Friday, 15 June 2018

What did we learn from this shameful and shambolic week?

Few watching this week’s pitiful events will have thought that Westminster any longer has much claim to be called the Mother of Parliaments. Just two days (and those a concession from the single day originally offered by the government) were devoted to debating a string of highly significant amendments to the EU Withdrawal Bill; with a contemptuous and contemptible 15 minutes made available for that relating to devolved powers. And a good chunk of those days were taken up by the archaic voting system, with each amendment requiring a separate ‘division’ itself lasting about 15 minutes. Given the technological wonders being promised for the Irish border, perhaps the government could turn its mind to creating the very simple system that would be needed for electronic voting? At all events, as some of the dust clears, a few things stand out clearly.

MPs have abdicated responsibility

The first is that the Commons has decided to almost entirely throw away the lifelines offered by the House of Lords. Just as they squandered the opportunity given by the Article 50 vote given them by Gina Miller’s Supreme Court case. So we had the utterly shameful spectacle of MPs voting down amendments which most of them know would at least reduce the damage Brexit will do; that is, voting to make our country a poorer and a worse place. There can be little doubt that an unwhipped, free vote would have seen most or all of those amendments upheld. The party structure is now completely misaligned with political realities.

It’s understandable, of course, that the government side would whip its MPs to vote down the amendments; it is quite extraordinary that the official opposition so often did so. If Labour adopted the policy that most of its members, voters and MPs wanted it could not only shape Brexit in a far less extreme direction it could also inflict serial defeats on the government (which oppositions used to think was a good thing to do if you could) and even, conceivably, force a General Election.

Most obviously, if Labour had supported the amendment to seek to stay in the EEA – the only thing near to being compatible with their six tests – it would very likely have carried. Instead, they whipped their MPs to reject it whilst proposing their own doomed and utterly fatuous ‘access to single market’ amendment (it is simply beyond belief that this meaningless notion is still being peddled). Kudos to those Labour MPs who defied the whip, but it was too little and, now, it’s too late.

The one amendment on which the government did look vulnerable – that on a ‘meaningful vote’ – does have an importance, but even had it been supported represents the barest minimum that the Commons could aspire to. It really is no more than the slenderest of safety nets to insure against an absolute national catastrophe. What kind of perversion of the idea of public service and political duty could have so many MPs lining up to gleefully declaim, under the shop-soiled banner of the ‘will of the people’, that our country must march towards a potential cliff edge without even that minimal insurance?

Perhaps the one thing to be said in favour of the truncated timetable was that it meant we didn’t have to hear every last Brexiter camp follower braying out this dismal slogan as if it were one of the more sophisticated propositions of Wittgenstein. For that matter, there was more than enough bloviated guff about how parliament had long ago voted to give the decision to the British people by enacting the Referendum. I’ve commented before on this blog that I don’t think the fact that it was an advisory referendum, whilst legally true, has much political traction as an argument for remainers now. But, by the same token, Brexiters cannot peddle the legal fiction that parliament’s hands are now tied; any more than Theresa May can propound the view that parliament cannot “be allowed” to reverse or ‘subvert’ Brexit. Parliament was and remains sovereign even if MPs seem reluctant to do much with it, and they don't have many chances left.

The government approach followed a familiar, doomed pattern

The second thing which stood out came from the manner in which the potential Tory rebels were placated by the government. It followed the pattern adopted by Theresa May and her government to almost every aspect of Brexit: to promise completely incompatible things to different people in the hope of keeping the dismal show on the road for a little longer and, perhaps, imagining that somehow no one will notice.

That approach is evident in the entire mantra of delivering a ‘Brexit for everyone’ whilst pursuing a Brexit which appeals to and is good for only a tiny minority of zealots. It is evident in all the promises of frictionless trade being accompanied by promises to leave the single market and customs rules that enable such trade. It was evident in accepting the backstop proposal in the phase 1 agreement when in Brussels, but announcing at home that it was something that no British Prime Minister could accept.

