Opinion: time for Parliament to turn the tables

By on 21/03/2019
Standing alone: the PM this week set herself up in opposition to her own Parliament (Image courtesy Number 10/Flickr).

On Wednesday, UK PM Theresa May argued that parliamentary resistance to her Brexit plan was damaging trust in democracy. But forcing the country to choose between a terrible deal and utter chaos would create much greater harm; Matt Ross argues that MPs should take control, and create a new way forward

Chaos, division and uncertainty. The Brexit project, whose architects claimed it would return sovereignty and global influence to the UK, has brought the country to its worst international humiliation in decades. It has divided the country, the House of Commons, and both main parties. It has sparked a culture war, and set pragmatists against ideologues; prime minister against Parliament; and one half of the Cabinet against the other.

The UK has just had to beg the EU for a few weeks’ grace before we crash out of the union. There is no exit deal in place, and a fragmented country cannot agree a way forward. At such moments, great leaders seek to bring the country together – reaching across the divisions with messages of hope, unity and common purpose. Think Mandela, Lincoln or Brexiter hero Churchill.

Instead, on Wednesday prime minister Theresa May sought to rally the public against Parliament – accusing MPs of “infighting” and “political games”. Do MPs, she asked, “not want to leave [the EU] at all, causing irreparable damage to public trust – not just in this generation of politicians, but to our entire democratic process?” Parliament has, she added, “done everything possible to avoid making a choice.”

The definition of chutzpah

This, from a PM who’s proved so incapable of making a choice that her Withdrawal Agreement leaves every key decision on the future UK-EU relationship to the post-exit trade talks. This, from a politician whose own backbenchers tried to unseat her just three months ago, and whose party is so riven with infighting that she’s had more ministers resign since the May 2017 election than quit during Margaret Thatcher’s 11.5 years as PM.

There’s a handy Yiddish word: chutzpah, best defined as the ability to kill both your parents then plead for mercy because you’re an orphan.

But May’s approach was not just hypocritical; it was foolish and counterproductive. Because to get her deal through Parliament, May needs the votes of those MPs she attacked on Wednesday night. And dividing people into goodies and baddies does not make the people you’re calling baddies want to join your side; it just pisses them off. Reactions to May’s speech were hostile across the political spectrum; that evening, a BBC News show was unable to find a single person backing her speech.

Coming to the crunch

Fake smiles and haunted eyes: Theresa May and EU president Donald Tusk (Image courtesy:
Arno Mikkor (EU2017EE)/Flickr).

May’s speech represented yet another attempt to force the House of Commons to vote through her Withdrawal Agreement. And the EU, having finally lost patience with the tortuous Brexit process, is now bringing its own pressure to bear – giving MPs a choice between backing May’s deal and winning enough time to get crucial legislation through, or facing a no deal exit on 12 April.

It sounds like a threat – but in such a divided country, a threat to one faction can look like a promise to another. And the EU’s offer puts Tory and DUP Brexiters under pressure to finally back May’s deal, for fear that – should it fall at the third attempt – the Commons’ moderates will finally take the scissors away from May’s administration, and plot a course away from hard Brexit.

A way through?

They have occasionally made a grab for the sharp implements – forcing policy changes. Crucially, in December 2017, Tory backbencher Dominic Grieve secured the amendment requiring her to hold a ‘meaningful vote’ on her agreement: had he not, the deal would long since have been done. But MPs, reluctant to wrest power from the executive – and thus risk being painted as ‘enemies of the people’ – have tended to back down when the government gives a little ground, foregoing hard legislative powers in favour of promises from the PM.

They were foolish. In June 2018, another Grieve amendment – one that would have given the Commons powers to direct the government’s actions if it lost its meaningful vote – failed to make it onto the statute book after Tory rebels backed down. That vote has since been lost twice, but May remains in the driving seat; if those rebels knew then what they know now, no way they’d have faltered.

Last week, backbench Labour MP Hilary Benn brought an amendment that would have given MPs the opportunity to hold a series of ‘indicative votes’, in which MPs would be asked their views on softer forms of Brexit and a second referendum – with the goal of finding majority support for an agreed way forward, and taking that back to the EU. It fell by just two votes.

Another U-turn

The same day, Cabinet Office minister David Lidington appeared to offer the Commons an indicative vote process – telling the Commons that if May’s deal had not been approved by the time of the European Council meeting scheduled for 21 March, “the Government’s commitment is that we would, in the two weeks following the European Council, consult through the usual channels with other parties and work to provide a process by which the House could form a majority on how to take things forward.”

