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Well done, Brexit ultras – the EU has never had more power over Britain (Guardian)

17 March 2019


The Guardian title: Well done, Brexit ultras – the EU has never had more power over Britain

The Guardian subtitle: European leaders now get to dictate terms to a supplicant Britain

“The rich history of these islands includes a Blessed Parliament, a Good Parliament and a Loyal Parliament. Also a Merciless Parliament, a Rump Parliament and a Barebone’s Parliament. The current one could go down as the Addled Parliament or the Useless Parliament if those nicknames had not already been awarded in earlier times. So let us call this the Broken Parliament.

It has been bust by Brexit. During the referendum three long and painful years ago, it was the Leavers’ boast that they would restore parliamentary sovereignty to all the powers and glories they claimed had been lost to Brussels. What they have instead done is to turn Britain’s legislature into a theatre of anarchy that daily demonstrates that it cannot agree on anything. A country once widely admired for the functioning of its democracy and the robustness of its institutions has been turned into a global joke.

All the conventions that traditionally frame our politics have been bent, split and shattered. The most self-evident destruction has been to the office of prime minister. The British system relies on the prime minister being able to command authority over the government and the government being able to get its business through parliament. Even before Mrs May’s latest chapter of humiliations, we had already exhausted ways of describing the evisceration of her authority. She has become such an enfeebled husk that she dares not sack ministers who refuse to obey a three-line whip. Discipline in her party has broken down to the point where it is a headline news event when she actually manages to win a vote. Cabinet collective responsibility has so collapsed that the chancellor can float a rival Brexit proposal on the floor of the Commons while the prime minister sits beside him doing an impression of someone chewing a mouthful of wasps.

Senior ministers can rebel against the government’s positions on hugely significant issues without having to quit. Among the many haywire spectacles of the past few days, we had eight members of the cabinet voting against a government motion to delay Brexit. These ministerial mutineers included the Brexit secretary, Steve Barclay. He delivered a speech from the dispatch box exhorting MPs to “act in the national interest” by supporting a delay moments before walking into the division lobbies to vote against his own argument. Another first for the Brexit follies.

Mrs May has one quality that is of value in a political crisis. She has resilience. She lacks all the others

It is easy to assign all the blame to Mrs May, the control freak who lost control. The charge list against her is certainly a lengthy one. She triggered article 50 before her government had an agreed strategy for withdrawal and her senior team then wasted months squabbling with itself rather than advancing the negotiations with the EU. Ignoring advice to the contrary and without advance discussion with her cabinet, she made a prison for herself by laying down red lines that made the negotiations more difficult and set her up for a string of ignominious subsequent reversals. When she threw away her majority at an election she didn’t have to call, she carried on as if nothing had changed rather than trying to reach out to other parties to forge a broad consensus about a way forward. That made her the hostage of the Democratic Unionist party and the Brexit ultras on the right of her party. Mrs May has one quality that is of value in a political crisis. She has resilience. She lacks all the other ones, such as imagination, advocacy and agility.

True, all true, and yet not the whole truth. Any account of this nightmare that holds Mrs May solely culpable is not a complete explanation for how we got here. In a dark corner of what remains of its political brain, the Tory party knows that it is collectively guilty of driving the country it professes to love into this shaming mess. With a few prescient exceptions, the Conservatives all backed David Cameron when he promised a referendum on the cynical basis that he might not have to deliver it and with the arrogant assumption that, if he did have to, he would easily win it. Leading Tories fronted a Leave campaign that peddled fantasy promises that could never be realised. Since Mrs May came up with a deal that tried to reconcile withdrawal with realities, she has been repeatedly sabotaged by the political arsonists in Jacob Rees-Mogg’s gang. Her party has had several opportunities to remove Mrs May and it has always passed up the chance. This is not because there is any shortage of Tories who ache with ambition for the job; it is because no one has really wanted to take on the job while the Brexit torture endures. It has suited them all to keep Mrs May at Number 10 as their human sponge.

Parliament repeatedly wields its power to vote her down without taking the responsibility to fashion an alternative

As it has also suited MPs as a collective. Parliament repeatedly wields its power to vote her down without taking the responsibility to fashion an alternative. MPs have twice defeated her deal and they have twice rejected no deal, but not once have they cohered behind a route to resolution. They were given a further opportunity last week to wrest control of Brexit from Mrs May’s withered grasp. Parliament again flinched from the challenge. It also rejected another referendum, with Jeremy Corbyn whipping Labour MPs for a principled and heroic abstention when it came to that vote, the latest gyration in the official opposition’s endless contortions.

In the game of parliamentary chicken, Number 10 is betting that the ultras are finally going to blink

It is the absence of parliamentary agreement on an alternative that leaves us in the remarkable situation where Mrs May and her unloved deal are still in play. She thinks she might be third time lucky because she believes she can now see the whites of the eyes of the DUP and the Tory ultras. There is a smell coming off the hard men and women of Ulster and the same scent is wafting to us from the direction of the Mogg and his fragmenting clique. The smell is of their fear that if they don’t vote for her deal this week, Brexit will be subject to a prolonged delay and that will lead to either a version that they like even less or to no Brexit at all. In the game of parliamentary chicken, Number 10 is betting that the ultras are finally going to blink.

The key is the DUP. Under intense pressure from within their own community, the unionists’ senior figures sound like people increasingly desperate to find a fig-leaf with which to cover a retreat. If they switch, a significant number of the Tory fundamentalists will follow. Not all, though. There are irreconcilables in her party who will eat their own eyeballs before they will back Mrs May’s deal.

She lost by 149 votes in her most recent defeat, which means that she needs to keep all the support she secured then and change the votes of at least 75 MPs. If she can get the 10 of the DUP to flip and, say, 30 of the Moggites follow suit, then she needs another 30 from somewhere else. The somewhere else is those Labour MPs who hate her deal less than they hate the idea of a long postponement to Brexit or another referendum. If Mrs May can get more of the ultras to come over, she will need less help from the Labour benches. And vice versa.

I am not going to speculate about how this week’s vote will turn out. That would require an ability to guess what mood the Tory ultras will wake up in on Tuesday morning and that is well beyond the limits of my clinical expertise. Incredible as it may seem, if Mrs May is defeated again, but gets closer to the winning post than before, we can’t be sure that she won’t go for a fourth attempt.

That could require the EU to agree to an emergency summit at which its leaders would be asked to give her time to try. Here we must register the ingloriously ironic consequence of all these Westminster games, especially those played by the ultras. Their astonishing achievement has been to make the EU more powerful in our national affairs than it has ever been. A delay to Brexit is entirely in the EU’s gift and requires, as I noted last week, the unanimous consent of every one of its members. Each state, large or small, can say no or demand something in return for a yes. It is a fairly safe assumption that the EU will grant a British request for an extension because its leaders don’t want a calamity crash-out Brexit. But the EU gets to dictate not only whether a supplicant Britain is granted a postponement but for how long and on what terms and conditions.

This, apparently, is taking back control. Perhaps we should call it the Cursed Parliament.”

Note The Guardian: Andrew Rawnsley is Chief Political Commentator of the Observer



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