JAMES BALL: This is the thickest group of MPs in history
- Credit: Archant
Will the thickest group of MPs in history ever be forgiven for the stupidity that jeopardises the future of 70 million? James Ball delves deep into the Conservatives take on Brexit.
In October 2016, four months after the Brexit vote, the Daily Mail ran a blistering op-ed article from a Conservative MP representative of the intransigence that both would show through the years that followed.
Slamming Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband as 'refuseniks' for promoting a soft Brexit option, the piece warned this would 'mean sliding seamlessly into a position like Norway's, where we are still in the single market, still bound by freedom of movement laws and still subject to rulings by the European Court of Justice'.
It called this a 'spurious' bid to 'frustrate the referendum result' and called the two MPs a 'nauseating double act' for suggesting such a proposal.
Contrast this with the emotional speech of Nick Boles on Monday evening, when the clearly frustrated MP for Grantham and Sleaford dramatically resigned the Conservative party whip and crossed the floor of the Commons after his 'common market 2.0' soft Brexit proposal was rejected by MPs of his own party.
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'I've given everything to try to find a compromise…' he said. 'I accept I have failed. I've failed chiefly because my party refuses to compromise. I regret therefore to announce that I can no longer sit for this party.'
As readers may have guessed, the author of the first article was none other than Nick Boles MP. He is well-liked and well-regarded by those across different political factors, and few insiders' idea of an idiot. And yet during the Brexit process he wrote an article condemning others for putting forward a proposal astonishingly similar to the one he later quit his own party for rejecting.
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Brexit has brought out the very worst in our politics.
MPs of every political party, and virtually every Brexit faction – not necessarily in equal measure – have displayed open ignorance on the most basic of Brexit and political realities.
Very few have let that apparent ignorance stand in the way of holding very strong opinions on Brexit, or attacking their colleagues for their differing views. How have we got to this point? Is it just that our MPs are idiots? Are they just too divided? Or is it their political leadership?
In our 2018 book Bluffocracy, Andrew Greenway and I accused too many MPs in Westminster of fitting a certain stereotype ill-suited to Brexit – essay-crisis parliamentarians able to skim-read convincingly, but with little ability or inclination to get into the detail, and with an eye on the main chance for their own advancement.
It's not hard to find material to back up this idea. Former Brexit secretary David Davis said he didn't need to be 'intelligent' to do his job, tried to negotiate directly with German car manufacturers, and seemed to think there could be a transition period to a no-deal.
His successor Dominic Raab said after appointment he 'hadn't quite understood' how important Dover/Calais was to the trade of goods into and out of the UK.
Northern Ireland secretary Karen Bradley – a key role given the importance of the backstop – said she 'did not understand' people in Northern Ireland voted for different parties based on their religious affiliation, an absolutely basic political fact of the region.
Jacob Rees-Mogg said the UK could trade uninterrupted with the EU for 10 years under WTO rules thanks to a fundamental misunderstanding of one of its articles. And for almost two years Labour's Brexit policy was based on getting the 'exact same benefits' of single market membership without being part of it – an absolute and fundamental non-starter.
Some of these can be dismissed as gaffes, but some are all too serious. It's worth noting that perhaps the most dangerously ignorant decision made by MPs was not especially controversial at the time: triggering Article 50.
Parliamentarians across most major parties voted by a huge majority of 498–114 to trigger Article 50, a procedure just one page long which set out how leaving the EU works.
It's the Article 50 process that has created many of the features that have angered MPs of all factions – the strict ticking clock, the in-built advantage to the EU, and the so-called 'blind Brexit' process that requires the exit deal to be agreed and ratified before the future relationship can be negotiated.
MPs of all stripes, including the head of the Brexit select committee Hilary Benn, have condemned the idea of being forced to vote on such a deal – despite this being the process they backed, and signed up for. It is difficult to find any good excuse for this beyond straightforward ignorance: MPs only needed to read a single page, or any one of multiple briefings on it, before voting to avoid being blindsided by it.
This particular problem was perhaps epitomised by a two-hour training session held for Conservative MPs on Monday afternoon, between 3pm to 5pm, explaining to them what a customs union actually is. As one noted to the Times, this was a perfectly good idea – just several years too late.
It's easy taking these – and there are dozens of other examples – and just coming to the conclusion that Brexit is gridlocked because politicians are stupid. But it gets more complex than that, as experts connected to the issue suggest.
On paper, MPs actually have a good set of skills to address a problem like Brexit – 82% are university educated, 69 out of 650 worked as solicitors or barristers (useful when dealing with the law), and 192 have a background in business (key when looking at preserving it during Brexit).
Parliament may still lack in diversity, but it would seem to have at least some of the skills needed to process the information flow of Brexit. And yet it hasn't.
