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MICHAEL WHITE: Why putting the country’s plight in perspective offers no comfort

Martin Rowson's illustration for The New European. Image: Martin Rowson. - Credit: Archant

MICHAEL WHITE says the most likely next steps will involve an extension of Article 50.

She doesn’t do graceful, does she? Theresa May’s reaction to her spectacular defeat at the hands of MPs was neither to apologise for her own evident failure nor to admit that she had got it badly wrong. Theresa the Brexit Bull just snorted, put her bloodied head down and signalled her determination to charge the encircling Commons matadors again as soon as she gets her breath back.

We all know what always happens in the end to bulls cornered in the bullring, however stubbornly defiant they are. On the telly in the wake of Tuesday night’s 432-202 rebuff (gasps of astonishment from MPs) Peter Mandelson mildly observed: ‘Heaven knows how she could have constructed such a majority against her.’ May had won over just one more MP than backed her in the botched leadership challenge in December.

With Jeremy Corbyn and Jacob Rees-Mogg in the same voting lobby British populist politics have reached the same dizzy state as Italy’s Five Star-Lega coalition or Alexis Tsipras’s left-right partnership, currently breaking up over the agreed name for Northern Macedonia, in Athens. At least when Ramsay MacDonald’s minority Labour government was defeated by 166 votes – the previous record – over its decision to drop the prosecution of the communist journalist, John Ross Campbell, for incitement to mutiny in 1924, the damage was done by Tories and Liberals. May lost everyone but her loyalists and (of course) the ever-absent Sinn Fein, as smugly self-absorbed in its way as the DUP.

Substance and style, the answer to the Mandelson question was pretty obvious, wasn’t it? She doesn’t confide in her colleagues, let alone her backbenchers and voters out there who are desperate to get Brexit over with one way or the other. Inflexible to a fault, she finds it hard to persuade, even harder to find the language in which to do so. On Tuesday night she offered – far too late – to consult with senior MPs on all sides about the way forward (not much time for that before Monday), then to head back to Brussels with negotiable ideas that might command majority support in Westminster. Loyalist Oliver Letwin tells her to give ground. Will she?

The Labour leader’s immediate motion of no confidence? Bring it on, even if he bottles it overnight, May said. She isn’t trying to run the clock down to a hard Brexit on March 29 or to renege on her promise to Brexit voters ‘to deliver on their instruction’, she assured the House. But the thrust of May’s brief remarks at the dispatch box – her stamina at least is Thatcheresque – was to blame MPs. The House had voted down her plan, but ‘told us nothing about what it DOES support’.

Fair point and the PM’s 585 page Withdrawal Agreement, signed in black and white with the EU27, remains her strongest card in a weakening hand. Almost everybody says they hate it, but Tuesday night shows it commands 202 votes which – on the evidence so far – is still more than any of the alternatives. Outside in Parliament Square, where rival factions had assembled on front of large television screens, both sides were delighted that the ‘no mates’ deal had been so brutally flattened despite the PM’s plea in Stoke to ‘take a second look’.

Should we stand by for a third or even fourth look in the coming weeks? Despite Letwin’s tactful hints, May obviously still thinks so because she is persuaded there’s no alternative. But hard Brexit advocates know for a fact that there is. The European Not Much Research Group (ERG) issued a statement advocating a twin-track response: prepare for a no-deal Brexit on WTO terms (‘not the end of the world,’ tweeted Guru Mogg) while going back to Brussels and telling Juncker, Barnier and Co to do better. It’s all about us.

Fresh from making headlines with his new love nest (some people get their priorities right in a crisis, eh!) Boris Johnson called May’s thumping a ‘massive mandate’ to cheer up and tell Brussels ‘the deal you’ve given us won’t work’ – so give us another one. Cake-ism is back! We won’t have to pay them the £39 billion and that 230 majority gives us huge ‘leverage’ said David Davis. Just look at the state of the German car industry and wider economy. If Britains acts tough ‘they would come knocking at our door,’ Nigel Farage told a notably sceptical Andrew Neil on the BBC.

Perhaps they’re right. Germany’s economy does hover on the brink of recession. The car industry is taking a caning, like most old tech fossil fuel car firms, including ours. But the overwhelming evidence is that they’re wrong again. Thus John Redwood’s repeated insistence that we may not be legally obliged to pay our divorce bill under EU law isn’t likely to prove correct under international law, that erstwhile Brexit hero, attorney general, Geoffrey Cox, told MPs (again) on Tuesday. The fantasy lives on.

It was Cox, genial but exasperated, who offered the day’s anguished sound bite from the May camp. If a litigant reaching a deal under EU law to provide certainty for his business suddenly had the rug pulled ‘he would say ‘what are you playing at, what are you doing? You are not children in the playground, you are legislators and this is your job’… we are playing with people’s lives,’ engaged in the complex task of separating 45 years of legal integration in ways that restore certainty.

