Tory disarray the hallmark of rolling Brexit agenda
Analysis: Unsettled Conservative benches show little inclination to unite around PM
The European Commission’s spokesman said “we see the joint report of Michel Barnier and David Davis as a deal between gentlemen . . . that it is fully backed and endorsed by the UK government”. Photograph: Getty Images
A week after her humiliation in Brussels at the hands of loyal allies in the DUP, Theresa May returned to the House of Commons on Monday in what passes for triumph these days.
When she finished her statement on the deal she finally agreed with Jean-Claude Juncker last Friday, Conservatives of every stripe rose to praise her. Brexiteers and Remainers on the benches behind her taunted one another with declarations of how pleased they were with the terms of the deal.
Only Philip Davies, reported this week to have described the prime minister as “crap”, complained she had promised the EU tens of billions of pounds that would be better spent on schools and hospitals.
“Let me first congratulate the prime minister on her triumph last Friday,” said arch-Remainer Ken Clarke, before adding a barb. “I hope that that is maintained, because I have never previously known the days following a British government’s entry into a treaty-like agreement with 27 friendly governments to be followed by ministers and their aides appearing to cast doubt on whether we have agreed to anything finally, and regard ourselves as bound at all.”
This was a reference to Brexit secretary David Davis, who sat giggling on the bench beside the prime minister. He had threatened to upset the trilateral peace between London, Brussels and Dublin on Sunday when he said that the deal on the Border was just a statement of intent rather than something legally enforceable. Davis was up early on Monday to clean up the mess after his own fashion, telling a radio interviewer that he had been misunderstood.
“Of course it’s legally enforceable,” he said.
“It’s more than legally enforceable. In the event that the withdrawal agreement does not happen, then we would still be seeking to maintain an invisible border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. That was the point. I was making the point that it was much more than just in the treaty; it’s what we want to do anyway.”
A few hours later, the European Commission’s spokesman told reporters in Brussels that Davis had actually been right the first time. “Formally speaking, the joint report is not legally binding. But we see the joint report of Michel Barnier and David Davis as a deal between gentlemen and it is the clear understanding that it is fully backed and endorsed by the UK government.”
If the prime minister had a good day on Monday, she faces trouble ahead as the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill continues its tortuous progress through parliament. The government has crushed one potential revolt by agreeing to adopt an amendment that will curb the so-called “Henry VIII powers” that would allow ministers to change some legislation with the stroke of a pen.
Other amendments, including one that calls for a meaningful vote in parliament on the terms of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU, lie ahead. In his radio interview, Davis said brains were not the most important attribute in a Brexit secretary.
“What’s the requirement of my job? I don’t have to be very clever. I don’t have to know that much. I just do have to be calm,” he said.
Which may be just as well.