Lovely little exchange on the Today programme Friday morning between former foreign secretary Malcolm Rifkind and presenter John Humphries on the foreign secretary’s latest bit of bother. Boris Johnson has accused Iran and Saudi Arabia of "moving in, and puppeteering and playing proxy wars" in the Middle East. This is a world away from Theresa May’s statements about the region, as she jetted around countries like Bahrain looking for juicy post-Brexit deals this week.
Rifkind made clear that he often had spats with John Major during his time in office, but that the opinions expressed by the foreign secretary needed to represent the views of the British government or our allies overseas might become confused. "If he cannot or will not accept that, then he is not fit to be foreign secretary" Humphries suggested.
"I’m not going to use the language you’re using," Rifkind replied.
"No, no, well use your own language."
"What I’m saying is he might end up being more comfortable in another senior Cabinet position."
It's not been an easy week for Johnson, whose allies request that he no longer be made the victim of so many government jokes. Although his comments on Iran and Saudi Arabia are plainly and demonstrably true, they are a great dirty unsayable in British politics. We are very happy to lambast the human rights abuses of Castro's Cuba and the geo-political conspiracies of Iran, but we are strangely silent when it comes to Saudi Arabia's eager participation in both.
Downing Street put out the now familiar slap-down. "Those are the foreign secretary's views. They are not the government's position on Saudi Arabia and its role in the region."
The regularity with which No10 now slaps down ministers - including occasionally the prime minister herself, as over her comments to the CBI on a Brexit transitional deal - is becoming embarrassing. It would be less troublesome if it wasn't combined with May's control freakery, where she tries to drag all matters into No.10 for her own stamp of approval. The machinery of government is too big for that. Trying to keep control of it will simply drive you mad, as Gordon Brown discovered. We're seeing the worst of all worlds: leaky, ill-disciplined control-freakery.
Davis used to be just as loose-lipped, not least when he casually told the Commons staying in the single market was "very improbable" (No.10 counter: "He is setting out his view") but he seems more under control now. Yet even when he can keep his lips shut, the people he's speaking to in private will not necessarily follow suite.
Davis had a chat with figures in the City recently and someone leaked the assessment taken afterwards. Davis hates negative talk of Brexit, which is troubling, but they generally found he could be worked with.
The contents were a nightmare, however. Davis is against a transitional deal - urgently needed not just by the City, but also by manufacturers and the civil service. And worse, he expressed himself in such arrogant, ignorant terms that it will cement Europe's increasingly fixed hard Brexit position. He said he would be more in favour of transition if Europe asked for it to ensure stability. "I will be kind," he added.
It's exactly the kind of sneering, superior tone which so angers the very negotiating partners who are about to go into talks with us. Davis is very keen to say that no negotiation works if you reveal your stance in advance. Well it might equally be said that they do not succeed when you insult your negotiating partners in advance either.
This is not uncommon from Davis. He made a similar comment in front of a Commons committee a while back in which he radically underestimated the consequences to Britain of a messy, sudden Brexit onto WTO rules in March 2019. He appears to fundamentally misunderstand the dynamics of the Brexit process and why it is harder on the UK than it is on the EU. Even during a week in which he appeared more modest, consensual and moderate, he is still seemingly at odds with the reality of the predicament he has set himself.
As for May herself, her pronouncements remain hopeless, unimaginative and unhelpful. Her description of a "red white and blue" Brexit prompted mockery even from some Leavers. She is unprepared to give any details of the Brexit deal, so is reduced to a stockpile of embarrassing catchphrases with ever-diminishing returns. 'Brexit means Brexit' increasingly looks like the pinnacle of her rhetorical accomplishments.
But while she was away in Bahrain, her team in Downing Street did something clever. They took a Labour opposition day motion intended to force the government to present a Brexit plan and turned it around on them. This was canny - the first strategically ingenious move we've seen from No.10 for weeks. Instead of risking a vote which could win support from moderate Tory MPs, they took the motion, accepted it, added the March 2017 Article 50 deadline to it, and used it as a way to straightjacket Labour MPs into their timetable. Then they briefed that they'd always meant to put out a plan and that anyway they'd already been giving details, all of which suggested that the plan, when it was published, would be skeletal and unrevealing.
Starmer accepted the amendment, much to the dismay of some of his colleagues. Given the timescale he was working in, it was hard to see what else he could do. But you do get the sense that his team could use a little bit more of a mean streak. They have a decent strategy, the right attitude and a commitment to scrutiny. It is all thoroughly honourable. Now they require a bit of parliamentary cloak-and-dagger. They can't leave it just to the Cabinet to make the prime minister look foolish.
