Friday, 22 March 2019

A national emergency

Britain now faces a “national emergency” according to a joint statement by the heads of the CBI and TUC. We do not know how, in just a few weeks’ time, the UK is going to be attached to the global economy. No doubt many feel relieved that the timescale of that has shifted from the end of March to the middle of April, but that is really only the difference between the shelf life of a pint of milk and packet of bacon.

Meanwhile, our political institutions are in complete chaos. Cabinet government has broken down, the Tory Party is in open warfare, the opposition is missing in inaction, parliament is deadlocked and MPs are advised to travel in groups to avoid abuse and attacks primarily, it would seem, from irate Brexiters.

A military planning team has been activated in the Ministry of Defence in preparation for no-deal (bizarrely, in a nuclear-proof bunker, which sounds like Project Fear by any standards). Other preparations are subject to hundreds of government gagging orders. Whether this is to prevent alarm at how far-reaching the plans are or ridicule of their feebleness is, by definition, impossible to know (although a leaked document suggests it could be both).

Bercow’s bombshell

Events are happening so quickly now that it is difficult to keep up with, let alone make sense of, them. It seems a long time ago, but was only last Monday, that ‘Bercow’s Bombshell’ joined the list of Brexit jargon that sounds like bad book titles. That intervention, saying that MPs couldn’t be asked to vote twice on the same proposition, was often reported as resurrecting some arcane rule from the 1700s. In fact, it merely confirmed what had been custom and practice since then. What was noteworthy was that Theresa May had sought to break with custom and practice.

Noteworthy, but not surprising. May’s actions and Bercow’s ruling occurred against a background in which May has repeatedly sought to evade or downgrade the role of Parliament. That goes right back, of course, to her ill-fated attempt to prevent a vote on triggering Article 50, her attempts to prevent the meaningful vote on the final deal (these two things are sometimes, wrongly, conflated), and the many other ways in which she has been both literally and metaphorically in contempt of Parliament.

Consequences of Bercow’s intervention

The consequences of Bercow were difficult to interpret and, in the rush to comment, easy to misinterpret. One reason for that is the utter confusion now amongst Brexiters about May’s deal. Since it is represented by different factions as delivering Brexit and as betraying it, it is not surprising that some saw Bercow as their saviour and others as a saboteur. Remainers, too, scented an opportunity. They couldn’t all be right and it turned out they were all wrong. They all assumed that the one certain thing was that May’s deal had suddenly become far less likely to pass. After all, how could it pass if it couldn’t be voted on?

In fact, as the dust has settled, the main consequence of Bercow is actually rather helpful to May’s tactics – if we can grace them with that term – in that it gave her cover for not holding the third meaningful vote (MV3) this week at all. Given there were already rumours she would pull it anyway, and it was very unclear she would win it if it was held, that was useful. It now means that if she can hold the vote next week the pressure will be that bit greater on MPs to pass it.

Of course it might be that the Speaker still refuses to allow the vote to happen, on the basis that the deal has not substantively (or even at all) changed. But this seems unlikely – the general assumption is that the EU’s agreement to extend the Article 50 period will constitute a substantive change to circumstances. It is very hard, though, to see how this can be anything other than the last meaningful vote. Talk over the last few weeks of ‘MV4’ now seems redundant.

May’s disgraceful statement

If May has one reliable quality it is to make any given situation even worse than it needs to be. And so it proved when she ‘addressed the nation’ on Wednesday evening. It is difficult to overstate what an appalling travesty it was, and how inadequately it spoke to a nation in such a deep crisis. Even now, she refuses to speak seriously and honestly about what is happening and why.

Shameful

Instead, replete with all her trademark awkwardness – repetitious clichés, a liverish and slightly spiteful tone – and her peculiarly unpleasant basilisk stare, she presented herself as the tribune of the people against the machinations of MPs. This was dishonest, dangerous and ill-judged. The dishonesty comes from the obvious fact that much of the delay and most of the division in Parliament arise from her own decisions on the timing and nature of the Brexit process. Or perhaps she is simply so devoid of insight as to not realise this. Either way the complete failure to acknowledge her own role and responsibility was, in itself, shameful.

Monstrous

Far, far worse was the explicit pitch of the people versus MPs. This was a direct affront to the notion of representative democracy and deeply irresponsible at such a febrile and unstable time. It ramps up the populist betrayal narrative. She did not quite use the disgusting ‘enemies of the people’ and ‘crush the saboteurs’ language (that she has never challenged or disowned), but that was the message.

