Theresa May’s reputation for competence is the real casualty of the High Court Brexit ruling

by Atul Hatwal

Tick tock, tick tock. That’s the sound of the clock running down on Theresa May’s Number 10 honeymoon.

New Prime Minister’s always enjoy a honeymoon with the press. It’s a time when personal idiosyncracies are viewed as signs of authenticity rather than awkward weirdness, mistakes are overlooked and the slightest success is a soaring triumph.

Four months into her premiership, May still enjoys the good favour of the media. But the High Court judgement on Brexit has brought the end of her honeymoon significantly closer.

The judges’ decision itself will be of negligible substantive impact.

The votes were always there on the floor of the House to force a vote on triggering Article 50.

When the government has a tiny majority, as with John Major’s premiership in the 1990s or with Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan in the 1970s, the political agenda is driven by the legislature not the executive.

However, the ruling will have an impact on the perception of Theresa May among the media and shape how they report her tenure in office.

Judgement is an invaluable commodity for a politician.

She is currently perceived to have it. She navigated the treacherous shoals of the Home Office, positioned herself to take advantage of the referendum result – whatever it was going to be – and ascended to the top job.

Her stock is high.

But. There’s always a but.

Theresa May’s career is littered with flubs. Incidents where she has totally misjudged the situation. From the nasty party speech, which nearly ended her career in the front rank of Conservative politics to sanctioning the go-home vans that the Home Office had to scrap to the unintended elevation of grammar schools into a defining, flagship policy, already widely regarded within the parliamentary Conservative party as a mistake.

Nothing shatters the perception of good judgement like defeat. Flaws come to the fore, triumphs are dimmed. New threads become evident, running through all that’s gone wrong in the past.

Defeat for David Cameron in the referendum meant that all the positive press he accumulated, from winning the Tory leadership in 2005 to his general election victory last year, has been expunged.

His political epitaph is written: he is a chancer who ran out of luck, a man whose judgement was found wanting in the biggest test of all.

Clearly this High Court ruling is not anywhere near on the same scale, but it is a defeat.

Journalists might not be trained lawyers, but the legal commentary on the case is very clear: the government position was extremely weak. Risible, even.

That Theresa May thought this case was worth fighting will colour the reporting of her political judgement.

If she persists in taking this to the Supreme Court, as is very likely, and is beaten again, she will look worse.

The question journalists are already asking is if the case was that weak, why did she fight it?  What scares her so much about parliamentary scrutiny?

A negative narrative can form about a PM very quickly, not least when there are dozens of disillusioned former Ministerial colleagues ready to feed it.

Accusations of secrecy and control freakery consume every premiership in the end. They are already rife in Westminster about this Prime Minister.

The nascent consensus among many of the lobby is that the skills which saw May excel at the Home Office are those which will see her struggle in Downing Street.

She doesn’t delegate or trust any but those closest to her. What prevented mistakes at the Home Office is a recipe for sclerosis in Number 10. Several government ministers have said as much to journalists who have repeated as much to each other and anyone else in the pub at the time.

The older lobby hands, those about in the mid-2000s, will be experiencing a strong bout of déjà vu. The parallels with Gordon Brown are evident. The similarity between Philip Hammond and Alistair Darling is almost too good to be true.

The tone of coverage about Theresa May remains positive. But behind the words on the screen and page, the writers aren’t quite so sure.

When phrases such as “Downing street bunker” start creeping into the copy, the game is almost up. When they become frequent, the negative narrative is set.

Today was the day this particular phrase was used for the first time in relation to Theresa May (or at least that’s what Google tells me).


Admittedly it was the Mirror, hardly a friend to Conservative governments. But this headline did not suddenly appear in a vacuum. It’s the expression of a wider journalistic conversation about Theresa May.

If and when the Prime Minister loses her appeal at the Supreme Court, expect to see it again, only this time in a broader range of publications.

Atul Hatwal is editor of Uncut

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10 Responses to “Theresa May’s reputation for competence is the real casualty of the High Court Brexit ruling”

  1. Taylor says:

    Wrong conclusion. You forget that Mrs May only rose to become PM because of a determination by a majority of voters to defy the establishment. The opportunity to identify that establishment with three judges, and then defy it, is for her simply pure political gold.

    Imagine the election – Mrs May vs the Establishment judges, or the Lords stooges, or the hedge-fund financiers. Can you imagine the sort of crushing majority she would command.

    More to the point, can you imagine the Labour party siding with the Establishment and surviving the election in any constituency outside London?

