JAMES BALL: House of disrepute

PUBLISHED: 10:05 17 January 2019 | UPDATED: 10:45 17 January 2019

MPs pack the chamber at the conclusion of the debate ahead of a vote on the Prime Minister's Brexit deal in the House of Commons, London. PHOTO: PA Images

MPs pack the chamber at the conclusion of the debate ahead of a vote on the Prime Minister's Brexit deal in the House of Commons, London. PHOTO: PA Images

PA Wire/PA Images

"They made a godawful mess, a mess of which only a handful seem to understand even the most basic of elements."

On Tuesday night, the UK’s members of parliament made once-in-a-century history. More importantly to those of us in the country right now – and the hundreds of millions of people we trade with – they made a godawful mess, a mess of which only a handful seem to understand even the most basic of elements.

Many of the 432 MPs who voted against Theresa May’s deal support Brexit, but voted against the Withdrawal Agreement on the grounds that it hasn’t delivered the kind of Brexit that they want. Few of them have bothered to educate themselves as to why that deal looks like it does – as the various proposals even usually well-informed MPs have put forward show.

Some MPs – including any following the official Labour Party line as put forward by Jeremy Corbyn – want to leave the EU with a deal, but believe May’s deal is not good enough. This position is completely untenable, and at this late stage largely indefensible.

It was possible, when there were months or years still to go during the Article 50 process, that a deal substantially different to the one May agreed could have been achieved. At this point, though, for anyone wanting Brexit to happen – without the chaos of no-deal – something looking a lot like May’s deal is the only show in town.

Most of the alternatives mooted by various MPs do nothing to change that, because in practice May’s deal does much less than most people assume. It settles the question of citizens’ rights for British people in the EU (and EU citizens in the UK), it sorts out exit payments for the UK to the EU, and sorts various other technical matters.

It also gives the UK time to negotiate a long-term deal – whether a Norway-style single market relationship, or a Canada-style more traditional relationship – through a two-to-three year transition.

Finally, it adds a backstop to prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland – a much looser relationship that the EU regards as, if anything, over-generous to the UK, as it gives broad latitude over trade and regulations while continuing free movement of goods, but not people, breaking the UK’s vaunted ‘four freedoms’.

Even after May’s defeat, the EU have made it clear this deal is the only one on the table. That remains true even if a general election returned a Labour government helmed by Corbyn. It remains true if control over Brexit moved from Theresa May to parliament’s liaison committee – made up of the chairs of all parliament’s select committees – as some have proposed. This is not just rhetoric: anything beyond the most cosmetic of changes to the deal get harder with each day, as the EU continues its laborious and technical ratification process, which locks down the deal to any changes except those approved by heads of states.

Any MP who voted against May’s deal believing a better deal is possible failed to educate themselves – or frankly even follow the headlines – before making a momentous decision affecting the future of the country. They have voted for the impossible.

Another group of MPs who voted against May’s deal are those who believe a no-deal Brexit – sometimes referred to as a ‘WTO deal’ Brexit – would be manageable or even desirable for the UK. These MPs are almost criminally irresponsible, and at a minimum should face deselection by any voter base or party with any sense of responsibility.

A no-deal Brexit would create chaos and shortages in the short-term – during which people could easily die – and in the longer term cause a major economic depression in the UK which could cost millions of jobs and ruin the country’s prospects for an entire generation. No sane or sensible MP would ever suggest this course of action, and yet dozens are doing so.

That leaves a remaining group: those who want to stop Brexit. This, as we know thanks to the court case brought by Jolyon Maugham QC and others, is definitely possible – and is entirely within parliament’s gift.

These MPs, at least, are living in political reality, though without winning the support of either Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn face almost impossible parliamentary maths to reverse Brexit, whether unilaterally or through a second referendum.

This option might be realistic, but still requires more minds to be changed, a challenging task when MPs have chosen to be wilfully blind from reality.

The real ‘meaningful vote’ which the UK’s MPs still face is between May’s deal – or something very like it, as a stepping stone to a permanent deal – no-deal, and no Brexit. Those are the only options on the table, and the stakes are huge – the future of the country is on the table, and if the worst choice is taken people will die.

Despite this, many have chosen to stick with comfortable falsehoods, with casual lies, or wishful thinking. At the time the country most needs their informed judgment, they have sat back and played politics, making no effort to learn.

As, to their shame, they have proved they are not going to make this effort themselves, it is now urgently up to the public to educate them on the real choice they face, and the options on the table.

We need to write to them, call them, meet them at their constituency surgeries, and try to force them to face facts. We can lobby for our preferred outcome – for readers of this newspaper, surely no-Brexit – but should also just try to get them to face reality and avert disaster.

The wilful ignorance of our MPs is a monumental national disgrace – but we don’t have time to be as livid as we should about it. First, we have to make them fix the mess they’ve got us into.

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