Liam Fox released a very revealing written statement yesterday. His department has started to do the preliminary work at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) required for when Britain leaves the EU.
Members of the WTO have things called schedules, these are basically a description of your trading relationship with the world. They list things like your tariffs and your services commitments. Britain's are currently held under an EU umbrella and they'll need to be extracted ahead of leaving.
This should be the chance to create that confident, independent, global trading nation Fox and the other Brexiters are always talking about. Finally Britain can construct a trading arrangement which suits it, not the continent.
For instance, we can get rid of the special rule on oranges, which we don't grow but have to labour under because of the Mediterranean states in the EU which do. We can prioritise the sugar cane that Tate & Lyle uses in their sugar, rather than the sugar beet which is used in Europe. We can finally create a customised trading arrangement for this country, rather than one for a continent with which we sometimes share very few economic interests. This is exactly what Brexit was all about.
Except Fox isn't going to do any of that.
"In order to minimise disruption to global trade as we leave the EU, over the coming period the government will prepare the necessary draft schedules which replicate as far as possible our current obligations." [italics added]
It is a startling admission. The UK's extracted WTO schedules will "replicate as far as possible" it's current status. So we'll keep the special rule for oranges, even though we don't grow them. We will continue to protect a sugar process designed for Europe and continue failing to protect one used by one of our major companies, despite its years of lobbying to change the system.
In short, despite all the sound and the fury, despite all the attacks against immigrants and the threats against EU citizens in the UK, despite all the Brexit votes and the Richmond rebellions and the sudden change in this country's political dynamic, the government is not aiming to change anything of any substance. Britain will keep the exact EU tariff system which Brexiters for so long said was strangling it.
Why? Because to do otherwise would be suicide. The WTO has been presented by Brexiters as a safety net, a place to go if no deal is possible with the EU. They keep on saying that they have no concern about falling back on their rules. This is because they don't know what they are.
Any member state at the WTO can trigger a trade dispute with the UK if they feel they have been unfairly treated by a change in its arrangements. And Britain is about to change its arrangement with everyone. It is a major economy extracting itself from a massive trading block. Those disputes are likely to either be resolved by sanctions or concessions on tariffs. If Britain were to lose several of them it would basically be trading under the conditions of injured foreign parties.
So instead Britain will try to rock the boat as little as possible. It will copy and paste all the EU tariffs, whether they suit us or not. It will protect produce it has no intention of making and leave many it does make without protections.
Then it will have to figure out what it'll do with tariff rate quotas, which can't be replicated like tariffs are. Quotas mean that importers pay one tariff for a set amount of a product - say 100,000 tonnes of chicken - and then another tariff for anything above that amount. But this is calculated across the EU, so when Britain takes its tariff rate quota out, it is calculating what slice of the pie it is entitled to. You can't replicate quotas, you have to calculate them.
Tariff rate quotas are so devilishly complicated that they are almost never touched. The EU still operates under quotas from two expansions ago. But Britain is pressed for time, so it will probably take the last three years' trade flows and claim that as the basis for them going forward.
This is as close to a tolerable solution as the UK is likely to find, but look at the incentives on the other side. Brazil exports 480,000 tonnes of chicken to the EU a year, of which about 40,000 goes to Britain. Let's say the British deal on these tariff quotas is unfair. They will trigger a trade dispute. Fine, that's to be expected.
But now imagine the British deal is perfectly fair. What is their incentive? They have the opportunity to open up further market access for their poultry exporters. So they may wish to trigger a trade dispute anyway. Britain will be walking a tightrope, hoping thousands of these disputes don't erupt at a uniquely vulnerable time for it economically. That makes it open to making the changes the other side demands.
This is the case not just for Brazil, but for every single country on earth which exports to the UK. Failure at the WTO level can trigger a global avalanche of trade disputes against us, just as we cut ourselves off from our largest market.
And all of this doesn't even include the EU, which is an independent actor at the WTO, as well as the representative body for 27 of its other member states. They get to present their schedules to the WTO first, because they are much larger. If they disagree with anything we've done, they have a stronger voice in winning that battle. Britain’s extracted schedules will need to be accepted by the EU for it to have any hope of making a seamless transition.