This represented a threat to the hard Brexiters, who fear that the moderates would seize control of the agenda; but it was all front. On Monday, Commons Speaker John Bercow blocked her attempt to hold a third vote on the WA, citing a convention under which the government may not bring the same legislation twice in a single parliamentary session. So May’s threat became useless to her; and on Wednesday, she dropped the pledge, telling veteran Tory MP Ken Clarke that the House has had the opportunity to test other options “and those have been rejected.”

This is true in the narrowest possible sense, as MPs have occasionally managed to secure amendment divisions; one calling for a second referendum fell last week, for example, when Labour whipped its MPs to abstain. But the reality is that May has consistently tried to deny the House an opportunity to express its will – fearing that if it could create an alternative way forward, her unloved deal would be truly dead.

So May doesn’t want the House to seek a majority view. But MPs could, over the coming week, find ways to hold those votes. Or they could seek to amend the Withdrawal Agreement, passing it but with the proviso that a referendum is held – pitting the WA against Remain.

Labour’s position is crucial; and party leader Jeremy Corbyn has not yet himself proposed a deal the EU will accept. But he seems to be inching towards accepting freedom of movement: a key requirement of Single Market membership. Then the Commons could seek a clear majority for a realistic, softer Brexit, or a deal passed with a referendum amendment – and instruct the PM to take it back to Brussels.

But would the EU wear it?

The EU just wants Brexit to go away; and over the years, quiet hopes that the UK might change its own mind have been replaced by a resigned determination to get on with it. But when EU leaders step back from their frustrations with May and the sclerotic, agonising process of negotiations, they know that any form of Brexit would weaken the union – and the harder the Brexit, the more damaging it would be.

So whilst some leaders – most vocally France’s Emmanuel Macron – have sounded ready to accept a no deal exit, the EU’s position is not set in stone. The EU does not break its key principles (hence the dashing of the Brexiters’ promises on the inseparable rock of the ‘four freedoms’), but its politics are eminently flexible and its rules adaptable; were they not, the union could never have survived this long.

Even as Tusk set out his view that only a short extension was available – and even that dependent on the WA’s passing Parliament – he also hinted that a longer extension could also be granted at an emergency EU summit next week. And EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier had earlier that day hinted that if the House of Commons were to coalesce around a softer form of Brexit, the EU would be willing to reopen negotiations. “I recall this Political Declaration which sets out the framework for our future could be made more ambitious in the coming days if a majority in the House of Commons so wish,” he said.

In the EU’s latest statement, its leaders appear to be giving May one more shot at getting her deal through, whilst making space – should she fail – for the moderates to seize the reins. May has already suggested that rejecting the WA again would result in the UK having to stand candidates in the EU elections, meaning that the 12 April leave date would be deferred past July.

Commons Speaker John Bercow this week prevented the PM from bringing her deal back to Parliament for a third time (Image courtesy: UK in Japan- FCO/Flickr).

And would May?

This would, though, require a PM willing to manage this process. So if the UK PM was denied her WA and told to seek a softer Brexit by MPs, would she stick to her guns – driving the UK over the no deal cliff edge? Nobody can know; but her promises and commitments have lost much of their currency over the last couple of years. She denied point blank that she’d hold a general election – until she called one. She repeatedly said that she’d bring her WA to the Commons on 10 December, only to swerve at the last moment. She told the Commons dozens of times that she’d never seek an extension to Article 50 – and now she’s asking for one.

Just last week, she told Parliament that if her deal wasn’t approved this week, she’d ask for a long extension to Article 50. Cabinet Office minister David Lidington even told the Commons that if it refused to back May’s deal, then seeking “a short, and critically, one-off extension would be downright reckless”: it would defer the crunch point, without providing a way to overcome the Parliamentary gridlock. If the House had not backed May’s deal by Thursday 21 March, he said, “the only viable extension would be a long one.” The threat was designed to push hard Brexiters – who fear that a long extension would provide time for a referendum, reversing Brexit – into backing the WA.

Then Commons Speaker John Bercow blocked her third vote. And May turned 180 degrees, seeking a short extension; again her threat had been hollow, for she is too scared of breaking up the Tory party to face down its hard Brexiters.

So May is someone who swears blind that she’s sticking to her word, right up until the moment when she doesn’t.

