In granting May a mandate to replace the backstop, MPs might as well have granted her a mandate to colonise Mars. They simply look absurdby Jonathan Lis / January 30, 2019 / Leave a comment
The morning after the night, the months, the three years before, Britain showed the world what it has become. Last night parliament declared that it didn’t want a no-deal scenario. It also blocked any meaningful attempt to prevent that scenario, and instead endorsed a proposal which the government, the EU and the laws of reality have repeatedly deemed both politically impossible and legally unacceptable. Rarely can such naked self-sabotage have been so shambolically executed.
Not all the MPs who filed through the lobbies to defeat the Cooper amendment were liars or fools. A great many were simply frozen by cowardice or fear. Some felt that it was premature to block no-deal and prolong Article 50. Others conned themselves into believing it went against what their constituents had voted for. For whatever reason, they chose to take those voters a step closer to economic oblivion. Fourteen of them were Labour MPs who had stood on an explicit manifesto platform of preventing a no-deal outcome. Meanwhile the government, which knew exactly what it was doing, celebrated the survival of its national blackmail strategy for at least another two weeks. Dereliction of duty doesn’t quite cover it.
But this pales in comparison beside the main catastrophe of the evening: the Brady amendment which sought to replace the Northern Ireland backstop with “alternative arrangements to avoid a hard border.” Endorsed by the government—and seven Labour MPs—it passed with a majority of 16 votes.
There can be no excuses for anyone who voted for this sham proposal. It was not just an outrage; it was indefensible. The prime minister herself has spent the last two months insisting, correctly, that the backstop was a non-negotiable element of the deal and that without it, there could be no deal at all. In words she herself might recognise, nothing has changed. The EU agreed the backstop in December 2017 and has steadfastly refused to compromise on the initial wording, which made clear that the instrument—like peace in Northern Ireland—could be neither temporary nor unilaterally terminated by Britain. Saying you’ll support the deal if the backstop is removed is rather like saying you’ll pilot a plane if the back wheels are removed. They may be small, but nothing happens without them.
If reality can intrude for a brief moment, let us perhaps remember what needs to be done in less than two months. The government must re-negotiate one of the most delicate and painstaking agreements in its modern history in time for a meaningful vote all of two weeks away, secure ratification of that new deal from a rigidly divided parliament, introduce all the necessary legislation to implement our withdrawal, and finally seek binding approval from the Commons and Lords for all the measures before they acquire royal assent. A full year or more of parliamentary business, then, crammed by this famously efficient government into just over eight weeks—and all of it based not just on nebulous “alternative arrangements” for the border which ministers failed to identify in two years of negotiations, but arrangements its much more powerful negotiating partner rules out on a daily basis.
Never mind that the all-UK backstop was a British proposal forged in the mess of British red lines. The whole point of the backstop is that it should be replaced with alternative arrangements. That is literally its raison d’être. Nobody in Dublin or Brussels wants such a bare-bones instrument to form the sum total of the EU’s trading relationship with the UK, but they recognise that the backstop must be the measure of last resort if such arrangements cannot be found. The problem is that the EU wants to build on a customs union, whereas the UK wants to replace it altogether. We know who wins this dispute. In any case, the Brady amendment is like proposing to scrap your travel insurance because you don’t intend to have an accident while you’re away. The overwhelming stupidity of the government’s position cannot be overstated and continues to astound.
Last night’s calamity was really a symptom of a problem identified long ago: Brexit could never satisfy all the government’s red lines, because those demands were mutually exclusive—that is, impossible—from the beginning. Parliament has jurisdiction in Britain but wields no ability to control Brussels. In granting May a mandate to replace the backstop, MPs might as well have granted her a mandate to colonise Mars. It means absolutely nothing and just makes everyone involved look absurd.
The only glimmer of hope last night came in the form of Caroline Spelman and Jack Dromey. Against the government whip—astonishing in itself—MPs approved their two colleagues’ non-binding amendment to rule out no-deal, and demonstrated, once again, the will of parliament to avoid that uniquely disastrous result. But it is not enough not to want no-deal. MPs must actively select an alternative. I still argue that if we ever reach the cliff-edge, MPs will retreat from it—but after the debacle of the Cooper amendment, there will be more scepticism than ever that politicians can squeeze the requisite courage through the morass of cowardice.
And so after last night’s destruction begins today’s hangover. A foolish vote will precipitate a humiliating climbdown, and a country which once appeared serious and stable faces the world’s derision and disbelief. Today’s Mail front page screamed “Theresa’s triumph.” If this was triumph, it would be terrifying to see defeat. But unless MPs remember that their purpose is to support the livelihoods of their constituents and not the whims of the executive—and remember it soon—we will not have long to wait.