  2. Anon says:

    Well that’s the politicians, lawyers, and newspapers taken into consideration – what about The People?

    I get sick of this ‘West Wing’ type crap. It’s not just ALL about political parties.

    FFS grow up.

  3. Harold Wilson: winner of 4 general elections. He was a socialist too. Tory-lite Tony Blair only ever won 3.

  4. Tafia says:

    Bit of a pyrhic victory for Remain’s rear guard in the High Court.

    This will now go to the Supreme Court because the government has Appealed

    But even if they win again in the Supreme Court, Labour has already said they won’t oppose the the triggering of Article 50 in Parliament. There’s several reasons for this but it boils down to one thing – whatever happens, they can’t afford Theresa May calling a vote of No Confidence in herself if she loses a vote and then moving for an Amendment to the Fix Term Parliament Act, immediately dissolving Parliament the following day and calling a General Election in the shortest time possible (around three weeks after Parliament is dissolved by the Queen). There is no way Labour fancies it’s chances in a snap General Election, fought over one single issue – the immediate triggering of A50. UKIP would eat them alive in northern England, they’d lose their last seat to the SNP in Scotland and May would be returned with a thumping majority and a clear mandate and wouldn’t have to involve anyone except her own Cabinet from there on in. And Labour would be down to less than 200 seats and UKIP (who would win Labour seats in northern England) and the SNP would both be bigger than the Lib Dems. Possibly even Plaid and a couple of the Northern Ireland parties would be bigger than the Lib Dems as well.

    However if Labour are that stupid, you could be looking at a General Election as early mid-January and Article 50 triggered in the immediate Queens Speech.

    his is partly why May says A50 will still be activated inside the timetable.

    This is the sword of Damocles she is hanging over Commons. If she loses the Appeal in the Supreme Court in a month’s time AND even mildly suspects that Parliament will attempt to stop any move about ending Freedom of Movement (which is the red line for most Leavers), she will call a vote of No Confidence in herself, the tories will not put another government forward but vote down any alternative and bingo – two weeks later a General Election is announced. She will fight it) with a man ifesto containing one committment – that the PM has the right to invoke A50 AND Parliament does not get any vote over the finished negotiations – just a rolling brief of what has been agreed in talks and what’s next on the agenda.

    She will win with a massive majority, immediately invoke Article 50 (and no Court will be able to stop her – she is mandated by that stage by a General Election and a Referendum) and all previous offers of inclusive negotiations involving the devolved regions and cross party will go straight in the bin and she will go for a fast BREXIT – certainly far less than 2 years and that will be that done and dusted.

    That is the ramification of yesterday’s High Court ruling.

    General Election can’t be called suddenly because of the Fixed Term Act? It’s easy to engineer your way around the Fixed Term Act. There’s a clause in it whereby a government can call a vote of no confidence in itself. If the House of Commons resolves “That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government”, an early general election is held, unless the House of Commons subsequently resolves “That this House has confidence in Her Majesty’s Government”. This second resolution must be made within fourteen days of the first.

    She instructs her MPs to support it and the majority she has gets it passed. She then instructs her MPs to vote against any alternative government put forward during the 14 days and bingo. Parliament is dissolved and a Genral Election has to take place. If it wins (all May has to do is whip her MPs to abstain votes against her – that leaves the Labour Party etc having to vote in favour of her and still being short), and no government can be formed for a fortnight (the tories refuse to form one and vote en-bloc against any Labour coalition) then under that clause Parliament is disolved and the country automatically goes to a General Election. Section 2 of the Act states

    If the House of Commons resolves “That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government”, an early general election is held, unless the House of Commons subsequently resolves “That this House has confidence in Her Majesty’s Government”. This second resolution must be made within fourteen days of the first.

    If the House of Commons, with the support of two-thirds of its total membership (including vacant seats), resolves “That there shall be an early parliamentary general election”.

    The red line issue for nearly all Leavers is the Freedom of Movement question. It has to stop. If that means leaving the Single Market then so be it. But whatever, for 17 million people it is a red line issue and they will vote against any party that they perceive as likely to weaken on that point. a third of Labour’s vote voted BREXIT nearly all specifically to stop FoM. Can Labour afford to lose a third of it’s vote? Because that’s what will happen. The majority of Labour constituencies voted Leave remember.

    And at any given moment in time from here on in, we are as little as 5 weeks away from a General Election (2 weeks for the No Confidence to take effect and three weeks campaign time). 17 million voted leave, containing around a third of Labour’s 9M. The tories got 11M votes at the GE. 17M want out mostly red-lining that Freedom of Movement must go.

