If MPs cannot find a way out, the public will have to do it for themby Jonathan Lis / March 13, 2019 / Leave a comment
Against the advice of all our friends, three years ago Britain willingly injected an unknown toxin into its bloodstream. Each day it inflicts demonstrable damage. The promised benefits never came and almost nobody pretends they ever will. Our friends who tried to reason with us are close to giving up. The government admits that in 16 days our country could collapse. As we take our last gasp, the political class refuses to even touch the antidote sitting directly in front of it. This is not madness. This is self-destruction.
The government agreed its Brexit withdrawal deal in November. That deal exposed and combusted the pathetic delusions of a buccaneering free-trade Britain standing alone in the world, unencumbered by anyone else’s rules, interests or sovereignty. The reality hurt and as such would not be tolerated. The government panicked and delayed the vote until January. The deal was trounced. The government then disappeared for two months to pretend to renegotiate that deal, despite its negotiating partners insisting that could not happen. Nothing changed. Last night the deal was trounced again. With a losing margin of 149 votes, it was the greatest defeat for any government since 1924—other than the defeat of the same deal in January, by 230 votes, which was the greatest defeat in parliamentary history. After this second humiliation, Theresa May responded not by resigning or accepting responsibility of any kind, but by reaffirming her confidence in the deal parliament had just rejected.
What we are witnessing is the meltdown of a political order that has governed this country for 150 years, and with it any flicker of dignity, duty or respect from the people entrusted to lead us. Governments have inflicted disasters on the British people and the rest of the world before now, but rarely have so many incompetents been so paralysed by cowardice with so many lives at stake.
The European Union has been gripped and horrified by our rolling disaster for three years but has bent over backwards to help us. It pretended not to notice the insults, lies and chronic bad faith. It respectfully looked away as the government was eviscerated by its own backbenchers. It returned to the negotiating table again and again to try to reconcile British fantasies with a glimmer of reality. And this week it delivered its final offer.
The revised addenda to the deal made clear that the EU would use its best endeavours to replace the backstop—even via the mythical technological solutions pursued by Brexiters like conquistadors in search of El Dorado. The Attorney General Geoffrey Cox could satisfy himself that the UK would have a good case to suspend the backstop if the EU refused to negotiate in good faith. But good faith is entirely irrelevant. El Dorado remains a dream and the technological solutions remain incompatible with an invisible Irish border. The EU can commit itself to joining the British government’s unicorn hunt, but you cannot manufacture physical reality from political belief. Cox had to give the only advice he could: if the two sides try to agree but cannot, Britain will remain in the backstop indefinitely. The most remarkable part of the episode was that the attorney general told the truth at the expense of saving his government, and the most depressing part is that we found that remarkable.
And so Brexit lives to suck the air out of another day. Tonight MPs will almost certainly vote to block no-deal, and tomorrow, if they know what they are doing, vote to request an extension to Article 50. The fact that these votes are being held separately is in itself a form of contempt from the government. The necessary corollary to blocking no-deal in 16 days is not to leave in 16 days—but even now May and her enablers cannot confront that most basic truth.
Perhaps the most extraordinary development of all is that May has granted a free vote on tonight’s no-deal motion. No-deal is the greatest danger of recent times, which the chancellor has just this afternoon declared will cause economic havoc, yet the prime minister finds it so trivial she is refusing to enforce a stance on it. Members of the cabinet will be able to vote for a collapsed economy and food and medicine shortages with no sanction whatsoever. Again, this is not a question of principle but party politics. May could not whip in favour of no-deal as half her government would resign, and she could not whip against it because that would contradict official party policy—namely, the unhinged proposition that no-deal represents an acceptable final outcome. A free vote also requires May’s opponents to declare what they actually believe rather than hiding behind the government. Supposed Remainers like Sajid Javid and Jeremy Hunt will have to decide if they will choose responsible policy-making over appeasing the hardline party membership. And so to reiterate, the government literally now privileges internal politics over people’s lives.
After another brutal night, let us finally speak the truth about our unhappiness. Brexit can never be its cure, because Brexit is the cause. It cannot be reconciled with the dreams of those who wanted it and those who didn’t. We cannot find a way through the damage while we refuse to identify it. And the longer we leave it to circulate through our bloodstream, the harder it will be to remove it. The only antidote to this toxin is the British people. If parliament cannot find a way out, the public will have to do it for them. Voters must now decide if Brexit still lives. If it doesn’t, we must bury it—before it buries us.