Jon Craig: 2018 has been dominated by incompetence
Brexit's been a muddle but big decisions loom for all politicians in the new year
The political year comes to an end with two people probably wishing they hadn’t said something they now regret.
I was standing next to the Daily Mail diarist Joanna Bell at the Irish Embassy Party when she heckled the ambassador, Adrian O’Neill, during his speech with shouts of “boring!” and “Brexit!”
And this week I happened to watch Prime Minister’s Questions on TV rather than sit up in the Press Gallery and so I saw the close-up of Jeremy Corbyn muttering what everyone who saw it is convinced was “stupid woman!”
Both incidents sum up where we are at the end of 2018. Everyone at the embassy noted that the ambassador said “when and if the UK leaves the EU” during his speech. And Jeremy Corbyn’s dithering and bungling over Labour’s Brexit strategy is one reason Parliament is in such a muddle about where we go next.
Joanna Bell was one of the first people I spoke to when I arrived at the Irish Embassy. Or rather, she spoke to me. She was, shall we say, on good form and proudly told me about her long lunch at the Boisdale restaurant. When Mr O’Neill’s speech began I discovered that Joanna was standing next to me, on my left. No problem there, I thought, until she started heckling. So I began to shuffle to my right during the speech, as I didn’t want the other guests to think she was with me! It was only later that I realised she’d be asked to leave. Ejected, according to some reports.
Apart from the ambassador’s speech - and his call for a second Brexit referendum - the end-of-term chatter at the embassy was about two things: among senior Tories it was Theresa May’s survival and among Labour MPs it was Jeremy Corbyn’s incompetence.
One of the Prime Minister’s close colleagues made the slightly surprising observation that she’s a lucky politician, which at first I thought was a rather odd thing to say and something I wasn’t sure she’d agree with!
But another senior MP explained the rationale in the Tory high command. “She’s lucky that both the European Research Group and Jeremy Corbyn are both incompetent,” I was told. It’s difficult to disagree with that.
As for Mr Corbyn, after an afternoon in the Commons in which he was guilty of “Will he, won’t he?” indecision over whether to table a motion of no confidence in the Government, Labour MPs at the embassy drinks were shaking their heads with disbelief and baffled about what he was playing at.
So we end 2018 with the Prime Minister having displayed her legendary resilience yet again and survived a move by about a third of her MPs to get rid of her. I thought her final performance of the year at PMQs was pretty upbeat and most Tory MPs were in a pretty cheery mood. But she ends the year, after the no-confidence bid and the Brexit deadlock, at the mercy of her Cabinet and in 2019 we’ll see more and more of her senior ministers asserting themselves and dictating Government policy rather than having it dictated by Downing Street.
If Theresa May is to be removed, it now won’t be her backbenchers who oust her. They’ve had their chance and blown it. It will be a repeat of 1990, when one by one the Cabinet went to see Margaret Thatcher and told her the game was up after the first round of voting in the leadership contest triggered by Michael Heseltine’s challenge.
Will she eventually get her Brexit deal through the Commons in January? Possibly, but probably not in the evidence so far. But if she can persuade Nigel Dodds and his DUP MPs to back down, that would bring the ERG into line and she would have a chance.
Mr Corbyn knows all about leadership challenges, of course. He brushes them aside and ignores them. He probably wishes he could do the same with Brexit. Despite the long hours spent compositing the dozens of motions on Brexit at the Labour conference in Liverpool in September, which ended with a policy everyone could live with, Mr Corbyn still gives the impression of making up his party’s policy on a second referendum as he goes along without thinking it through. And his shambolic performance over whether to table a no-confidence motion left even he closest ally John McDonnell confused.
While Theresa May is now at the mercy of her Cabinet, the opposite is true in Labour. For all the clever and nuanced shaping of Brexit policy by the Shadow Brexit Secretary Sir Keir Starmer and the wily procedural ruses for Commons debates thought up by the canny Nick Brown, Labour’s veteran Chief Whip, Mr Corbyn often makes a pronouncement - no doubt dreamed up by the Trots in his inner circle, Seamus Milne and Andrew Murray - that leave his MPs bewildered.
Sooner or later - sooner, really - Mr Corbyn is going to have to make up his mind about a second referendum. I’m sure he has, actually. He doesn’t want one, but is facing increasing demands for one in his party.
His irritation and frustration was probably what led to him making his “stupid woman” comment” after his exchange with Theresa May at PMQs. I’m sorry, Jeremy, but the TV pictures are pretty conclusive. It didn’t look like “stupid people”. And while I thought his remark was rather out of character for a politician who doesn’t usually use personal insults, he should have admitted his error straightaway and apologised. The problem was that Seamus Milne had denied the “stupid woman” remark in what we call the “huddle” immediately after PMQs. See what I mean about Seamus dictating strategy?
The whole silly incident also showed John Bercow at his windbag worst - again - and gave us the delicious moment when Andrea Leadsom, the Leader of the Commons, reminded us all - as if we needed reminding - that the Speaker used the same insult about her. “Leadsom for leader!” one of her fans declared afterwards. “She’s got balls!” Not sure about either of those claims, but she certainly ended the year on a high and gave another example of Cabinet ministers asserting themselves.
John Bercow, however, will come under growing pressure to vacate the Speaker’s chair in 2019.
Privately, Mr Corbyn must wish he’d kept his thoughts to himself while “in a sedentary position” as they say in the Commons.
But, thanks to the indulgent Mr Bercow, at least he didn’t suffer the same fate as Joanna Bell at the Irish Embassy.