The last two weeks at Westminster have confirmed one bit of received wisdom: it’s better to have them inside the tent, pissing out, than outside the tent, pissing in. Especially if you’re still inside the tent.
In a fortnight, the Independent Group appears to have achieved from outwith the two main parties what internal pressure has failed to over two-and-a-half years.
Even by the standards of the last six months, Tuesday and Wednesday were pretty dramatic, with significant U-turns on opposite sides of the Commons.
First, Jeremy Corbyn accepted that he had to throw Labour’s full weight behind a second EU referendum. Then Theresa May caved in to the threat of further resignations from her Government and her party, and allowed MPs a vote on extending Article 50 and potentially preventing a no-deal Brexit.
Throw in the suspension of Chris Williamson after he said Labour was “too apologetic” over claims of anti-Semitism – a repudiation of one of Corbyn’s closest allies that it is difficult to imagine happening even a month ago – and it’s clear that the threat of a total fracturing of the two main parties has changed the dynamic and eased the deadlock.
So, time to rejoice? Certainly the happiest looking MPs around Westminster are the Independent Group. Their political careers were probably over, with deselection beckoning. They now know their line in the history books is secured, and they’ve settled some scores while doing what they believe is right.
For the rest of us, it’s a little more complicated. The Prime Minister has offered MPs a vote on a “short, limited” extension of Article 50 – but only if her deal is defeated. Sources close to Downing Street claim that if the deal is signed off on 12 March, there is enough time left to get the six major pieces of legislation plus the Withdrawal Agreement Implementation Bill through the Commons. Members of the cabinet aren’t convinced.
A “short, limited” delay to Brexit is probably necessary even if MPs back the deal in two weeks’ time. It is utterly inadequate if MPs reject it. The Government’s own analysis – grudgingly released at the behest of Anna Soubry, shortly before she quit to join the Independent Group – admits Whitehall, businesses and ordinary citizens are woefully unprepared to leave the EU without a deal.
Even if a short extension were enough, in the aftermath of a second Commons defeat for the Brexit deal, it’s doubtful whether the EU would grant it. Members states are tired of the drift, and while they would also pay the price of a no-deal exit, they at least have benefit of being able to pick over the scraps as investment quits the UK.
Meanwhile, the belated acceptance of a second EU referendum by the Labour front bench also leaves precious little time to actually bring one about – not just because Brexit day looms, but because there remains no clear path to get it through the Commons.
So much effort has gone into convincing Corbyn to back a second EU referendum that its leading proponents don’t really know how they’re going to win over the people who need to vote for it to make it a reality: Tory rebels.
Despite the shake-up over the past fortnight, it’s still a month until what is currently set to be a no-deal Brexit. The Brexit rebels may think their stand came just in time. For the country, they may have been too late.