All that notwithstanding Team Mogg held a champagne reception at Jake’s place. Similar euphoria could be detected among Remain activists watching the big screens outside Parliament. Like Sir Vince Cable who detected ‘the beginning of the end of Brexit’ – as did Andrew Adonis in last week’s TNE column – they hope the left-right-and-centre alliance against May’s WA has dealt the project a mortal blow. In the City sterling even rose on the result – against expectation.

Apparently the money men share Sir Vince’s optimism. Like SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon, and her pointman in SW1, Ian Blackford, he wants to People’s Vote. Not to be outdone, the Times’s brainy economics correspondent, Philip Aldrick, argues that (according to psychological studies of the path to consensus) it may have to be the best of three: the second vote merely reacts against the first, but the third is balanced.

As expected the Labour leader was still resisting pressure to back a second referendum in which he might have to choose between his Remain activists and his heartland Brexit voters. Instead he called for the general election he claims to want as the best route out of the quagmire. After Tuesday night’s result caught me napping – like John McDonnell I had expected a smaller majority – it would be a rash prediction to say ‘ Jeremy lost, right?’ when you know the result of Wednesday night’s vote and I don’t. But I’ll risk it anyway. He lost. But did he back a People’s Vote?

It was Dominic Grieve, whose grace and consistency under pressure has made him one of few heroes of this grisly saga, who best explained why so many people on both sides saw May’s package as a failure. No one could have achieved more than Mrs May, the sacked Attorney General generously claimed (not true, but let it pass). But the shared dismay of Brexit and Remain MPs in the voting lobbies were the moment when Brexit dreams finally collided with reality about what is possible.

Even back-seat driver Farage on TV came close to saying that he’d prefer No Brexit to May’s deal, though he argued it should have been handled as a WTO plus free trade negotiation from the start. As for Remainers, says Grieve their disaffection stems from the conclusion that May’s deal is worse than the one we already have : No Brexit. But he’d vote to honour the referendum if MPs could find a less damaging form of Brexit.

‘Tell us what you want,’ frustrated EU leaders bellowed again from their respective capitals, gloomy at the prospect of still more distraction from their own pressing problems. ‘Time is almost up,’ said Juncker. Clarity may be what the next few days still fails to provide. The Norway option? Mandelson savaged it on these pages last month. Oil, fish and farming being outside the EU matter to Norway in ways they do not to service-dominated Britain.

Consultation and indicative votes on the options? May did not explicitly say she would try to consult with Corbyn and Tory chairman, Brandon Lewis, apparently warned her in cabinet that they party would not wear it. Pressure on wavering Dublin over the border? A request for a pause in the Article 50 timetable to allow a rethink? Even a unilateral UK reversal of A50 though such a move cannot be temporary, the ECJ’s December ruling made plain. Ken Clarke seems to have been wrong about that.

On the morning after the turbulent night before, the request for extra time seems the most likely runner. Determined not to blink first, EU leaders still evidently believe that Britain is on the familiar arc towards a second referendum – the usual EU way. Council president, Donald Tusk, as good as spelled it out. ‘Who will have the courage to say so?’ he tweeted. In uncharted waters we shall soon found out.

In the run-up to what turned out to be just one ‘meaningful vote ‘ after all – most amendments withdrawn to allow a straight vote on May’s deal – much of the week’s surplus wrath had been directed at Speaker Bercow for allowing the resourceful Grieve’s ‘report back in three working days’ amendment to be attached to the government’s Brexit motion and voted on without debate.

In doing so Bercow contradicted a 130-year–old standing order (SO14) which gave ministers a monopoly over Commons business motions. It was duly carried last Wednesday by 11 votes to the outrage of rightwing Conservative MPs. Will it make much difference to the substantial issue, apart from requiring May to put up Plan B by Monday (three sitting days) instead of the leisurely run-the-clock-down 21 days ? As with everything else it’s hard to say. But every day matters now: there are barely 70 left.

But in overturning parliamentary precedent (against the advice of the Clerk of the House) Bercow certainly created another precedent, one which may allow future backbenchers to assert their collective muscle against the executive branch of government across Parliament Square.

Remember that it was to curb Irish Nationalist filibusters which so badly disrupted parliamentary business the 1880s that that SO14 rule was introduced, as new machine party discipline asserted itself over the mid-century disorder of the kind Anthony Trollope lovingly wrote about. Remember too that Bercow’s central role in the drama – as I never tire of pointing out – came about because of the short-sighted campaign against his predecessor by Brexit Tories, led by Douglas ‘Kamikaze’ Carswell.

Himself a former rightwinger, Bercow can be tactless, rude, egocentric and boorish, a private bully to by many accounts. He was prolix and full of himself at the climax of Tuesday’s five-day debate. There is a good case for saying he shows persistent bias towards Labour whose votes elected him in 2009. But he is a reformer and the consistent thread in his Speakership is that he has promoted the backbench Commons interests against the government of the day, not least by forcing ministers to answer urgent questions.

