Update, 10/12/2018, evening. It seems Prime Minister Theresa May decided to postpone the vote – no surprise there. What happens now is anybody’s guess.
Brussels, 10/12/2018. Channel 4’s excellent ‘The Real Brexit Debate’ last night was thought provoking. Four UK Members of Parliament; James Cleverly, Barry Gardner, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Caroline Lucas, all made very strong points, on principles as well as detail. I could not fault any of the presentations, even if they didn’t help me, or anyone else really, come to a decision on what might be the best direction at this point for Members of the House of Commons.
Theresa May’s Brexit deal is being voted on in the UK Parliament tomorrow. The government is pulling out all the stops to get MPs to support the deal, but right now the strength of opposition, right across the political spectrum, among MPs is such that it seems to have little chance of success.
However the opponents to the deal come from many different camps, and even if they ally to defeat the government position, parties as diverse as UKIP and the Greens will certainly not be in alliance after the vote.
From my perspective in Brussels, the EU institutions are as keen as UKgov to see the deal accepted. Because if it falls, the alternatives are grim. Whatever happens afterwards, a new Tory leader, a general election or a people’s vote, will mean months of delay. A rejected deal will bring repercussions for the next elections for the European Parliament and the appointment of a new Commission. And it is not too far-fetched to perceive knock-on affects on voter attitudes across Europe.
For these reasons, the more hard-nosed Brexiteers see a lost vote as, put crudely, a hammer to beat the EU with. Others may view it as giving sound democratic reasons to debate the details of the Brexit deal again.
I have said before (see here) that I think Brexit is the best future direction for Britain vav. Europe in the long term, and I have not changed my view. But the deal negotiated with the EU does seem a very hard one for Britain, considering it remains the 5th largest economy in the world. For this I blame successive British Brexit negotiators in their failure to play hardball with the European Commission (Maggie Thatcher must be chewing on her handbag).
For the purists then, perhaps the deal deserves to be rejected, and everyone be forced to start again. But we are in uncharted territory here, and the Brexit debate is becoming poisonous. It is so divisive within British society now that families are split, individuals will not speak to others of the opposite opinion, and even personal relationships are being destabilised. Brexit is not so much debated now as shouted about, thanks to a lack of reasoned explanation of the detail from much of the British media.
Even Jeremy Corbyn’s approach of pushing for a general election, usually a sound political principle for any opposition, is let down by a lack of clear direction from Labour on what it plans to do. In the event of a government defeat, will the opposition ask for a vote of no confidence in the government? We don’t know, because no-one has said.
Of course in the present febrile political atmosphere, alliances are changing so fast that no-one, government included, seems to know quite what will happen next. Today’s announcement from the European Court of Justice that the UK could reverse the Article 50 withdrawal process without penalty has simply added to the confusion.
For most people, the abiding reaction must be that this is no way to run a country. It has already been said in numerous vox-pop news reports, ‘We’ve had the vote – I wish they’d just get on with it.’ And while such a view might be considered as typical from the leavers, it is becoming more widespread as people become sick of the subject.
It seems to me that what is needed above all is a clear sense of direction from the UK government. In an ideal world, Britain would have a strong, unified leadership capable of dealing with an issue as fundamental to the country’s future as Brexit.
What we have instead is a weak government. One which, with clearer leadership from Labour and without the machiavellian plotting within the Tory party, should have been subject to a general election months ago. We could by now have had a government of national unity dealing with the detailed issues within Brexit, instead of the present shambolic stumbling from one obstacle to the next.
Individuals and businesses within the UK and across the whole of the EU need to be reassured that progress is being made, any kind of progress. Brexit now is not just a question of businesses planning for future regulations, it has become a much more fundamental issue, one of confidence in government.
The problems caused by rejection in the House of Commons now will be much worse thanks to today’s ECJ announcement. Those who voted Remain will feel newly empowered by the ECJ ruling, while the bitterness felt by those who believe they are being betrayed by the metropolitan classes will only increase.
When I started writing this article yesterday, I intended to close it by urging MPs to support Theresa May’s deal. However imperfect, it is one agreed by the EU, and I believed that signing it and moving on was the most important action to be taken right now. Accepting the deal would be a significant step forward in the Brexit process, and enable politicians and businesses, let alone individual voters, on both sides of the Channel to breathe a sigh of relief.
As a seasoned Brussels observer I was also going to say that Britain could learn from the actions of certain other key actors among the EU member states. If a deal becomes too onerous, then it can be renegotiated at a later date as circumstances change. The point is that a deal is meant to benefit both parties, if one side feels it has been exploited there is always the option to change it (even if that is an expensive option).
And I was going to mention that, without naming any names, there are enough examples of dubious political or financial behaviour at EU member-state level, e.g. state aid, unfair financial arrangements, et al. And any objections to such behaviour can become bogged down in European courts for years.
Now, this morning, I have changed my mind. The ECJ ruling complicates the issue so much, that any vote tomorrow in the House of Commons would no longer be meaningful. Even MPs accepting the deal would be regarded with such bitterness by Remainers that it would become even more disruptive.
I no longer believe there is any hope for the Brexit bill as presented. Thanks to today’s European ruling, there is only one possible course for the UK government, and that is to delay the vote.
It is true that delaying the vote plays into the hands of those who suspect ‘wealthy metropolitans’ of trying to subvert the result of the last referendum. But it may be that now is the right time for a Parliamentary vote on the issue of no confidence. That the government should fall. And that the next one should be a coalition or one of ‘national unity’. But what UK citizens need above all right now is a government that they can support, one in which they can have confidence.
I do not see at this moment an alternative to Theresa May as Prime Minister. But neither do I see any solution to the constant plotting within the Tory party to undermine her. I believe that at this time Britain needs a national leadership, not a party political one. And that a coalition government is probably the only way to achieve this.
What we really need is another Winston. That Churchill made many mistakes is true, but he also provided leadership, a sense that here was a figure people could rally behind even if they didn’t like some of his motives.
We don’t have a Winston Churchill. But perhaps we can have a government of national unity to deal with Brexit. It is a serious enough issue.
And just as a reminder:
” … in the city of the just, a malignant seed is hidden, in its turn: the certainty and pride of being in the right – and of being more just than many others who call themselves more just than the just. This seed ferments in bitterness, rivalry, resentment; and the natural desire of revenge on the unjust is coloured by a yearning to be in their place and to act as they do.” Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities.
© Philip Hunt, 2018.