One stumbling block is the lack of planning ahead of 2017's snap election, which saw woefully under-screened candidates surprisingly find their way into parliament – thanks to first past the post, there are perhaps 400 seats in the country which would elect any warm body to parliament if it was wearing the right colour rosette.
Part of the problem, one senior journalist covering Brexit from London and Brussels noted, is simply that political culture is weird – and MPs are reliant a lot on their local parties, and on the activists around them.
'Honestly, the problem isn't that they are stupid or that they are ideologues. It's that their world is quite small and that makes them quite weird,' he said, speaking off the record as he wasn't cleared to discuss his sources. 'They generally mix exclusively with MPs or politicos, who are also weird, and think appearing on Newsnight is something to be envied.
'And if they are not in the weird Westminster world, they are back in their constituencies dealing with pothole questions. Many of them mean well and are trying their hardest, but seldom have to confront the reality of an international treaty.'
This ties to a second issue: Brexit, if we are to do it, is actually difficult and complex – and in many places it is uncharted territory. This might feel more generous than many of us wish to be toward MPs at present, but we should remember that doing Brexit is actually difficult.
'Issues such as rules of origin, which become a big issue for many British manufacturers under most Brexit scenarios, are little understood even in the academic world,' says trade expert Sam Lowe. 'So expecting politicians to get their head around it is a bit of a stretch.'
For Lowe, though, a bigger problem is confirmation bias – information is increasingly viewed by MPs and their faction's supporters purely through the prism of whether it supports their favoured outcome or not. In such a world, any kind of sensible debate, let alone compromise, becomes virtually impossible.
'They have decided what they want to achieve, be it remain, no-deal, or something in between, and all information is filtered through those lenses. 'If it doesn't fit, ignore it',' he concludes. 'And the problem with Brexit is that there are no perfect solutions, every option has its downsides; it's just some are much worse than others.'
This is heightened, professor Philip Cowley of Queen Mary, University of London, adds, by the fact that the very tight parliamentary maths – we are in a hung parliament mainly held together by the Fixed Term Parliament Act – means each faction feels like it is one step away from victory. 'Many of them still think they can win,' he says. 'So why compromise?'
As if all that weren't enough, parliament is now acting in a way that's well off the radar. Government isn't controlling the political agenda, and MPs of both main parties – even ministers and their shadows – are freely ignoring the whip. That's not how it's set up to work. MPs aren't used to doing that, and don't have much independent research support to do so. It's no surprise this is causing its own issues, too.
'The government has lost control of parliament and of the Brexit process, and conducting parliamentary democracy against the Article 50 time limit has magnified these divisions,' says Institute for Government programme director Gavin Freeguard.
'There are some perennial problems as well as ones specific to Brexit. There's very little training for what it's like to be an MP, let alone a minister. There are questions too about how well parliamentary procedures are working, and how clearly understood they are.'
This is a concern echoed by professor Anand Menon, who through his work coordinating the 'UK in a Changing Europe' network of academics has observed the Brexit process at very close hand.
'The breakdown of the whipping system has meant British MPs have to think for themselves,' he says, bluntly. 'Now their offices aren't set up for this, the system isn't structured for MPs to think independently. Habits of working have to adapt. The library's stretched, and all of that.'
We might find that we want MPs to think for themselves – but this is a tricky rule change on which to test this new system, and perhaps MPs should have picked something easier first. Lest we start feeling too generous towards MPs, though, Menon, has two other major concerns which are less favourable to our elected representatives.
Some MPs are stupid, and some are pretending to be because that's where the votes are.
'There is professional and deliberate ignorance, obviously,' he says. '[But] who's an idiot and who's a dissimulator? Some are saying stuff that is untrue because they don't know any better, and some because they need to say it.
'This has profoundly damaging consequences. On the Tory benches… party members are not only relaxed about no-deal, many of them want it. So you have to stand up and say no-deal won't be that bad. What comes out of that? A situation where 30% of British people want no-deal. What comes of that? A vicious circle from hell.'
Things aren't much better on the Remain side, Menon adds.
'On the other side, what you have is trench warfare between referendum supporters and soft Brexit supporters, where second referendum supporters are using the language of Rees-Mogg to rubbish soft Brexit.
'There are two civil wars going on. Part is party, part is posturing, part is virtue signalling, part is institutional.'
MPs are in the middle of a political situation that plays to every single one of their weaknesses – reliant on detail, on compromise, on acting against their own political interests, on working across parties, and more. They are proving entirely unable to rise to this challenge.
The biggest problem of all might be that Brexit is everyone's second priority. For some, it's a route to a general election that might get them to Number 10. For others, it's a route to independence from England. For others, it's a route to the Tory leadership.
And as they fail, time and again, to make the future of the UK and the 70 million people who live here, they put it in dire jeopardy. Will they ever be forgiven?
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