So, as Class of 1970’s Ken Clarke remarked, he has tilted the balance of power back to parliament after decades when it atrophied. ‘Family friendly’ sitting times introduced by both Labour and Tory governments weakened backbench power while giving MPs an easier life – much as those expenses bungs did before the 2009 scandal. Bercow is part of the post-2009 reform movement, along with elected select committee chairs (more independent by virtue of not being appointed by whips office fixes) who may play such an important role in the weeks ahead.

Thoughtful MPs know this and are willing to put up with Bercow’s silly side, much as admirers of Evelyn Waugh’s novels put up with his private awfulness. So I was impressed that Jacob Rees-Mogg, as well as Sir Christopher Chope, both Brexit MPs, spoke in defence of Bercow’s right to do as he did – even though they disagreed with his decision on Grieve’s amendment. Chope pointed out that in 2013 Bercow had allowed Eurosceptics to amend the Queen’s Speech, thereby tilting Cameron towards his fateful referendum pledge two years later.

Raucous partisanship is so routine now that some cynical voters can’t imagine the two MPs were acting in a ‘disinterested’ way – ie impartially or that Bercow was either. The very word is in danger of being treated as meaning ‘uninterested.’ It’s the same shallow thinking that led the Twitter mob to denounce John Redwood for accepting a knighthood. As if Sir Vulcan would ever compromise his Hard Brexit purity. This week he has been as silly as ever.

But MPs and voters who backed Brexit to reassert ‘parliamentary sovereignty’ over the over-mighty, unaccountable (etc etc) European Union can hardly complain when MPs also assert themselves over their own minority government with its own democratic deficit. But, of course, they do, many out of sheer inexperience and herd instinct, some because they really do believe in popular sovereignty via referendums, plebiscites or propositions, as Californians call them. Social media buff, Tory-to-Ukip MP Douglas Carswell, was one.

So it was interesting to hear John McDonnell, increasingly Labour’s de facto leader after Jeremy Corbyn’s Brexit non-speech in Britain’s rhubarb capital of Wakefield last week, on Radio 4 to praise backbenchers for adopting individual positions of conscience over the Brexit vote, Parliament at its best, he said. We will hold Marxist John to that wholesome proposition if he ever becomes Chancellor McDonnell. As May is discovering – and Anthony Trollope fans already knew – it is not a recipe for efficient government.

That is also the weakness of the Letwin/ Nick Boles/Nicky Morgan plan to let liaison committee, made up of all 27 select committee chairs, devise a Plan C if all else fails. Even under the chairmanship of saintly GP-MP, Sarah Wollaston, who heads the liaison committee, the 27 are as divided as everyone else. Remainers have a majority – as they do among MPs, 70% of whom voted so in 2016. Unless there is a Leninist lurking among them and able to seize the moment, the Letwin mechanism is likely to stall too without more statecraft than has been visible lately.

May herself contributes to assorted forces – Trots, gillet jaunestreet warriors and genteel lady columnists among them – seeking to delegitimize the democratic process by crying ‘betrayal’ whenever they feel thwarted. Every time she repeats her mantra that failing to back the deal she struck in Brussels in November would be a ‘ subversion of democracy’ – as she did in Stoke (‘ Brexit capital of Britain’) and elsewhere, she does us all a disservice.

Her Welsh gaffe in Stoke, the text hastily amended after it had been issued, demonstrates the absence of a long perspective in May’s mind, and of bad No 10 staff work too. No, the narrow 0.3% referendum win for a Cardiff assembly in 1997 was not ‘accepted by both sides,’ as the text had claimed. As a new MP she voted against the legislation herself. Nor, as some commentators blandly assert, are other referendum routinely accepted by the losing side here, in Europe or the US where ‘proposition’ ballots on election day are as routine as they are in Switzerland – and often just as damaging. Who do you think voted for California’s high-spending-low-tax debt mountain? The voters did.

So write out 100 times, prime minister, ‘Disagreeing with you or with each other, or even with 51.8% of voters on a 72.2% turnout, is not a subversion of democracy, it is a manifestation of democracy.’ It really is OK for Dominic Grieve to argue that Brexit is a form of ‘national suicide’ (personally, I think that’s going a little far) and for Liam Fox to say that, while he supports the PM, the Hard Brexit option wouldn’t be too bad (much too far). It’s even OK for Gareth Johnson (oh no, not another Johnson) to alert the world to his existence by resigning as a Tory whip on St Crispin’s Eve. They know where you live, Gareth.

It’s especially worth repeating this and hosing down wall-to-wall doom and gloom. We have survived crises as acute as this one this and probably will do so again. In our 24/7 instant world we just forget past traumas too quickly. Poll tax riots, IMF crisis, miners strike, General Strike, Dunkirk, Suez and the Somme. What ought to worry us more – except we’re too busy wrapped up in our local drama – is that Brexit is part of a wider resurgence of angry, populist nationalism around the world where Polish mayors get murdered and the White House casually threatens to devastate allies. It may make us wish we’d been concentrating harder on the bigger picture.

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