How can MPs trust what ministers say after the Brexit fiasco of the past few days? That’s been the theme of the Commons emergency debate on the meaningful vote so far, with phrases like ‘shredded her credibility’ being bandied about. Initially, the most stinging criticism came from opposition MPs, but those MPs are not the usual suspects who chant blandly about how you can ‘never trust the Tories’. They’re senior backbenchers like Hilary Benn and Angela Eagle. And they speak for a large number of Tory MPs, too, who feel that there is little reason to trust what a minister or indeed a whip tells them.
Those Tory MPs range from Eurosceptic Bill Cash, who told the Commons that Theresa May had ‘reached the point of no return’ and was ‘clinging to the wreckage’ before her resignation, to Remainer Nicky Morgan, who suggested that a government of national unity might be in order.
This presented an immediate problem for Theresa May’s de facto deputy David Lidington, who was responding for the government in the debate. He wasn’t able to give a great deal of detail away, but he did make assurances to MPs that the meaningful vote would come back before the House by 21 January, and that he hoped that it would much before then. But the retort immediately came that why on earth would you trust that, when ministers were still being told to claim that the meaningful vote would take place today, even when the plan to delay it had been underway for days before?
There aren’t huge numbers of Tory MPs attending this debate. But behind the scenes, the whips are trying to work out whether the government is safe from a vote of no confidence, even through Jeremy Corbyn has said he won’t yet table one. Their problem now is that Conservative backbenchers will now wonder what the point is of being marched up any sort of hill by a party leadership that might yet turn them around once again. Far better to stay at the bottom of the hill, and refuse to trust the whips with what you’re planning to do.
Remember that many Tory MPs already don’t trust their leader after the snap election, and while they wouldn’t call for a party vote of confidence, or vote against the government either, they might well be minded to back removing May as leader if others get the momentum going.
The breakdown of trust extends far beyond the Tory benches, though. The contempt motion last week could have been avoided had the ‘usual channels’ – as the behind-the-scenes communications between the different parties’ whips are known. The DUP have made clear that they now fundamentally do not trust May because they feel she broke her own assurances on the backstop. It’s a natural and common human trait to find it very hard to rebuild broken trust. And it’s not clear how May and her ministers are going to achieve this all by the apparent deadline of 21 January.