Prime Ministers rarely acquire nicknames like ‘the Maybot’ without reason. We’ve mocked Theresa May’s inability to engage on a human level. We’ve despaired at her refusal to engage meaningfully across party lines. We’ve derided the Political Declaration she’s come back with as an incoherent mess. And we’ve condemned her hectoring, lecturing tone.
The Prime Minister’s faults are legion. In fairness, she inherited a deeply divisive task with sky-high stakes and a divided, complicated, multinational state. But for most of her premiership, she spoke only to the hardliners in her own party. She’s presided over perhaps the worst failure of expectation management in postwar British political history. She set red lines she couldn’t defend, retreated without admitting it, harangued people without persuading them and confused truculence with principle.
Wednesday’s statement was in many ways a classic of its genre. The woman who coined ‘will of the people’ and ‘citizens of nowhere’ showed as little ability to reach out as ever. Her pitting the people against Parliament has been greatly exaggerated, but it’s not a framing any Prime Minister should deploy. More than that, she launched a broadside against the people she needed to persuade. It was worse than outrageous: it was stupid. It is no wonder she came as near as she was able (being Theresa May) to apologising the next day.
And yet, I can’t help feeling the outrage misses a fundamental point. Like it or not, Theresa May is right that Members of Parliament have a clear, crucial choice to make. She is also right that they are declining to make it. Their indecision carries a heavy cost. Uncomfortable though it may be to say so, our government’s (extensive) faults are getting too much of the blame and our legislators are getting too little.
It’s not good enough to bemoan an unenviable choice forced upon the legislature: the legislature voted to have it forced upon itself. MPs voted by 498 to 114 to authorise the Prime Minister to trigger Article 50. It was no secret that would start a two-year countdown. They still gave her that power without conditions and without constraint. Of course many of today’s angry MPs voted differently, but literally hundreds of representatives who voted to give the executive carte blanche are now throwing up their hands in horror because the executive took carte blanche.
Since then, MPs have periodically taken the opportunity to block things. They’ve often taken the chance to express their dislike of certain outcomes — pretty much every outcome at some point or another, in fact. But they have so far proven totally incapable of supporting anything themselves. They’ve also failed to take the reins themselves: presented with two opportunities to seize control of the legislative agenda from government, they buckled. Yes, the votes were whipped. If it’s as important as that and the executive is as outrageous as that, then break the Whip.
Why haven’t they? To a large extent, because they don’t really want to be responsible either. The truth is that denialist fantasy is just as prevalent in Westminster as in Whitehall — if not more so. By default, we have 19 days until we leave the European Union with no legal relationship in place. The package deal on the table includes a legally-binding Withdrawal Agreement, a non-binding Political Declaration, an interpretive Instrument relating to the Northern Ireland backstop and a Unilateral Declaration on the UK’s view on when and how it can leave it. The road to any negotiated Brexit — any negotiated Brexit at all — begins with a Withdrawal Agreement. Short of carving it into the French coastline so we can see it from Dover, I’m not sure how the EU could make it clearer they will not renegotiate that Agreement.
That means that MPs who say they want a deal but won’t vote for this one are either rejecting any deal without having the courage to say so or gambling with the cliff to change, essentially, a very solemn press release. The EU have been perfectly clear, furthermore, that the very solemn press release can be built upon and evolve if the UK’s red lines change. They’ve also made it clear that delaying Brexit eats into the transition period, so we’re not gaining any time at the other end of this process by dithering now.
To add insult to injury, the ideas being thrown around by MPs are often either a joke or too difficult to square in a matter of weeks. The ERG’s absurdist fantasies and daydreams of No Deal liberation have been eviscerated elsewhere, and as I never expected any better from the ERG I’ll take them as read here. But the official Labour position dances around every possible issue. It promises a customs union with a meaningful say in EU trade deals, which we know can’t happen much beyond some souped-up consultation. It makes a customs union in the Political Declaration a red line when the backstop in the actual Withdrawal Agreement mandates one in all but name. It calls for a strong relationship with the single market and fails to tell us what that means.
‘Norway Plus’ or ‘Common Market 2.0’ is more carefully considered than many alternative plans. But what is their plan for making sure EFTA members will back UK membership of EFTA together with a derogation from EFTA’s fundamental purpose as a free trade association? Why is a bespoke arrangement laden with special exceptions being promoted as something we could join by the summer? What happens if customs duties are never sorted out via technology? They say the backstop is unlikely to be used, so what’s the plan for free trade in agriculture and fisheries, VAT for goods and excise? They argue for an ultra-soft Brexit by saying we’d be far more robust in using our EEA rights than Norway. That’s inevitable given our size and political culture. I agree the EFTA EEA members seem willing to accept us in the EEA as a constructive member. Are they going to accept us as a pre-pledged cuckoo in the nest?
Meanwhile, far too many People’s Voters are trying to shoot everything else down to try to force their option through and gambling with the cliff just as much as May. Even if they’d win a referendum, which I doubt, they’ve given no thought that I can see to what happens after an inevitably narrow victory. Do they have anything to say about the impact on the EU itself? What about the operation of our politics? Why are some MPs who say No Deal would be a catastrophe hinting at putting it on the ballot? Many of the MPs involved originally said they believed the referendum result should be upheld and told their constituents so in 2017 — so what changed their minds? Why do they blur the lines between the Withdrawal Agreement and the Political Declaration when it suits them and shout about a ‘blind Brexit’ when it doesn’t?
At the time of writing, we’re in too advanced a state of governmental and parliamentary chaos to be sure about anything very much. It looks like we will at last get a series of indicative votes, in the hope of finding something Parliament is prepared to support. It looks like we will at last get a series of indicative votes, in the hope of finding something Parliament is prepared to support. But if we’re going to do that, we need an honest debate, and MPs show little sign of having one. It’s not good enough for the ERG to prattle on about a free trade agreement for the UK, not Great Britain, as if the EU’s demand for the backstop can somehow be waved away. It helps nothing but Jeremy Corbyn’s electoral prospects (and possibly not even those) for Labour to carry on pretending that its Brexit plan is radically different from the Tories’. It’s no good for people to argue for soft Brexits on the basis that we can be suitably disruptive if we feel we need to be and expect the EU not to react. It serves no one to sell a refusal to take ‘Leave’ for an answer as a democratic boon.
For me, the reaction of some MPs to Theresa May’s statement by saying they were now less likely to vote for the deal was the final straw. Fine: the Prime Minister is as sensitive as a tank and as consultative as Sir Humphrey Appleby. Perhaps we could focus more on the fact that our country is still on course to crash out of the European Union with no deal in 19 days. The idea that deciding to let that happen in a glorified fit of pique bolsters liberal democracy is an insult to our intelligence. And as a citizen, I have had enough.
MPs should spend more time proving Theresa May wrong and less time moaning about her domestic diplomacy. They can do that by engaging, seriously and urgently, with the choices before them. They can recognise that any deal requires this Withdrawal Agreement, and cooperate with the Government in getting a Withdrawal Agreement Bill passed. That buys more time while we debate any changes to the Political Declaration, if we really have to threaten the country with No Deal just to change a glorified press release. (If we must go through a second referendum, its coming into force can be dependent on the result.) MPs could even surprise me by actually following through on the result of an indicative vote in binding votes.
If they can do some of that, they just might give the rest of us some reason to take their collective amour propre more seriously. There was a time when I believed in politics and defended politicians’ profession. I am almost out of faith. Please, Parliament, give me some reason not to become just as cynical as everyone else.
This post was originally published on Medium.com on 24 March 2019.