Limping towards the cliff-edge
The government holds together for now - but the problems of Brexit will prove inescapable, reckons Paul Demarty
We were told by lobby journalists on December 12, as the Tories geared up to decide the fate of their leader, that Theresa May had been told by one backbencher, as she grovelled for her job to the 1922 committee, that “stamina is not a policy”.
We suppose she must know that in an abstract sort of a way this MP - one Lee Rowley, a yuppie Brexiteer who captured North East Derbyshire from Labour last year against the run of play - is right. Yet she does not really seem to feel it. Perhaps a staunch Christian upbringing has left her with a pervasive sense of the heroic virtue of suffering, into which nothing so vulgar as political strategy can intrude.
Jesus came to a sticky end, after all; and, while we may hope in our more civilised age that the prime minister will not suffer quite so grisly a fate at the hands of her parliamentary colleagues, we cannot demur from the Mirror’s verdict the following morning. “It’s lame duck for Christmas,” gloated the front page - “[May’s] goose is cooked” (December 13). All of this week’s drama is a matter of May and her dwindling supporters trying to regain the initiative - success still looks a long way off.
In the narrow sense, May was victorious in the vote of confidence - just as, in the narrow sense, she won the 2017 election: her party emerged as the largest in parliament and formed a government. In substance, however, last June was a disaster for her, of course, leaving her utterly paralysed for the next 18 months, with no end in sight. As for last week’s ballot of the Tory benches, it turns out that over a third of her MPs want her gone. Remove from the equation the ‘payroll vote’ - cabinet members, junior ministers, and the assorted creeps, gophers and flunkies who get paid over and above their MP’s salary for government business - and she was defeated. She was only able to get over the line by promising never to fight another general election, meaning that the British people can look forward to being rid of her no later than 2022 - though she will surely be gone long before that, unless god is an Anglophobe.
Where we were
For all the frothy action of last week, we appear to be back where we were - only somehow more so! May is weak, only weaker; parliament is running out of time, and will have to wait a month before it gets another bite at the cherry. The solutions on offer from various quarters are still bogus, only even more obviously so. May’s European jaunt was visibly disastrous by the end of last week, when it became clear that the various worthies gathered in Brussels for yet another summit were point-blank refusing to entertain any changes to the deal. Nobody expected that they would actually make concessions, of course, but it appears that the original plan was for both sides to make a good show of it and agree a mollifying text on the matter of the Irish ‘backstop’ that would give May a fig leaf. That the consensus for this approach collapsed on the European side speaks volumes - even the lowliest bureaucrat in Brussels must know that the UK parliament will not fall for such games. The only person in Europe who cannot see that, apparently, is Theresa May - blinded by pride and that can-do attitude of hers, which has long surpassed all possible satire in its perversity.
Certainly it seems not to be lost on her cabinet colleagues, who saved her skin last week, but are ever more emboldened to pursue their own agendas, with a covetous eye on the history books and - who knows? - the keys to Number 10. Several ministers popped up to promote one particular scheme, which would see a series of free, indicative votes on various Brexit scenarios, to see which commanded enough support to actually win a meaningful vote. This wizard wheeze has the support of Amber Rudd, Greg Clark, Liam Fox and Damian Hinds, but it is not hard to see the problems with it.
The Guardian’s lobby reporter, Andrew Sparrow, identified three. The first is that the government can only deliver a free vote among Tory MPs. Why on earth should Jeremy Corbyn, who is monomaniacally focused on euthanising the government, not do the opposite, and use a three-line whip to defeat all the options? Which brings us to problem number two - such a defeat is hardly impossible. The last time such a manoeuvre was tried occurred during Tony Blair’s presentation of various possible reforms to the House of Lords, which were all voted down in a farcical humiliation. In 2003, with a huge majority, Blair could survive - but can the current shambolic shit-show of an administration continue to limp down the road to the cliff’s edge?
Perhaps even worse is Sparrow’s problem three - what if the wrong option wins? The government is almost comically overcommitted to avoiding a second referendum. On December 17, May reiterated this position, in robotically similar fashion to all her previous formulations:
Let us not break faith with the British people by trying to stage another referendum: another vote which would do irreparable damage to the integrity of our politics, because it would say to millions who trusted in democracy that our democracy does not deliver.
If MPs vote handsomely for just such a rerun, May will be faced with either the mother of all U-turns, or we are basically back to square one. Governments call referenda, not indicative votes in the Commons. Can the government be got rid of? More easily, to be sure, if it is proven that a majority exists for a solution to the problem before us - which, however, the government cannot countenance. This series of free-vote schemes is, therefore, another variety of national-government talk in practice.
