Believe it or not, I may have found a silver lining to the never-ending Brexit nightmare.
It is simply this: that MPs have at last discovered that they actually have minds of their own, and that they are actually allowed to use them. After decades of acting as little more than lobby fodder – following orders, right or wrong – they are beginning to do what they were elected to do: make a judgement on what they believe to be in the best interests of their constituents and of the country.
Party discipline has collapsed. The whips, whose job is to tell MPs how to vote and who are used to being obeyed without question, are now being ignored. Even government ministers -- shock, horror -- speak their minds. Not just unattributably, to favoured journalists, as they have done since time immemorial, but openly, blatantly. I was tempted to write ‘shamelessly’, but then I realised that any word containing the notion of shame does not sit well in a sentence about MPs.
On Thursday, for example, the business minister Richard Harrington said a ‘no deal’ Brexit would be a disaster. This is, to put it politely, not exactly the official government line. But was he bovvered? He was not.
‘I really don’t believe in this idea,’ he said. ‘I am very happy to be public about it and very happy if the prime minister decided I am not the right person to do [this] job.’
He might just as well have been a medieval knight flinging down his gauntlet at Mrs May’s feet and challenging her to a duel at dawn on College Green. (At the time of writing, Mr Harrington appears to remain unsacked.)
I welcome the fact that MPs have started to say what they think rather than meekly parroting a party line. I acknowledge, of course, that it makes party leaders’ jobs an absolute nightmare, but you know what? Tough.
Mrs May refuses to rule out the possibility that the UK might leave the EU on 29 March with no agreement in place. Some of her closest colleagues think she is wrong – and are prepared to say so publicly. It has even been reported that nineteen of her own ministers – yes, nineteen – have been holding regular meetings to discuss ways of blocking a no-deal Brexit.
The Daily Telegraph had a list of their names: they include the chancellor of the exchequer Philip Hammond, the work and pensions secretary Amber Rudd, and the business secretary Greg Clark. Mutineers rather than Brexiteers – yet each and every one of them remains in office. To call Mrs May the leader of her party is to require a redefinition of the word ‘leader’. Likewise the word ‘prime’ as in ‘prime minister’.
It’s much the same on the Labour benches. Mr Corbyn refuses to call for a second referendum – but many of his most senior colleagues think he is wrong – and say so. He also says he doesn’t want any of them trotting along to Number 10 for tea and biscuits with the PM. They ignore him and go anyway. (It doesn’t seem to do them much good, but that’s not the point.)
So is this the beginning of a new way of doing politics? From now on, is it every MP for themselves and who cares what the leader says? I’d like to think so – I always prefer honesty to pretence -- but it’s too early to be sure. The Brexit crisis is unlike anything we have seen in British political history since the Conservatives tore themselves apart over the Corn Laws in the mid-nineteenth century, and the very particular set of circumstances that led us to where we find ourselves may not be the shape of things to come.
Robert Shrimsley got it about right in the Financial Times: ‘It is Britain’s misfortune that at its time of need it has been blessed with two of the most inflexible, small-minded, partisan and inept figures ever to assume the mantle of leadership in the nation’s two major parties. The UK has had bad party leaders before, but until now it has been clever enough not to have them at the same time.’
To govern without a solid majority in parliament is always a challenge. To lead after a great wodge of your own MPs have expressed no confidence in your leadership is never ideal. To carry on regardless after you have been defeated in parliament by the biggest margin ever in British political history is, well, what word shall we choose? Sub-optimal perhaps.
In baseball, it’s three strikes and you’re out. At Westminster, on the other hand, it’s three strikes and, somehow, defying all the accepted norms and customs of political life, you’re still in, still swinging the bat. And still missing the ball each time.
But let’s not forget that MPs voted overwhelmingly in favour of holding the referendum in the first place: 544 in favour, with just 53 against. And nearly as many voted in favour of triggering Article 50, which set the Brexit clock ticking: 498 to 114 against. With a few honourable exceptions, they did what they were ordered to do by their party leaders. They own this thing every bit as much as Cameron and May.
MPs’ remorse? Perhaps, but we still have good reason to be grateful to the growing number of them who have realised that someone has to take charge when the captain on the bridge is staring at the charts and failing to understand them. Yvette Cooper, Nick Boles, Hilary Benn, Nicky Morgan and many others are now working desperately to set a new course before it is too late.
So on Tuesday, MPs will vote on a series of proposals that might – repeat, might – help to clear the air. No thanks, it must be said, to Mrs May or Mr Corbyn, who might just as well retire to their cabins and wait out the storm. They have proved beyond doubt that they have nothing to offer.
What was it the pro-Brexit campaigners said they wanted? A return to full parliamentary sovereignty? Well, it looks as if they might have got what they wanted – although whether it will also deliver the result that they wanted remains very much open to doubt.