And she knows just how damaging a no deal exit would be to the UK; for all her faults, the PM reads her briefing papers. Hence the disappearance of her “No deal is better than a bad deal” rhetoric – once a staple of every speech. For all her warnings about how a second referendum would undermine faith in democracy or cause riots, she knows that a chaotic exit would cause far more damage on both fronts.

Earlier this week, arch-leaver Nigel Farage’s much-trumpeted ‘Brexit Betrayal’ march from Sunderland to London attracted just 300 people. But a no deal exit could quickly produce empty supermarket shelves, medicine shortages, spiralling inflation and disrupted international transport – leading to a genuine civil unrest problem.

Like the EU’s leaders, most Brits just want Brexit done with: if Leave voters end up with Remain, their disillusion will grow; but that’s a better outcome than either chaotic no deal or another ten years of agonising wrangling from a position of weakness. The reality is that if Brexit was stopped, the vast majority of the country would sigh – many in relief; many in disappointment – then shrug, and get on with their lives. 

Stop playing her game

Despite all Theresa May’s bluster, her decisions have never been driven by the requirements of democracy or the best interests of the British public: her over-riding priority has always been to avoid a Tory party split. To keep the Conservatives in one piece, she’s continually tacked towards the hard Brexiters’ position; and her calculation that Remain and soft Brexit Tories would at every stage fold rather than prompt that split – risking a general election – has, so far, proved correct. From the moment that former PM David Cameron decided to hold a referendum, Brexit has been shaped almost exclusively by two forces: the Conservatives’ internal divisions; and the personality of its leader.

And why should the Commons vote through a deal universally recognised as worse than the status quo? Determined to preserve her ‘red line’ of ending Freedom of Movement, May has agreed a deal that leaves the UK powerless and economically marginalised, while unable to realise the supposed advantages of Brexit. If by December 2022 a trade deal hasn’t been agreed that avoids a hard border on the island of Ireland, the country would be pitched into very uncomfortable ‘backstop’ arrangements. The Political Declaration accompanying the agreement envisages trade talks in which the EU would start with most of its goals on goods, whilst the UK begins with almost nothing on services – leaving the UK at a big disadvantage. And the 2022 deadline would, like its Article 50 predecessor, hand all the leverage to the EU.

Among Remainers and Brexiters alike, the deal is seen as a trap, throwing the UK into another cycle of chaotic negotiations from an equally weak position. Even its defenders – including May – argue only that it respects the referendum mandate; not that it is better than remaining in the EU.

The rules are skewed

May’s deal may yet pass. Key groups in Parliament, as Global Government Forum noted last month, still have an interest in letting the clock tick towards doomsday. And this serves May’s interests, pushing moderates towards her deal as the least bad of two options. No deal is a real possibility: at this point, the cock-up theory of history has powerful fresh evidence. But the moderates have ultimately folded at every point so far; it remains the case, as Global Government Forum argued in November, that May’s terrible Withdrawal Agreement has a decent chance of passing.

Yet there is a cowed – and, so far, cowardly – Remain majority in Parliament. And over recent weeks, many MPs have lost both all faith in May’s promises, and much of their fear in her threats. So over the coming days, we may see more Commons moves to take control of the House’s agenda; a major demonstration in favour of a ‘People’s Vote’, scheduled for this Saturday, should give MPs greater confidence and political cover to move against harder forms of Brexit.

If the Commons built a majority around a way forward, would the PM accept it? We cannot know – but if she rejected it, threatening the country with a chaotic no deal unless it accepted her chosen solution, the public would draw their own conclusions. And at that point, the tables would have been turned on May, presenting her with a binary choice: join the hard Brexiters in a disastrous no deal exit, or accept the will of Parliament and find another way forwards. Party loyalty would meet public duty head on; and we would finally learn exactly what drives Theresa May.

But one thing is clear. Either the House of Commons’ moderate majority seize control of this process, or the UK is set for either cliff-edge exit or disastrous deal. It is time for Parliament to exercise the sovereignty for which Leave campaigners said they were fighting, put aside the cricket gear, and start playing hardball. For that’s the game the hard Brexiters are playing – and they’re close to a winning score.

About Matt Ross

Matt is a journalist and editor specialising in public services, policymaking, government and management. He was the editor of trade title Civil Service World from 2008 to 2014, serving an audience of senior UK officials; and the features editor of weekly news magazine Regeneration & Renewal between 2002 and 2008, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development. He has also been a motoring and travel journalist, and now combines his role as editorial director of Global Government Forum with writing for other publications including The Guardian and Planning magazine.

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