If Stephen Barclay didn’t exist, would anyone notice his absence? He is Westminster’s very own invisible man. Someone so forgettable that not even his own reflection recognises him. A man who slips in and out of rooms without leaving a trace. No one can even be quite sure if he has human form or if he is just some shape-shifting ectoplasm.
Everything about him has been designed with forgettability in mind. His voice is liquid valium. Calming to the point of comatose, each word more meaningless than the one before. By the end of a sentence you are far worse informed than if he had said nothing. His ideal job would be a doctor specialising in telling patients that their cancer was now terminal. Because everyone would have either nodded off or died before they had managed to absorb the news.
All of which has made him a more than satisfactory Brexit secretary. The man for no seasons, who has understood his role is entirely ceremonial and whose functions merely extend to opening and closing ring-binders. Someone who can’t give away a negotiating position even by accident, simply because everyone knows he is never present at meetings where such decisions are taken.
Any appearance by Barclay before the Brexit select committee is therefore inherently pointless. A matter of protocol to be observed. Today’s was more futile than usual because it was blindingly obvious to the entire world that even those who were meant to know what was going on were completely clueless. Brexit had come down to a game of Russian roulette with Boris Johnson, the DUP and the ERG taking it in turns to hold a gun to the country’s head.
At the start, committee chair Hilary Benn spoke largely to himself. Would the Commons be sitting on Saturday? Would there be a full legal text of any new withdrawal agreement and political declaration? If there was no agreement by end of Saturday would the prime minister send the letter requesting an extension? Barclay merely smiled and shrugged. “Words, mumble, words, mumble, words,” he said, his synapses stubbornly refusing to connect with one another.
Benn then tried pressing the Brexit secretary on what were the actual existing rules to which Northern Ireland would revert if the DUP denied consent. Barclay looked amazed. The committee shouldn’t worry its pretty little head about something that might happen next year or four years after that. Rather it should be concentrating on getting through the day. The event horizon was that near.
After 20 minutes, Tory Eurosceptics Craig McKinlay – who had spent the whole session reading the Guido Fawkes website, doing a bit of online shopping and checking on an email from the Brexit party – and Andrea Jenkyns interrupted proceedings to say they had had enough of Benn being beastly to Barclay by asking him awkward questions. Richard Graham, bristling with passive aggression, chipped in by suggesting Benn should be appearing before the committee to explain his lack of patriotism in trying to prevent the country becoming even more worse off with a no-deal Brexit.
“Splendid,” said Benn evenly. Maybe Jenkyns would like to have her go? I love Boris, me, she said. Boris is amazing. The Best. Whatever deal he brings back will be good enough for me. Even Barclay appeared slightly taken aback by her fan-girl enthusiasm, though he was relieved she didn’t actually have any questions for him. She just wanted to vent. McKinlay merely wanted to know if the lights he had been looking at online had been made in the EU and, if so, whether that would subject him to permanent vassalage.
Barclay eased himself through the rest of the session with minimum fuss. Labour MPs shouldn’t pay too much attention to the fact that the new deal might have replaced “regulatory alignment” with “regulatory divergence”. That was just a typo that no one had got round to Tippexing out. The very idea that the government was in a race to the bottom was absurd.
And no, he couldn’t confirm the status of current trade deals. He’d been too busy concentrating on knowing nothing. But luckily, Liz Truss had everything in hand. A wave of panic went through the room. “Why have the DUP and the ERG been invited into discussions and Scotland and Wales ignored?” SNP MP Joanna Cherry demanded. Whatever. Barclay yawned. If she was feeling left out he’d arrange for someone even more junior and dimmer than him to give her a ring in a couple of weeks or so.
The only real confrontation came from the DUP’s Sammy Wilson who couldn’t understand why his party’s right to veto any deal with Ireland had not been set in stone. As instructed by the prime minister, Barclay passed him a note with “Will another £5bn shut you up” written in green ink. He looked amazed when Wilson appeared to ignore him and continued to insist that the Belfast agreement – which the DUP had once opposed – be upheld.
Barclay left the committee as he had arrived. Without making an impression on anyone. Now he was free to return to his ignorance. And for once he was in step with the rest of the cabinet. No one knew anything.