Friday 25 January 2019

Could there be a silver lining to Brexit?

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.

Friday 18 January 2019

In the name of God, go!

She. Has. Failed. She. Must. Go.

How many ways are there to state the bleedin’ obvious? Theresa May – obstinate, blinkered, delusional – is now the biggest single obstacle in the way of somehow finding a path through the wretched Brexit imbroglio.

Like flat-earthers who insist that only they know the truth – that our saucer-shaped planet rests on the back of four elephants who, in turn, stand on the back of a giant turtle – she still insists that she can satisfy the demands of her party’s pro-Brexit ultras, and the House of Commons, and the 27 members of the EU.

It. Can’t. Be. Done. She knows it can’t be done. Her colleagues know it can’t be done. Yet every night, before she turns off her bedside light, she turns to husband Philip and says: ‘You know what? Nothing has changed. Not really.’

In 2017, she lost her party’s parliamentary majority. Never mind, nothing had changed. Last month, her government became the first in British history to be found in contempt of parliament. A trifle; nothing had changed. Not really.

On Tuesday, that same government was defeated on the biggest issue facing the country since, oh, since forever, by the biggest margin ever. Ah well, these things happen. Nothing had changed.

This is not admirable stoicism. It is not devotion to duty. It is sheer, gold-plated pig-headedness. As Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson put it in a lethally damaging speech at the end of Wednesday’s no confidence debate – lethal because he adopted a tone of pity rather than anger: ‘No one doubts her determination, which is generally an admirable quality. But misapplied, it can be toxic. And the cruellest truth of all is that she doesn’t possess the necessary skills, the empathy, the ability, and most crucially the policy to lead this country any longer.’ (You can watch the speech here.)

Matthew Parris (a former Conservative MP, by the way) was equally scathing in The Times: ‘Theresa May isn’t any good, she doesn’t have a fiendish, secret strategy, she’s careless with the truth and will say anything to get her through another week. She doesn’t know what to do.’

Careless with the truth? She’s in good company. Her pro-Brexit colleagues display a level of ignorance – or dishonesty – that make Donald Trump look like George ‘I cannot tell a lie’ Washington.

Chris Grayling, transport secretary, leading candidate for the title of Most Inept Cabinet Minister ever, in all of human history: ‘Keeping the customs union effectively means staying in the single market.’ It doesn’t.

Esther McVey, former work and pensions secretary: ‘We want to make sure that there is a managed process so that if there is no deal, we would have, as we’ve got now, an implementation period.’ Er, no deal means no implementation period. The clue is in the words ‘no’ and ‘deal’.

Dominic Raab, former Brexit secretary: ‘I hadn’t quite understood the full extent of this … if you look at the UK and look how we trade in goods, we are particularly reliant on the Dover-Calais crossing.’ Apparently, he studied law at Oxford – perhaps GCSE geography would have been of more use.

In the New York Times, the Indian-born writer Pankaj Mishra draws a straight line from what he calls the ‘malign incompetence’ of the British ruling class who were responsible for the disaster that was Indian partition to today’s Brexit fiasco.

‘Britain’s rupture with the European Union is proving to be another act of moral dereliction by the country’s rulers. The Brexiteers, pursuing a fantasy of imperial-era strength and self-sufficiency, have repeatedly revealed their hubris, mulishness and ineptitude over the past two years … Such a pattern of egotistic and destructive behaviour by the British elite flabbergasts many people today. But it was already manifest seven decades ago during Britain’s rash exit from India.’

Mrs May simply cannot be allowed to carry on kicking the can down the road like a grubby schoolboy with grazed knees and not a care in the world. It is time for her Cabinet colleagues to stop imitating the lion from the Wizard of Oz: ‘You’re right, I am a coward. I haven’t any courage at all.’

They must tell her to stop talking about her duty and try doing her duty instead. She must make way for someone with more ability, more skill and more honesty. Oh yes, and more courage.

