How Sir Oliver Letwin Crafted The Commons Rebellion That Took Back Control Of Brexit

Paul Waugh

Just before the result was read out, the look of gloom on the faces of the Tory frontbench gave the game away. The prime minister was nowhere to be seen and ministers looked at their shoes.

When the 27-vote majority was then announced for Sir Oliver Letwin’s amendment, the jeers and cheers from Labour MPs rubbed salt in the wounds.  Chancellor Philip Hammond was sphinx-like amid the noise.

Away from the TV cameras, the chief whip and one of his lieutenants stood behind the Speaker’s chair, looking every inch like a pair of undertakers. Theresa May’s Brexit deal is not yet dead, but the coffin felt like it was being put in place.

Up in ‘the naughty corner’ in the Commons chamber, where a tiny band of Tory Remainer backbenchers habitually gather, Letwin smiled what seemed an apologetic smile.

Like footballers who score against their old club and refuse to celebrate in front of their former fans, his reaction was deliberately muted as all around him relished yet another extraordinary night of Westminster drama.

The margin of victory for Letwin’s amendment was nowhere near as big as the massive two defeats inflicted on May’s own Brexit plans in recent weeks.

Yet in a hung Parliament with a notional government-plus-DUP majority of just eight votes, that figure of 27 felt huge.

And many in No.10 fear that Letwin’s innovation, which allows the Commons to seize control of the parliamentary timetable for the first time in a century, could now have a devastating impact in both the short-term and long-term.

After several previous near misses, this was an assertion of power by MPs that for once merited the over-abused term ‘historic’.

Parliament, rather than the government, now has control of its own business and will use it to finally seek a majority for alternatives to May’s little-loved Brexit plans.

The resignation of three ministers, Alistair Burt, Steve Brine and Richard Harrington, were in the end unnecessary. But they sent a clear signal of just how worried they were that May simply can’t deliver her own proposals.

Foreign office minister Alistair Burt was among three ministers who quit to back Letwin

The mini-revolt was also revealing in that it confirmed the power that Letwin now wields. Harrington, who has been on ‘resignation watch’ among the whips for weeks, let slip last month that he had been working closely with the former Cabinet minister behind the scenes.

In fact, Letwin is seen by some in No.10 as the ‘shop steward’ for Remainer ministers who have been straining at the loyalty leash for months.

After the government defeat, Sir Bill Cash, a Brexiteer before the term was a splinter in David Cameron’s eye, rose to his feet to warn this was “a constitutional revolution - and the House will come to regret it”.

A clearly furious David Davies, another true be-Leaver, added that the effect of the amendment was to make the MP for West Dorset “a jobbing prime minister”.

In fact, Letwin has turned himself into a jobbing Leader of the Commons, effectively replacing Andrea Leadsom in the role of just how parliament sorts its timetable in coming days.

His first task on Tuesday is to engage both government and opposition in how the next steps will work, with Wednesday now set aside for the start of a process of ‘indicative votes’ on Brexit alternatives.

Letwin began the process even before the vote was won, meeting shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer and Hilary Benn, the Labour MP, on Monday night to discuss the intricacies of the procedure.

He and fellow Tory former ministers Dominic Grieve and Nick Boles have spent weeks working with Labour’s Benn and Yvette Cooper on ways to wrest control of the agenda back from the executive. He has also had unrivalled access to ministers and Downing Street and used back channels to facilitate secret meetings of unlikely allies.

A former aide to Margaret Thatcher, a knight of the realm and the man who drafted the Tories’ 2010 manifesto, Letwin has never struck any of his friends as some kind of latter-day Robespierre keen on tearing up the rules. As he pointed out himself, he had never voted once against his party in 22 years, until the past few weeks.

A Remainer who was nevertheless committed to Brexit after the 2016 referendum, the great irony of his new-found importance is that he has spent months supporting May’s deal and acting as a ‘broker’ between the different wings of the party.

Sir Oliver Letwin arriving for a meeting at No.10 Downing Street

But just after Christmas, he realised with terror for the first time that the PM could indeed oversee a no-deal exit, either by accident or design. And No.10 has known the eruption was coming, sooner or later. In a passionate speech in February, he claimed that “when the chips are down... this prime minister would prefer to… head for the exit door without a deal”.

That Valentine’s Day speech confirmed that he had fallen out of love with the idea of a May premiership in control of events. “For a period, for this purpose, we will have to take on the government of our country,” he declared.

Some fellow Tory MPs felt that threat was too outlandish to be taken seriously. And it’s true that Letwin has long had a reputation among some colleagues for being professorial and other-worldly.

During the 2001 general election campaign, the then shadow Treasury chief secretary made the mistake of being too honest about plans for Tory cuts and was ordered to go to ground by Central Office.

One former aide recalls bundling him into a taxi bound for Paddington station, with the instruction to ‘lie low’ near his Dorset constituency home. “Oliver, have you got any friends?” the aide said. “Yes,” he replied. “Do they live somewhere quiet?” “Yes,” he replied again. “Right, you’re going there.”

