The shambolic proceedings in parliament last night tell us five thingsby Guy de Jonquières / March 28, 2019 / Leave a comment
Here is the Brexit shipping news: Westminster completely fogbound. Compass and charts gone missing. Captain offers to throw herself overboard in a desperate attempt to stop insubordinate crew mutinying. SS United Kingdom dangerously adrift, destination unknown. Or so it seems from yesterday evening’s unsuccessful efforts to determine a course for Britain’s departure from the European Union, barely two weeks before it is due to happen.
Five things can be said with reasonable plausibility, if not certainty, about the shambolic proceedings in parliament. First, that a much-hyped attempt by MPs to seize control of the Brexit agenda and clarify the options at best failed and at worst deepened the confusion. All eight “indicative votes” on alternatives to Prime Minister Theresa May’s unpopular Withdrawal Agreement with the EU went down to defeat.
True, two of them—calling for a permanent customs union with the EU and another referendum—were rejected by smaller margins than May’s deal in two successive earlier Commons votes. But that is small consolation. The fact remains that, while the prime minister may have lost control, parliament is still incapable of seizing it because it cannot agree on what it wants, only what it doesn’t.
Second, May’s tactics continue to be dictated by the same internal Conservative party factional in-fighting that led David Cameron to call the 2016 referendum. Her promise to resign once Brexit was achieved was motivated by desperation to buy off hard line Brexiteers in the European Research Group and secure her legacy as the prime minister who took Britain out of the EU.
It remains to be seen whether her gamble is viewed as a noble act of selfless patriotism or as grubby pandering to rebels in her own ranks by an electorate that opinion polls suggest is cooling on the idea of Brexit. More immediately, and rather more important from her personal perspective, is whether it will succeed at all, Of which more in a moment.
The third lesson is that yesterday’s events pretty much exploded leading Brexiteers’ claims to be acting solely on the basis of high principle. Witness the alacrity with which Boris Johnson, pretender to the Downing Street throne and ever with an eye to the main chance, performed a 180-degree U-turn and threw his support behind May’s deal after months spent bitterly opposing it.
Some other hard Brexiteers came into line because they feared that they would otherwise risk losing Brexit altogether. But there may also have been a more calculating motive: by exacting in return for their support a promise by May to stand down, they hoped to open the way to Johnson or another of their own, as her successor. And with that, perhaps, the possibility of tearing up May’s deal once he or she and other Brexiteers were in office.
However, all those calculations depend on May’s deal winning parliamentary approval. As of last night, that was far from a foregone conclusion, thanks to two wild cards suddenly thrown onto the political gaming table.
The first was the warning by John Bercow, the Commons speaker, that he would allow May to bring her deal back to the Commons a third time only if it differed substantively from the two earlier versions. Since it has not yet been tabled, it cannot be known whether it will pass that test. But given that no major changes in it have been agreed with the EU, that looks like a tall hurdle.
The second wild card was the decision by the Democratic Unionist Party, on which the government relies for its majority, to vote against the deal if it is tabled again. Unless the DUP relents, that makes it very difficult for May to secure a majority in favour, all the more so as Jacob Rees-Mogg and some other Brexiteers have made their backing conditional on the deal also gaining support from the Northern Irish party.
Which leads to the fourth lesson: that once again, events have demonstrated that the fate of Brexit and, quite possibly of May’s premiership and government, lies in the laps of the DUP and its 10 Westminster MPs. In a game of high-stakes poker, this small, deeply conservative, regional party is proving to be the coolest player of them all.
It is, however, taking an enormous risk that could sweep away all its winnings. If it overplays its hand, it could precipitate a general election that brings to power a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn, avowed Sinn Fein sympathiser and the DUP’s worst nightmare.
The final lesson from the evening is that the antics in parliament are almost entirely unrelated to the substantive question at hand: the terms of Britain’s departure from and future relationship with the EU. A day that was supposed to be devoted to sorting out those issues was instead sucked into the Westminster bubble.
Perhaps the looming Brexit deadline will prick the bubble and expose MPs to the bracing reality of making choices that will affect the country for generations to come. Or perhaps not. But right now, a paradox prevails. The machinery of government appears to have seized up. Yet it is full of moving parts, any of which could suddenly fly off in quite unpredictable directions. We should not need to wait long to find out whether and where they do.