Even now the prime minister fails to countenance any plan other than her ownby Jonathan Lis / March 26, 2019 / Leave a comment
After three long years, last night parliament finally took back control.
MPs have attempted to give their colleagues control of parliamentary time on more than one occasion in recent months. Each time their colleagues declined. Such a move was too drastic; the government needed the space to get its deal through; the British people would not accept diversion or delay. Last night, MPs exhausted their patience. They passed Oliver Letwin’s amendment to direct Wednesday’s parliamentary business by 329 votes to 302. It was a historic seizure of power from the government, and an historic rebuke to a prime minister who no longer even pretends to lead.
The game is now up. Last week Theresa May demonstrated that she is wholly in thrall to events. She once controlled her Brexit plan and now it controls her, but it cannot take her anywhere because it has ceased to exist. The EU knew that May could not lead the country from disaster in just one week, and so deferred the cliff-edge by a further fortnight. It was an open invitation for someone to assert power—and so 30 Tories joined the opposition parties to assert it. Three ministers were involved, including Richard Harrington, who accused the government of “playing roulette with the lives and livelihoods of the vast majority of people in this country.” They even included the steadfastly loyal ex-deputy prime minister Damian Green. Chief revolutionary Letwin remarked ruefully that he had never previously rebelled in his 22-year parliamentary career.
Consider how extraordinary it is that parliament had no meaningful options to determine the Brexit it wanted until four days before our initial departure date. Then consider that parliament had to fight the government tooth and nail for the opportunity. An executive that was remotely democratic, collegiate or politically intelligent would have held these votes more than two years ago. But the government was never interested in parliament as anything more than a rubber stamp. In the most divisive policy of our lifetimes, which split the country clean down the middle, MPs were excluded from the start.
Of course the government pretended that it would offer indicative votes anyway. It damns the government that MPs did not believe them. Backbenchers asked why ministers were whipping against the proposal if they agreed with it, and ministers could not answer. The truth, of course, was straightforward: May has broken her word too many times. Two weeks ago she promised to hold indicative votes, then reneged. Last week she declined to seek a long extension to Article 50 even though parliament had requested one. In December her government was literally held to be in contempt of parliament. Backbenchers know that the government will attempt to hoodwink and thwart them at every stage. The executive has not one shred of honour remaining.
And so tomorrow we learn for the first time what MPs might be able to tolerate. For months we have seen what they are against. Now is the time to signal, in both senses, what they are for. A series of options will be presented, and MPs will indicate which ones they might favour. Almost certainly, no option will gain an absolute majority in the first instance. But it is a necessary step—and indeed the only practical step away from the abyss.
But the problem remains Theresa May, a prime minister addicted to the idea of her own authority. Even now, she refuses to commit to listening to MPs. Even now, she threatens to impose her will, not theirs. Yesterday in parliament she extraordinarily suggested that she could not implement a policy not contained in her party’s manifesto. Not only did that ignore the numerous policies she has scrapped since 2017 (and the not unimportant fact that she did not win the last general election), but it represented a flagrant abuse of parliamentary democracy. In this country MPs have supremacy, not the leader of a minority government.
May refuses to countenance anything other than Plan A, even though it has been defeated twice by historic margins. But she can’t proceed with that plan until she wins a third vote, and she can’t hold that vote until the DUP come on board, and the DUP can’t come on board until the plan changes. And in the meantime nothing else can happen because nothing else is the plan. Like an Escher staircase paved with cynicism, May is constantly moving and never progressing.
But May is not the only one who will resist the will of parliament. MPs themselves will continue to fight the control they have won. Eight Labour MPs voted last night to keep the control firmly with the government. More alarmingly, by 314 votes to 311 parliament defeated Margaret Beckett’s amendment, which would have forced the government to hold a vote if the country was one week away from no-deal with no other arrangements in place. It is as though parliament wanted to take back some control, but not too much. It was cowardly and self-defeating, and illustrates that parliament still doesn’t really know what it wants or how to get it.
The threat of no-deal is not going to leave. Parliament can keep voting against it but it needs a concrete measure to force the government away from it. May has shown that she is not simply prepared for the abyss, but entirely willing to take us into it. This reckless fundamentalism must be answered with determined action and not polite entreaties. The awful new reality of the Conservative Party is inescapable: too many people from the “party of business” are prepared to burn business to the ground for the prize of a parliamentary sovereignty they don’t even want parliament to have.
Perhaps Brexit was destined for autocracy from the start. The emphasis of the project was always on the power being taken back, never on who would be taking it. Since 2016 the prime minister has sought to impose her will alone. The government has resisted any attempt to permit parliament a meaningful contribution. But the original sin lies in the referendum. Today’s front page of the Express screamed “They’ve now stolen what’s left of Brexit” and laid the dreadful truth bare. The Brexiters never wanted control for parliament. They only ever wanted it for themselves.