For a Prime Minister to spit out the words ‘motions’ and ‘amendments’ as if the basic mechanisms of parliamentary democracy were appalling perversions was pretty shocking. But, of course, it is all of a piece with that long history of contempt for parliament. This absolutely wasn’t a one-off loss of temper due, as she later claimed, to “frustration”. It is part of a pattern of behaviour revealing an underlying belief.

In any case her message was completely incoherent in its own terms. She must know that ‘the people’ are as divided as the politicians. There is no unitary ‘people’ for whom she can purport to speak, not least because she has so utterly failed to develop any kind of consensus. Watching this chillingly monomaniacal pursuit of ‘her deal’ couched in such megalomaniac language it struck me that she seemed – and I choose this word with deliberate care – monstrous.

Ill-judged

On top of all that, it showed yet again what poor judgment she has. Most obviously, it is far more likely to alienate the MPs whose votes she needs than to bring them on board – and there is already some evidence that it is having that effect. Additionally, the only audience to whom her message of being protector of the people’s will against treacherous politicians will appeal is that which has already, and will forever, write her off as ‘Theresa the Remainer’. As ever, she cloaks herself in the garb of the Brexit Ultras whilst they have already written her off.

One part of that is the way that (again contemptuously flouting what she seemed to have promised MPs the week before) she now insists that only a short extension is possible and has categorically ruled out requesting a long extension whilst she is Prime Minister. That what she was speaking of as possible last week is now deemed impossible reflects – despite her steely tones – her weakness, since it clearly arose from resignation threats from Brexit cabinet ministers. Long ago she manacled herself to the Ultras: now she is their creature.

What now?

So the vote will, presumably, be held early next week. As would have been the case if it had been held this week, the result will probably be very close. The hardcore of the ERG, who are still floating their ludicrous ‘managed no deal’ lies (£), will if anything have been emboldened by May’s latest stance against a longer extension. There is little incentive for other potential switchers, whether Labour Brexiters or Tory remainers, to come over. There seem to have been no further efforts to woo them, and the general attack on MPs won’t have helped.

If it nevertheless passes it will set up years of problems, beginning with having to complete all the necessary legislation to exit by the EU’s deadline of 22 May (rather than the end of June, as the UK had requested).

If the deal doesn’t pass then initially Donald Tusk suggested that there would be no extension, and no-deal would come into effect on 29 March. In fact, the EU agreed that we would have until 12 April. Reporting of this change in the British media has been refracted through the lens of whether it is softer or tougher but that misses the point.

The EU-27, entirely reasonably, are making decisions based on what is best for them. Both the April and May cut off dates are framed to fit the timetable of the EP elections. A slight extension if the deal isn’t passed just gives a bit of administrative breathing space for the EU – only incidentally is that useful for the UK. In the UK, what that space will see is a deeper and even more debilitating crisis.

There will be a frenetic search for alternatives most of which will also depend on what the EU is willing to agree to at that point, such is the national humiliation that ‘taking back control’ has inflicted upon us. Perhaps the Kyle-Wilson amendment (discussed in a previous post) will be tabled and will pass, or some other route to another referendum will be found. In that respect, what is expected to be a massive People’s Vote march on Saturday will have a particular significance. Perhaps Parliament will find some other way of averting a no-deal disaster, possibly even through revocation, something urged by a rapidly growing petition to parliament.

But, revocation aside and no-deal aside, any other course of action will require the UK to seek another extension. It’s almost inconceivable that May would agree to revoke, and very difficult – despite previous U-turns – to see how she could change position again on a longer extension and, hence, participation in European elections. The latter, for May, is “unthinkable”. Actually, it is entirely thinkable, and is just another example of an unnecessary red line. At all events, it is notable that when asked by the EU-27 leaders yesterday what she would do if her deal was not passed next week she was, reportedly, totally unable to answer.

My sense, especially after her broadcast this week, is that we have a Prime Minister who – more for psychological than political reasons – will do all she can to ensure that if her deal isn’t passed there will be a no-deal Brexit, despite having in the past promised the could not happen without explicit parliamentary assent. It is now being reported by reliable sources that she is, indeed, now determined on this course of action (£) in which she will of course be cheered on by the increasingly unhinged Brexit Ultras within and outside her party.

Even if she were to immediately face and lose a no confidence motion she could still, if I understand the Fixed Terms Parliament Act correctly, be Prime Minister for another fortnight, enough to take us over the cliff. She looks like someone who won’t go down without bringing the rest of us with her if she possibly can. Indeed it is all too believable that she would regard it as her “sacred duty” (£) to do so.

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