland that refusing the SNP was tantamount to refusing Scotland.
As we approach the 20th anniversary of the Scottish Parliament, Scotland and the rest of the UK need to hear a lot less about devolution and a lot more about the Union. The next Prime Minister must be someone who can strengthen the bonds between the four nations and govern in the interests of all people and not just whatever sectional interest happens to be in the ascendancy at any given time.
The Union, however, must renew to remain relevant. It cannot continue as the English national interest with some subsidies thrown in to placate the Scots. The UK Government, Parliament and Whitehall have still not fully adapted to a constitutional overhaul two decades past.
Those who make decisions too often don’t fully understand the range of people and places they decide for. These arrangements must change if the institutions that underpin them are to survive.
In practical terms, that means no more referendums that could cleave the four nations further apart; no more designing policy for the south-east of England then rushing to dish out exemptions and ameliorations when tensions emerge with devolved realities; no more pandering to flag-wavers on either side of the Border.
For Unionists, the Eleventh Commandment is: Thou shalt not hand the SNP a free grievance. But the Union has to be more than a brake on independence; it must represent a happy, prosperous, opportunity-rich country that the vast majority of Scots want to be a part of. Forging such a country will be a defining task for the next Prime Minister, whoever manages to clinch the job.
Definition is not only a matter for Downing Street. The call of the future rattles through the halls of Bute House. What is it to be for Nicola Sturgeon, knuckling down to everyday government or another tilt at the history books?
The coming months will see the First Minister at her most frenetic. If Brexit goes ahead in some form or another, it will be a signal defeat. Her position may have lacked constancy and her tactics are open to question but Ms Sturgeon has made herself the figurehead of the anti-Brexit campaign in Scotland.
The First Minister’s defenders — a diminishing pool — would counter that this only proves that the UK is an unequal partnership in which Scotland’s voice is ignored. But more acute thinkers among them recognise that Ms Sturgeon is facing yet another damaging reversal.
Her Indyref 2 scheme met an ignominious fate; she cost her party 21 MPs in the 2017 snap election; her record in government is thin and her political capital low; her judgement, and that of her closest advisors, is the subject of a parliamentary inquiry. She is a failing First Minister.
This makes it all the more important that she handle the fall-out from Brexit convincingly. For the loudest voices in her grassroots, that can only mean a re-run of the 2014 referendum on separation. In pandering to these voices as she has over the past few years, she has only emboldened the most hardline elements in her base. They have been patient with her — as they see it — but their patience is wearing thin.
Next month’s party conference in Edinburgh will be used as a barometer of activist opinion.
Giving her true believers what they want could lead them to a nasty brush with reality. The SNP has no mandate for a second referendum. It won neither a majority of the votes nor a majority of the seats in an election to a parliament which has no powers over constitutional referendums. Ms Sturgeon can call for one but she would be rebuffed by the UK Parliament, somewhat detained on other matters at present.
Then what? An illegal referendum? A unilateral declaration of independence? Or back to sulking about Westminster doing down Scotland? Her options are few and none appealing.
An SNP source said: ‘The FM is in a real bind now. The grassroots are clamouring for Indyref 2 but she can’t be certain that a second referendum wouldn’t produce more or less the same result as last time. This new polling from Progress Scotland is indicative of the problem: EU membership is now the main issue for undecideds but it’s still not converting into support for independence among enough people to be decisive.
‘If we crash out without a deal, that could be the decisive factor, but then it’s onto the Section 30 order bun fight. Honestly? What happens next? We don’t know. They don’t know. No f****r knows.’
We are in the realm of what former US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld called ‘unknown unknowns’. We could be heading for hard Brexit, soft Brexit, no Brexit, a short delay, a long delay or a People’s Vote. There could even be a last-minute fudge that takes us by surprise.
Yet certainty is what voters, businesses and our trading partners want, both on Brexit and on the possibility of a second referendum on breaking up the UK. In the minds of the world, Britain has gone from redoubt of reliability to a nervous breakdown in a bowler hat.
In the country, there is roiling frustration at a government which can no longer govern, an opposition that doesn’t oppose and a political class more concerned with impeding the will of the voters than carrying it out. A bitter wind is battering Westminster right now but the gales of an angrier storm are gathering.
Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: email@example.com. Contact Stephen at firstname.lastname@example.org. Feature image © Foreign Office (cc/2.0).