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.