The courage to choose. To choose between the six glorious, multi-hued varieties of Tory rebels who united to defeat her on Tuesday night. According to an invaluable analysis by The Times, the 118 Conservatives who voted against her on Tuesday can be divided up as follows: 47 want her to go back to Brussels to get a better deal (presumably one that provides a free pink unicorn for every British voter); 34 want her to get rid of the incomprehensible Irish backstop (presumably because even though they don’t really understand what it is, they know they don’t like it); 18 are in favour of leaving the EU with no deal at all; eight want a second referendum; two want a so-called Norway-type deal; and nine haven’t said what they want.

These are the people who she says she thinks ‘should work constructively together.’ Really? What planet is she on? These are people who wouldn’t be able to agree on what pizza to get delivered for the next meeting of the Plotters’ Cabal.

And now, as if the idea has only just occurred to her, she is consulting her fellow MPs. Another kick of the can down the road: in the words of Nicola Sturgeon: ‘The prime minister’s offer of talks is a promise to listen, but only if we all agree with her.’ It has the ring of truth, doesn’t it?

In her Downing Street statement (‘Nothing has changed’) on Wednesday night, Theresa May said: ‘Overwhelmingly, the British people want us to get on with delivering Brexit.’ Rest your eyes on that first word, ‘Overwhelmingly’, and then remind yourself of the referendum result and of the latest YouGov opinion poll that suggests a possible 12-point lead for Remain if another referendum were to be held now.

I can’t help wondering if the strain of the past two years has finally got to her. But unlike Tom Watson, I feel no pity.

(And if you’re wondering why I haven’t even mentioned Jeremy Corbyn, I can assure you it wasn’t an oversight. According to YouGov, 56% of British voters think he was wrong to refuse Theresa May’s invitation to her Brexit talks. Another triumph …)

Friday 11 January 2019

If I were an MP ...

I have never harboured any ambitions to be an MP, but if I were one today, this is the speech I would make:

‘Mr Speaker, our country stands at a crossroads – and it falls to us, the members of this House of Commons, to make a decision whose consequences will be felt by generations to come. Are we to take the path that offers us a genuinely better future, at peace with ourselves and our neighbours, or are we to continue to tear ourselves apart, obsessed with petty differences and ignoring what unites us: our common humanity, our love for our families, and our hopes for the futures of our children and grandchildren?

‘Let us look at ourselves in the mirror and be honest with ourselves. We have failed our fellow citizens. A decade ago, they watched – terrified – as the world’s entire financial system teetered on the abyss, due in large part to our unfounded belief that banks and bankers could be trusted to operate responsibly without adequate regulation or supervision.

‘And what did we do in response? Yes, we saved the banks and the bankers, but we squeezed public spending, froze incomes and slashed local council budgets. Our libraries closed, our Sure Start centres were shuttered, and our schools could no longer afford to buy books. Mr Speaker, we did that, and our fellow citizens noticed. They noticed that we were ignoring them – and they remembered.

‘We failed them, Mr Speaker. And unless we are very careful, we are about to fail them again. We will fail our fellow citizens if we approve a Brexit deal that we know will leave them worse off. We will fail our fellow citizens if we allow this government – this pathetic excuse for a government that offers a multi-million pound contract to a ferry company that owns no ferries and then can’t even organise a fake traffic jam – to take our country to a so-called “no deal” Brexit.

‘Mr Speaker, many members of this House will, I am sure, have watched this week’s television drama called Brexit: The Uncivil War. In it, one of the characters described what he called a new, toxic political culture in which no one listens to each other, they just yell. His fear, he said, was that we can’t close the box once it has been opened, and that this is the new politics.

‘We must prove him wrong, Mr Speaker. We must prove him wrong because we remember Jo Cox, the former member for Batley and Spen, who was brutally murdered on the streets of her own constituency. We must prove him wrong because we have seen the disgraceful scenes outside this very House, as Members are harassed, insulted and intimidated by thugs. And we must prove him wrong by changing our own behaviour. “No one listens; they just yell.” What a perfect description that is of what, too often, this House has become.

