Mission impossible: heading to Brussels

Brexit in the balance

The Commons vote does not change the bigger picture, notes Paul Demarty

The pre-Socratic philosophers, Parmenides and Zeno, are remembered chiefly for their arguments by paradox that motion is an illusion, and that it is logically impossible for one faster-moving body to catch up with another.

No more recent thinkers have prepared us so well for the limitless toing and froing in the House of Commons at the present time, as it tries to pick its way through the factional interests of various layers of the political class, the state interests of the UK and the widespread suspicion - on the part of ‘leave’ and ‘remain’ voters alike - that none of them have a clue what they are doing. There is the clear impression of movement, but we rarely seem to have moved terribly far - or qualitatively closer to the goal.

The January 29 ‘crunch votes’ were the result of Theresa May’s defeat two weeks ago, when the withdrawal deal painstakingly negotiated by her minions with the European powers finally met its reckoning. The question begged was: what next? The answer, apparently, is déjà vu all over again. May brought her parliamentary colleagues a motion, purely indicative, about the government’s next steps. It has served as a blank canvas for all her opponents (and supporters) to pursue their interests.

In the end, three amendments were pertinent. Firstly, Graham Brady - chair of the 1922 Committee, which represents backbench Tories - proposed to add text about abandoning the existing backstop agreement concerning the Irish border in favour of unspecified alternative arrangements. In such a form it was unacceptable, but many conciliators in the different Tory factions decided to use it as the basis for hashing out a compromise. The one that eventually emerged, and gained the support of No10 and victory on the Commons floor, was Kit Malthouse’s version, that offered remainers a longer transition period, and in return declared breezily that technological solutions would be found to avoid a hard Irish border in the event of some disaster.

Secondly, there was Yvette Cooper’s and Nick Boles’s attempt to table a debate on a bill, drawn up by Cooper, that - if passed - would rule out a no-deal Brexit and prepare the ground to delay the completion of article 50 by nine months. The third, moved by the liberal Tory, Caroline Spelman, explicitly condemned the no-deal scenario, but did not - like Cooper/Boles - commit parliament to discussing legislation ruling it out.

The parliamentary layout began to fall back to the partisan dividing lines, albeit with visible tensions between the parties’ respective factions. The Labour leadership came out in support of Cooper’s amendment, in line with its public rejection of a no-deal Brexit, but was careful to make known that it would table amendments to Cooper’s bill, specifically to shorten the proposed delay.

The Malthouse amendment, meanwhile, did at least have the distinct benefit of actually representing a real compromise among the various Conservative factions. That must be its only benefit, however. As it gathered support, political pundits multiplied their stories of anonymous “senior Tories” agreeing to it, in despair at getting through the day otherwise, yet fully aware that it would never pass muster in Europe. Hours before the votes actually took place in parliament, the EU 27 had already prepared a statement to be issued in the event of the Brady amendment (and, impliedly, the Malthouse compromise) passing; a firm no to any renegotiations.

Leave it to IT?

One of the aforementioned “senior Tories” claimed that the compromise brought his party from farce back into tragedy - no longer squabbling like children, but uniting on principle and preparing to go down, thus united, in some foreign field.

Yet a recurring impression, as this absurd kabuki dance moves from one step to the next, is how ridiculous the Brexiteers actually are in their aspirations. An IT professional like your humble correspondent can hardly resist a pop at the purely notional ‘technological solutions’ to the hard-border problem. There is, if nothing else, the small matter that huge government IT projects - how to put this? - do not enjoy an unblemished record of success. Disasters abound, from the NHS to the ministry of defence. There are successes too; but it is a pretty big chance to take.

On top of that, a computerised system is just peachy when it comes to good-faith border-crossers, but how exactly is it supposed to catch smugglers? That is a pretty hairy AI problem, Mr Malthouse; avoiding it demands either fairly hard borders or a customs union … Can anyone have imagined that this is the magic ingredient that will convince Messrs Tusk, Barnier and co that the backstop agreement can be radically revised? Yet magic ‘technology’ has been a mainstay of Brexiteer question-begging since the get-go. We wonder sometimes if Jacob Rees-Mogg has even used a computer: nothing else could account for his naivety on this front.

And indeed, we have to assume that none of this was primarily for a European audience. Getting the Brady amendment through parliament may look like the final few drops of urine on the grave of May’s deal, but it has advantages: it absolves her from the charge of ignoring parliament, which removes one of the preconditions Jeremy Corbyn imposes on her, but not all the world’s terrorist leaders, and authorises her to troop off to Brussels, get told ‘no’, come back and ask her MPs, ‘Now what?’

The result - victory for Brady and Spelman, defeat for Cooper - settles nothing in this regard. Indeed, it commits parliament, admittedly loosely, to two sharply contradictory positions: avoiding a no-deal Brexit at any cost, and rejecting the deal the opposing negotiators are actually prepared to make. Something has to break. In spite of no doubt unpleasant encounters to come on the continent, we must consider this a narrow victory for May’s government. Corbyn has signalled he will now talk, she has forced her own head-bangers to vote with her, and she has the advantage … until the next vote.

Fundamentally, however, the position has not altered. The government’s inability to get a realistic withdrawal deal, from the point of view of the European powers, will lead to continued pressure and more terroristic statements from major industrial concerns. Remainer manoeuvres are seen, by Brexit voters, as sabotage - accurately, as far as these things go. Perhaps the most worrying sign for the British bourgeoisie is how straightforwardly partisan the votes were. The raw materials of a national government of the ‘sensible’ are there in the Commons, but they quite spectacularly failed to come together - even speculatively - on Tuesday.

Perhaps that does improve May’s leverage in Europe - marginally. She cannot negotiate her way out of the backstop with ‘technology’, of course; but she can claim with somewhat greater plausibility that she has forced more of her tormentors to show their hand, and is thus in a better position to get a ‘compromise’ - even one wholly on her side - through an exhausted parliament. Time will tell.