May is having none of it, but her only alternative is further negotiations in Europe over the festive period and a vote in the week of January 14 - and this time she means it. That further delay was enough to give Corbyn a dose of the old indicative vote fever, when he demanded a non-binding vote of confidence on May on December 17. She faced him down, however, and it seems to have been a misstep.
In the short term, May has beaten back the conciliators in her cabinet and the government will make an ostentatious display of planning for a no-deal scenario, for which purposes ‘Spreadsheet’ Phil Hammond has discovered £4 billion in the shade of the magic money tree.
As we move into the endgame of the Brexit drama, or at least the end of the beginning (all this furore, remember, only concerns the transition deal, not the future relationship with the EU), we expect the doomsday scenario to loom large. Partly this will be a matter of scaremongering, of course, as crotchety Brexit hardliners will no doubt complain; but partly it is just the logic of events. The thought that the civil service has not already been exerting huge efforts to prepare for the worst is either implausible or terrifying - more the former, we suspect. If it were the case, that would make it the only organisation of any size in Britain that was not wargaming a cliff-edge scenario. As parliamentary brinksmanship continues, with time running out, such contingency planning becomes an urgent necessity.
And so, while we frequently have cause to denounce this or that stage in the Brexit fiasco as a piece of theatre - beginning with the referendum itself - we should resist the temptation to doubt the seriousness with which the well-meaning bureaucrats, in public service and private, take the nightmare scenarios before them. Somehow a situation has to be engineered such that, whatever happens on March 29, there are not shortages of medicine, food, power and fuel on March 30.
Their efforts will, of course, be used in the cut and thrust of politics - and indeed already are. Ian Blackford, the Scottish Nationalist Party’s Westminster leader, spoke darkly of the “sobering” materials on the impact of a no-deal Brexit that had crossed his desk as a result of his sitting on the privy council, and urged the government to publish them. The government’s focus on the no-deal scenario was denounced as “psychological warfare” by Vince Cable of the Liberal Democrats, and all except the government are quite satisfied that the main issue is an attempt to browbeat parliament into supporting May’s deal - a ‘shut up or the bunny gets it’ sort of political approach.
Part of the point of this exercise is to put a scare into the Europeans, so as to obtain better terms, but that must be regarded as a piece of fantasy. The European Union - united, well-prepared and victorious in every skirmish so far - has every cause for insouciance. ‘Hard’ Brexit, should it be achieved by the swivel-eyed patriots of Albion, will no doubt result in some negative economic impact, especially in those European nations (the Irish Republic, the low countries) that trade with Britain most heavily. Yet you would have to say that it would be cheap at twice the price.
The Brussels mainstream gets to offload its most intransigent saboteur. It has a free hand to impose economic punishment on the way out, pour encourager les autres - the EU is chock-full of large and influential Eurosceptic parties, for whom the disastrous performance of the Brexiteers is a grave embarrassment. (Even Marine le Pen’s Rassemblement National now distances itself from French withdrawal.) At the same time, the core powers have made a big show of backing Ireland to the hilt: a carrot to go with the stick, and a much needed demonstration of ‘European solidarity’ after the latter was exposed as a laughable fraud by the treatment of Greece.
From this side of the channel, on the other hand, all possible outcomes look awful. There is the dislocation of a no-deal Brexit, which will surely kick the legs out from under an already-wobbling economy, with disproportionately disastrous effects on the working class and lower petty bourgeoisie. Alternatively, there is a ‘Brexit in name only’ situation, which is the most probable long-term outcome of May’s success, or a second referendum which is so engineered to produce a ‘remain’ result, learning from David Cameron’s mistakes. In both cases, the likely result will be a further shift to the right, as the rhetoric of national betrayal takes hold. As we quoted May above, “it would say to millions who trusted in democracy, that our democracy does not deliver”.
True enough words - with one caveat. What is reconfirmed in this unpleasant situation is that, whatever it was that people trusted in on that fateful day, two and a half years ago, it was not democracy. How can it be, when every possible outcome is utterly denuded of political legitimacy? Every possible retreat from the referendum result is a betrayal; every possible attempt to fulfil it is unacceptable. What lesson can be learned, then, except that plebiscites deny democracy by means of deceit, excluding the purportedly empowered voters from the decisions that actually matter, and delivering stable political results only in circumstances when they vote exactly the way they are told?