Thank goodness the most dictatorial executive in modern British history is also the most incompetent

MPs should be congratulated for seeing through the government’s cynical ruse today

March 29, 2019
Photo: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images
Photo: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

This is now the most dishonest, cynical, autocratic British government in centuries, and today was its most shameful exhibition. This afternoon’s parliamentary pantomime delivered the prime minister’s nadir: an attempt to blackmail, deceive and crowbar MPs into accepting either the generational humiliation of her Brexit deal or the unique calamity of no deal at all. Theresa May’s skulduggery is inexhaustible and exhausting, but also nakedly transparent. Her defeat, by 344 votes to 286, could not have been more richly deserved. Indeed, coming on what she guaranteed would be Brexit day, it could hardly have been more poetic.

Let us recap what the government has just attempted to do. Knowing full well that it could not win a vote on its deal, but that the EU had offered a cast-iron deadline to approve it, it decided to split the package so MPs would only vote on the withdrawal agreement, covering the divorce bill, citizens’ rights and backstop, and not the political declaration, which paves the way for the future relationship. What it didn’t explain was that this gave parliament an invitation to neuter itself and activated a conveyor belt to no-deal.

The government’s trick was in principle very clever. The idea was that parliament should just vote on a piece of admin today. This resolved the speaker’s obstacle that there could be no third meaningful vote on the same deal as before. Then, because a majority of MPs believe Brexit should be delivered, and a majority accept the withdrawal agreement can’t now change, parliament would be able to approve it easily. After that, so the government cooed, MPs could have their important debate on the political declaration to their hearts’ content.

Sadly for May and her enablers, the government just wasn’t clever enough. MPs could see through the blindfold Brexit and the trapdoor beneath it.

The European Council declared that 22nd May would be the extension date if the deal was approved by 29th March, else the date would be 12th April. Consequently, if parliament had endorsed the agreement this afternoon, 22nd May would have become a concrete legal wall. Approving the deal today would have discarded the 12th April deadline. But here was the key: 12th April is also our deadline for notifying the UK's participation in the European elections. If we did not send notification by then, we could not stand candidates in those elections. And therefore we could not be a member of the EU on 23rd May when those elections begin. Passing the deal today made participation impossible, and with it any long extension.

That locked us into May’s blackmail. Not only could there be no debate on the political declaration, there would be no chance to change anything. If parliament demanded, say, an adjustment of the declaration to commit to a permanent customs union, May could either refuse or protest that there would not be time—and she would be right. The deal, now an Act of Parliament, would have to clear both the Commons and Lords extremely fast and completely unamended. Jeremy Corbyn would either have to support the Tory Brexit and government he hates, or else enable the no-deal he vowed to prevent.

May, for her part, would finally become the ersatz autocrat she was destined to be. The vast majority of MPs who, rightly, fear no-deal more than anything else, would have to do exactly as she instructed them. The House of Commons would accordingly become the hostage of one person. That would constitute a grotesque distortion of constitutional precedent. Indeed, it would replace the basic foundation of British democracy with unbridled tyranny.

Worse, the Brexit nihilists would finally win the prize they always craved: an immovable deadline. They would filibuster, amend, oppose, and do anything they could to block the deal’s path through parliament. Nobody would have the ability to stop no-deal, and no-deal would be the default. Parliament would be powerless and Britain would be defenceless.

A more desperate situation could scarcely be imagined. Frighteningly, parliament only delivered a 58-vote majority to avoid it. Five Labour MPs voted with the government, including Rosie Cooper who had previously opposed the deal, and Jim Fitzpatrick, who represents one of the most pro-Remain seats in the country. Many more Labour MPs were tempted to follow them, and we owe them our gratitude for clocking the government’s deceit.

Perhaps our deepest gratitude, though, belongs to the government itself. We are lucky that the most faithless and dictatorial executive in modern British history is also the most shambolically incompetent. May’s offer to resign exposed the Brexiters’ hypocrisy once and for all. These principled patriots who had literally denounced the deal as “slavery” and “suicide” and worse than remaining in the EU were now falling over themselves to vote for it. No faint glimmer of principle, no matter how deluded, could provide a strong enough antidote to their fanatical self-interest. But more importantly, it stopped Labour waverers in their tracks. The people of Lancashire and County Durham may have voted for Brexit, but they did not vote to settle scores in the Tory party or elect a hard-right prime minister.

So as we celebrate the defeat of the government’s cartoon villain, let us also parade the final exposure of the Brexit charlatans. Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab would not let anything stand in the way of their ambition. Jacob Rees-Mogg insisted that he would not vote for the deal if the DUP refused, and then did so anyway. They almost certainly sacrificed the last vestiges of their credibility for nothing. May promised to resign only if her deal passed—and in doing so guaranteed it would fail. It was a morality tale heavy enough to bury both her deal and her career, and to take theirs with her.