It was also evident in the way that another potential rebellion this week, on a customs union amendment, was dealt with: by reconfiguring it as a ‘customs arrangement’ which the rebels could take to mean a comprehensive customs treaty and Brexiters to mean something entirely minimal or fanciful. In all the rest of the drama, this derisory piece of can-kicking has had less attention than it deserves. It is worse than a ‘fudge’, since not only did it enable both sides to vote in support of the government’s position on customs but also it did so when the government doesn’t even have an agreed position on customs.

In some ways, this is just the normal tactics of politics, but with Brexit May has elevated such tactics to an entire strategy and it is a doomed one, because each time she pretends to everybody that they are getting their way it comes under immediate pressure by virtue of the constraints of the Article 50 process itself. The decisions between incompatible promises can’t be sustained forever, and in a time-limited process there is no forever anyway.

In the case of the ‘meaningful vote’ amendment the tactic lasted barely an hour, following the shambolic spectacle of the government front bench suddenly offering ‘in good faith’ concessions in a bizarre, private conversation in public between the Solicitor General and Dominic Grieve. This – along with a behind the scenes meeting with the Prime Minister - was enough to stop the supposed rebels voting to support the amendment, but by immediately disavowing what had been promised it may not be enough to hold them back next week. This isn’t short-termism, it’s micro-termism.

The Tory ‘rebels’ lack steel

It may very well backfire, of course, by enraging the potential rebels and shredding any sense of fair dealing and good will that existed. If it finally puts some fire in their bellies it can’t come a moment too soon. For the fact is that these 12, 15 or perhaps even 20 Tory MPs show no sign at all of being anything like as ruthless as their Brexiter colleagues are prepared to be, and have been in the past (for example during the ‘Maastricht wars’ of the early 1990s). Whilst the Brexiters seem to be champing at the bit to exert themselves, the rebels appear to be desperate to find any possible way of avoiding doing so.

I can understand the pressures they face, both from their party and from the sickening bullying of the Brexit press. But if they were really determined they would never have fallen for indefinite promises made at the last moment when the government saw that the amendment was lost: they would have said ‘sorry, you’ve left it too late and what you are saying is too vague’, and then put the boot in - hard. They didn’t, because they don’t really want to.

We will see next week if that has changed but, to repeat, even if so it will only be to put the most minimal of safety nets in place. It’s notable that the language has now shifted so that what used to be called soft Brexit (essentially, single market) is now seen as no Brexit, what used to be hard Brexit (no single market) is depicted as soft Brexit and what used to be the unthinkable (‘they need us more than we need them’; ‘the easiest deal in history’ etc.) of no deal has been downgraded to hard Brexit. As that ground has shifted, the options in parliamentary discussion have also shifted so that the most the rebels are offering is some degree of damage control.

Meanwhile …

None of this is happening in a vacuum, and it has costs both political and economic. The EU look on bewildered. Far from there being any sense that the British government has a clear and viable negotiating strategy that – as kept being claimed in the debates - the Commons votes might derail, there is growing alarm in the EU-27 that no such strategy exists.

That same alarm is evident in the growing evidence of business slowdown in the face of a completely unknown future, and its gleeful counterpart in the pro-Brexit hedge funds betting on just that. It’s very likely that the average voter thinks that nothing much is happening except for irritating political rows: under the surface, the economic tectonic plates are shifting and really serious damage is now in prospect.

And the clock is ticking very loud now. A Withdrawal Agreement (which, of course, is a completely different thing to the Withdrawal Bill being discussed at the moment) is meant to be ready for ratification by the EUCO meeting on 18 October. Given that almost nothing will be done in August because Westminster and Brussels close down, that means that, by my calculation, there are now just 62 working days left.

If ever there were a time for political leadership, it is now. We already know that isn’t going to come from the Prime Minister or from the government. What we learned this week is that it isn’t going to come from the House of Commons, either.

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