Gordon Brown with his 'Wanted' poster

As the Mirror hired a bloodhound to find him, and Gordon Brown put up joke ‘Wanted’ posters, Letwin was holed up like a hostage in a rural retreat far away from the media.

In 2002, he famously allowed a pair of conmen into his Kennington home one pre-dawn morning, dressed in just his pyjamas, as they then fled with his wallet. At the time, Letwin just happened to be shadow home secretary.

In recent months, some around May became frustrated that someone who was previously so loyal appeared to be making life difficult.

Nikki da Costa, the former director of legislative affairs in No.10 until late last year, told HuffPost UK: “Oliver Letwin, this is the man that the chief whip consulted time and time again and sort of co-opted as some sort of substitute minister, and many things were ruled out on Oliver’s say-so, contributing to the situation that we are now in…I’m sorry, when Oliver Letwin comes forward with something, I’m not particularly minded to say that is the perfect judgment.”

Some Tories have suspected Letwin’s real agenda is the ‘Common Market 2.0’ plan backed by some MPs. Twice he has sat down with Jeremy Corbyn and talked through the detail of the proposal.

While relations have been cordial between Letwin and Benn and Cooper, at times the Opposition front bench have been highly suspicious that his manoeuverings were all aimed at scaring Brexiteers into backing May’s plans.

Known to be very close to the ‘Gaukeward Squad’ of Cabinet Remainers, named after justice secretary David Gauke, Letwin has often appeared to play the role of double agent. He was said to be with Gauke and Amber Rudd when they urged fellow Tory Caroline Spelman to pull her own amendment on no-deal plans in mid-March. When Michael Gove ‘dropped in’ the same meeting, Labour smelled a rat. Within minutes, Cooper had worked with her frontbench to ensure the amendment was still put to a vote.

Fast forward to Monday morning, however, and Downing Street knew it had a problem on its hands. As they listened to that morning’s Today programme and the prospect of MPs taking control for not just one but several days, several No.10 aides realised that Letwin was deadly serious.

By early afternoon, one Downing Street source confided that the tide had turned in Letwin’s favour. “We’re going to lose, for sure,” they said. Although a previous attempt to take control of parliament had failed by just two votes, this time there was a different mood.

Hilary Benn and Yvette Cooper

At one point, there was a hope that Letwin would actually withdraw his amendment as de facto deputy PM David Lidington suggested the government could give MPs a better say. But with Brexit secretary Steve Barclay not keen on compromise, and with May’s own trustworthiness at an all-time low, he felt he couldn’t be sure they would keep their word.

Even in his speech supporting his radical move on Monday, Letwin’s mood was that of a rebel acting out of sorrow, not anger. He said: “If the Prime Minister brings forward a meaningful vote 3, or 4, or infinity, I will go on voting for the Prime Minister’s deal.” One Labour MP heckled: “Don’t encourage her!”

Yet he also went on to give details of his plans to ‘take back control’ of the parliamentary Brexit process. Most interesting was his idea that MPs should vote on paper ballots, “with pink slips in the Lobby at the end of the debate and not sequentially so that we do not have the gaming of sequence”.

Letwin even acquiesced for the first time to an idea put forward by Ken Clarke and others for a series of run-off votes to narrow the options after the first results have emerged. “I do not at all discount the possibility that, at a later stage…we should resort to some other method to crystallise the majority if we find that it is otherwise difficult to do”.

This is where things could get tricky, amid intense pressure to come up with some kind of majority to ensure the Commons doesn’t emerge as a laughing stock. One Labour source said that the real problem was complexity. “Whips on all sides like predictability. Clever people like Oliver often come up with clever solutions. But clever solutions mean complexity and the Commons likes simplicity.”

As parliament struggles to find a majority Brexit, it was Letwin’s own experience in cobbling together the Cameron-Clegg government coalition agreement that is proving his roadmap. He viewed that as “another cliff-edge” for Britain, with the Bank of England worrying about delays to forming a government in 2010.

Civil servants had “worked the situation through in awesome detail and had convinced themselves that it was absolutely impossible to form a coalition”. But “we sat down, and four days later there was a coalition agreement…[because] politicians were trying to find out how to accommodate the essential requirements of the other side”.

There could be even more trouble for May on Wednesday, with around 20 ministers threatening to quit if they are not given a free vote on Letwin’s series of options. Yet Labour is far from clear on which plans it will whip. There is confusion too about just how long the whole process will take, with some wanting it done in one day and others pushing for several days.

Yet for Oliver Letwin, the hard part has at least got underway. When he was a minister in 2011, he achieved yet more notoriety by dumping his political papers in a litter bin in St James’ Park, only for the Mirror to discover them. 

Now that he’s effectively been put in charge of parliament for even a few days, it’s Theresa May’s own Brexit deal - and her premiership - that may end up in the dustbin of history.

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