The lesson of this pantomime is that literally nobody knows what is happening or what they are doingby Jonathan Lis / March 19, 2019 / Leave a comment
Britain has sunk so low that even our disasters have become hilarious. This week, the world looked on in baffled mirth as the Speaker John Bercow suddenly announced in the Commons that he would block a third meaningful vote on any Brexit motion that remained unchanged from the last one. He justified it using a convention from 1604 cited in Erskine May, the parliamentary rulebook.
The rule, which on its own is perfectly sensible, seeks to prevent bullying by the Executive—specifically, via a government’s attempts to force its will on Parliament by proposing the same legislation over and again.
The government, for its part, had no idea that it might not be able to do exactly as it pleased, and was consequently apoplectic. Leader of the House Andrea Leadsom rounded off proceedings by engaging in a slanging match with Bercow on the importance of courtesy.
Let’s face it. Brexit has turned a self-inflicted national tragedy into a box-office global farce.
On the surface, Bercow’s ruling shatters May’s strategy with one clean blow. The prime minister has only ever intended to leave with her deal, and if that wasn’t good enough for MPs, she would propose it again and again until it was. The ruling also devastated the strategy of many of the Brexiters, which was to tease both the prime minister and their consciences by gingerly easing themselves into May’s deal while repeatedly voting against it.
Different MPs attempted to score points off Bercow’s announcement. The no-dealers congratulated him, hoping it boosted their cause. The Remainers congratulated him, hoping it boosted theirs. And the anti-referendumers attempted to outwit him by asking whether a motion for a new public vote, which had been defeated on Thursday, would now be deemed to be out of order if proposed again. The Speaker, with his customary flourish, affirmed that he had said no such thing. Everyone was playing games and everyone wanted to brandish a win.
May, of course, should have seen this coming. Her government has had numerous run-ins with the Speaker, who is now seen as more political than any predecessor in living memory. He protests that he is merely speaking up for MPs and has no duty whatsoever to let the government railroad them.
Both sides have a point. The Speaker’s role is becoming more politicised, but only because the government is showing unique disdain for the legislature.
We forget that May had to be forced to give MPs both a vote over Article 50 and a meaningful vote over the withdrawal agreement. She led the first government judged, literally, to be in contempt of Parliament. May has deployed privileges to abuse and manipulate Parliament, and now Parliament is disposing the same tactics against her.
In reality, Brexit has convulsed not only our national conversation but also the unwritten constitution. When chaos reigns, someone has to try and establish order—and nobody likes to verbally command it more than John Bercow.
So what does it all mean? The simple truth is, nobody quite knows. Ministers have suggested that they could bring back the deal regardless. Others propose proroguing Parliament and then asking the Queen to re-open it—which may not go down well in Buckingham Palace. Another idea is that a guaranteed extension of Article 50 at the European Council this week would satisfy Bercow’s requirement for the motions to be substantively different.
But the EU is in a quandary. It cannot grant an extension to ratify the deal, because the deal cannot be voted on again in the Commons. It cannot grant an extension to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement, because the member states have ruled that out. It cannot grant an extension to renegotiate the political declaration, because the UK government has ruled that out. And it cannot grant an extension to permit a referendum, because the government does not intend to hold one and there are currently not enough MPs to legislate for one.
At the same time, it cannot decline an extension, because that would plunge the UK into the abyss when both the government and parliament have asked not to jump, and would also clobber Ireland, to which it has pledged permanent solidarity.
The short story: an extension is embarrassing for all sides and potentially a waste of time, but it is better than no-deal. If the EU does not grant the exact terms this week, it will do so next week. The extension will have to be long—and the government will hope to use that promise to blackmail Brexiters into supporting the deal.
All we know, really, is this. Parliament has voted against the deal, against no-deal and against a referendum. It has voted in favour of an extension but does not know to what purpose. Both main parties favour a short extension but cannot deliver a deal that would prevent a long one. Neither wants to participate in the European elections but both will likely be compelled to. And the prime minister, preternaturally incapable of imagination or collaboration, sticks to her plan with the single-minded zeal of a medieval crusader.
The lesson of this pantomime is that literally nobody knows what is happening or what they are doing. Remainers feared Brexit would be a disaster, but few of us imagined even in our nightmares that with ten days to go, we would still be so clueless about where we were going or how.
Each day our leaders lurch into fresh chaos. They blame everyone but themselves for the humiliation they force us to endure. They change their minds, change them back again, dig out old conventions, invent new ones, lie to themselves, lie to us, and the cast-iron guarantees of a better future which led so many people to take a leap of hope in 2016 slide further out of memory.
If, every now and again, we didn’t laugh about all this, we would never stop weeping.