None of this will be mentioned by the Brexiters, of course. In public they puff out their chests and accuse critics of not believing in Britain and thumb their nose at their European counterparts. But in private, well away from prying eyes, they delicately and loyally replicate all of the EU's trading arrangements, just so they stand a chance of setting themselves up in a viable manner at the WTO.
There is a growing gap between Theresa May’s image and her record. She looks sturdy and reliable - a safe pair of hands. But her actions reveal a track record of unforced errors. She is in a position of acute strategic weakness, both at home and abroad. Last night’s shock victory in Richmond, in which pro-EU Lib Dem candidate Sarah Olney overturned Zac Goldsmith’s 23,015 majority, throws that weakness into sharp relief.
The government insists that the vote doesn’t change anything. Hard Brexit is still going ahead. And in one sense they are right. Richmond is anomalous. Seventy per cent of the voters in this wealthy west London constituency backed Remain in the EU referendum. It’s not politically representative of the country, nor is it socially representative.
And anyway, this wasn't just about Brexit. There were other issues in the Lib Dems' favour. While the scale of the overturned majority is impressive, they did have a track record in this seat. They controlled it in 1997 under Jenny Tong and again under Susan Kramer. It wasn’t until the young, dashing, seemingly independent-minded Goldsmith came along in 2010 that their hold was lost.
It’s possible their focus on Brexit would have failed if Goldsmith himself was less inept. In between the last election and this one he had run an appalling Islamophobic campaign to be London mayor before being roundly and humiliatingly defeated, with even members of his own family publicly disassociating themselves from it.
His campaign in Richmond made very little logical sense. He was running on an anti-Heathrow expansion ticket, but the other candidates were all on the same page so this hardly differentiated him. His pledge to stop the project looked unconvincing given he had failed to prevent it becoming settled government policy. There was no through-line between electing him and securing the thing you wanted.
He ran as an independent, yet the Tories didn’t run a candidate against him and he refused to rule out joining them in future. It all looked a bit shifty and bizarre.
But despite these caveats, the Richmond result does say something important about Brexit. It shows that while Leave won in June, there is outrage from many Remainers at the type of Brexit which is being pursued. A marginal vote has been interpreted in the most radical possible manner, not just by taking us out the EU, but the single market and customs union too. A more modest Brexit proposal would be less likely to stoke anger from voters in places like Richmond.
May has pursued this hard line not out of strength but weakness. She could have offered a more limited proposal, fulfilling the Brexit mandate but trying not to alienate the 16 million Remain voters in the country. Instead, she has been besieged by hard Brexiters in the Tory party, Ukip and the press. She is driving Britain towards a cliff edge, with a chaotic pull-out in two years expected to do untold economic damage to the UK. Until then, she will find herself at the mercy of European negotiators during Article 50 talks. They hold several key advantages over the UK, in terms of the timetable, the consequences of failure, negotiating capacity, and economic clout. Her only contribution to this process was a conference speech in October which limited her room to manoeuvre in Brussels in exchange for short term support from her own party.
May is weak in parliament, weak in the country and weak in Europe. She is weak everywhere. Her response to Goldsmith’s decision to trigger the byelection was to not stand anyone against him. That in itself was a startling admission of vulnerability. Not only did she have to allow a suspension of collective Cabinet responsibility over Heathrow but she had to swallow Goldsmith’s vanity byelection, and then allow him to run unopposed. And she still lost. Her wafer-thin majority has been sliced down by two.
Westminster insiders’ instinctive response to the prime minister’s Brexit difficulties is to suggest that she goes to the country, but today’s result hints at how dangerous that could be. Sure, the polls currently look like the Tories would win a thumping majority, and it is likely they would. But given the results of the 2015 general election, the Brexit vote and the US presidential election, only the brave or the foolish would feel especially reassured by that. After all, a few weeks ago Goldsmith was enjoying a 27-point poll lead over his Lib Dem challenger.
Politics is in flux. Things are strange and unpredictable. Going to the country would be a higher stakes gamble than one might think. And even that would only take place after a potentially dangerous period in which May would need to declare no confidence in her own government and allow the requisite time for other parties to try to form a government.
This is the situation May is in. She is provoking anger from half the voting public because of a hard interpretation Brexit which she is anyway only adopting to fight off fundamentalists in her own party. She has a tiny majority. She faces big obstacles to holding an election. And ahead of her is a brutal European negotiation process in which she has very few cards to play and in which those she has played have been to her detriment.
For now, her polling stays strong and the public still seem to like her. But her position is extremely precarious. Richmond offers a sneak peek at the reality of her predicament.