‘We can be better than this. We must be better. Better than a country in which the 85-year-old mother of a member of this House is sent a letter warning: “We know where you are. Look out for yourself.” Better than a country in which another member of this House was sent two and a half thousand anti-semitic messages in just three days. Better than a country in which yet another member of this House was sent six hundred rape and death threats in a single evening. And yes, all the recipients of those disgusting threats were women.

‘Mr Speaker, I do not say for one moment that everyone who voted Leave is a misogynist, a racist or a bigot. I do say, however, that the Brexit referendum has revealed the ugliest underbelly of our society; that it has encouraged the expression of the foulest prejudices; and that it has empowered those who hate and seek to spread hatred.

‘Two and half years ago, more than 17 million people voted for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. They represented 52 per cent of those who voted, but only 37 per cent of the total electorate. Voters under the age of 25 – the voters who, let us not forget, represent this country’s future – chose overwhelming for the UK to remain in the EU. In Scotland and northern Ireland, there were pro-Remain majorities.

‘We, as elected representatives, must now find a way to reconcile our differences. We must be honest, with ourselves and with our fellow citizens. We must have courage. We must put aside considerations of narrow party advantage and do what we honestly believe is best for those who elected us. Mr Speaker, I do not pretend that it will be easy. But it can be done – and it must be done.

‘First, we must say to this appalling apology for a government that its time is up. We must, at the earliest opportunity, express this House’s lack of confidence in it and force it out of office. It is the duty of Conservative as well as of opposition members to do what they know must be done. And it is the duty of the Leader of the Opposition to face up to his responsibilities by tabling an immediate vote of no confidence. The country has had enough of parliamentary game-playing.

‘Second, the prime minister must acknowledge that she has failed, and stand aside as leader of her party. Her continued refusal to do so brings shame not only on her, but on her party and on her country. Mr Speaker, we are told that she has a deep sense of duty – so I say to her now: Your duty is clear. Your duty is to quit.

‘Third, the Labour party must finally take a clear, unequivocal position on the gravest issue to have faced our nation since the end of the Second World War. It should campaign for what has become known variously as ‘Common Market 2.0’ or ‘Norway Plus’. It should state clearly that it accepts that the UK will leave the EU. That under a Labour government, the referendum result would be honoured. But that the UK would remain in the European Economic Area by joining the European Free Trade Association.

‘Mr Speaker, let me quote Lucy Powell, the Labour member for Manchester Central. “Common Market 2.0 offers real frictionless trade through full single market access and a new customs union. It would guarantee workers’ rights as part of common market membership; provide new controls over free movement in certain, extreme circumstances, when our government deems it necessary; allows more money for public services as our contributions to Common Market 2.0 would be significantly lower than to the EU, in fact about half, and gives us a voice over the regulations that govern the Single Market.”

‘In other words, Mr Speaker, the circle can be squared. The UK will leave the EU, but it will protect its economic future by retaining full single market access and joining a new customs union. It will regain at least partial control over immigration from our European partner states, and workers’ rights will continue to be protected.

‘I acknowledge that there would still be problems to overcome. But I would remind members that the Norwegian prime minister is on record as saying that her government will help to find solutions to those problems if the UK seeks to join the European Free Trade Association.

‘Mr Speaker, this is about so much more than whether we leave the EU, important though that is. This is about who we are, and who we want to be. It is not merely about limiting damage. It is about rebuilding a fractured union. A union in which everyone feels they have a role to play and can make a contribution that will be valued. Whether they live in Stockport or Stockwell; Boston or Brighton, Motherwell or Muswell Hill. Whether their parents were born in Mogadishu or Mumbai, Kandahar or Kinshasa; Nouakchott or N’Djamena.

‘Over the past few days, members of this House have shown that they can – if I may use the phrase – take back control. So let us put this dismal chapter behind us. Let us lift our gaze and work for a better future. A better Britain in a better Europe. Mr Speaker, we can do it. We must do it. It is our duty to do it.’

(Author’s note: if you’d like to hear an MP actually deliver this speech, or something like it, by all means send it to your own MP with my compliments.)