    Labour’s vote in a snap election would be considerably less than 9m and the Tories would be considerably more than 11M – bolstered by Labour deserters and tories returning to the fold from UKIP.

    What the outcome now is whether May wins or loses in The Supreme Court – and if loses and she thinks she won’t be able to get Parliament to agree to the ending of Freedom of Movement then she will move for a general election. And then the people that went to the High Court will have effectively handed total control over BREXIT to her, the UKs negotiating position etc etc entirely to Cabinet and by passing Parliament completely in the process. (Not to mention destroying the Labour Party, the Lib Dems, possibly allowing UKIP to win up to a dozen seats in north England and handing May a colossal majority).

    To get the Leave result, Leave took 52% of a very very high turnout. Mays’ conciliatiry approach was to offer inclusion to the regions and the varios parties. Instead, they could end up boxing May into a corner, making her call a General Election over the issue, where getting only 42-43% of the vote will give her an absolute majority and the mandated right to trigger A50 without Parliamentary approval and include nobody in the talks. And the Courts would uphold that as they have no choice if it’s done in a GE. She will win with a thumping majority, Labour will be utterly trashed and she will trigger A50 the following day to prevent a repeat. So if she loses the Appeal at the Supreme Court, expect a General Election as soon as mid/late January – along with A50 the day after May wins. At the same time you can expect no cross party involvement in the negotiations except for parties that support the governments position during the GE campaign.

    The whole BREXIT thing was, is and will remain the question of Freedom of Movement – everything else nobody that voted Leave is that much arsed about. May is very aware of this whereas Labour are seemingly blind to it.

  5. Tafia says:

    Labour is quite clearly playing with fire – and it will get far more than it’s fingers burnt.

  6. Tafia says:

    Theresa May stays in No 10 bunker refusing to face music over High Court Brexit ruling.

    Really? What flew out to Brussels and Berlin then? A clone?

    Being as you lot can’t see the wood for the trees (it’s not for no reason Government opted not to have a first Appeal to the High Court and moved straight away to the Supreme – May ontends to deal with this quickly and is confident she can and will) I will make this easy for you.

    Because of this High Court ruling there are now only three outcomes – yep, just three (and May wins no matter what). So, which of these do you prefer because there isn’t anything else.

    A. May wins her Appeal in the Supreme Court, triggers Article 50 without Parliamentary approval or interference.

    B. May loses in the Supreme Court (not likely but there’s a chance). Tests the waters, finds Labour will hold true to their word and not interfere. Moves straight to vote, wins, triggers Article 50 quickly to prevent any further interference.

    C. May loses in the Supreme Court (not likely but there’s a chance). Tests the waters and if she doesn’t like it (ie people try to table amendments) moves for a quick General Election held before the end of March, on one issue – Article 50. Wins with a massive majority and triggers Article 50 straight away.

    Whichever way, May gets to trigger Article 50 withouyt interference however one option gives her a massive majority and a guarenteed further 5 years in power with no opposition in Parliament

    So, being as people think this High Court ruling is clever, which of the outcomes do you prefer.

    Because there is nothing else.

  7. maringa says:

    but Harold Wilson was a patriot – can one say the same about Jeremy Corbyn?

  8. John p reid says:

    Wilson also lost one, and he got less votes in 1964 when he win, than Gaitskell got when he lost in 1959′ just the Toey vote collapsed by 2million, Gaistkell also got 43% of the vote when he lost in 1959′ Wilson won in 1974 with 38% of the vote
    Kinnock lost with 34.5% of the vote in 1992 Blair won with 35.3% of the vote in 2005

    So Blair’s legacy was the last election he fought, he got a higher percentage of the vote than when he took over
    Wilson also left the Labour Party in such a state that Michael foot took over 4 years later and there was the 1983 result, even if Corbyn has a worse result than Foot, it’ll still be 13years after Blair left office,

  9. Anon E Mouse says:

    This completely nonsensical article with it’s silly and incorrect assertions shows exactly why the Labour Party will be out of office for years to come.

    Without reading any other blog posts from this author it is so screamingly obvious that he voted Remain to be frightening.

    Labour needs to rid the party of spokespeople like him and stop supporting the sneering elites and establishment against the working class…

  10. Ex Labour says:

    Hang on a minute. Who brought this case ? Oh I remember – it was one of those rich lefties who, when challenged, really don’t like democracy at all. All those plebs voting to leave – don’t they know their place ?

    The real problem is once again the Left chattering classes, not May.

    Quoting the Mirror in support of your point – desperation.

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