Brexit: Two-party system is being held hostage by their extremes – Christine Jardine
There were two moments over the past few days when the Westminster Parliament almost began to look like a black comedy.
One was reminiscent of the succesful dramatisation of the 1970s parliamentary crisis that became the play, This House.
The first came as MPs gathered in the House of Commons’ chamber for the start of what was billed as, potentially, yet another defining moment for Brexit, only to see semi-naked protesters super-glue themselves to the perspex screen in front of the public gallery.
Ironically, the screen has separated the public from politicians since protesters from Fathers for Justice threw flour bombs into the chamber in 2004.
This time the protest was about global warming, yet another subject which has slipped down the agenda since the ‘Deal, No-Deal or No Brexit’ drama began to dominate parliamentary life.
We have, of course, debated global warming, and the profusion of plastic waste in our seas, but these have been at the behest of backbench MPs.
The UK Government had other business.
The second came in one of those debates on another issue which has been relegated to an unacceptably low position in the league table of priorities: loan charges.
As the House debated HM Revenue and Customs’ latest wizard wheeze – to claim back money from people who took part in a tax scheme which HMRC itself said was legal at the time, but is now trying to change retrospectively – water began to run down some of the beams in the ceiling.
Worse than that, it was then discovered that this ‘water’ could be from a damaged sewage pipe and had worked its way into the electrics.
The debate was abandoned.
I doubt even the most cynical of comedy writers would have thought it a believeable plot line, but there we were.
In the Mother of Parliaments, it felt as if even the building was making a comment on proceedings and I couldn’t help but agree.
The evening before we had voted by the narrowest possible of margins to demand of our Government that it seeks an extension to article 50 to avoid crashing out of the EU without a deal – a scenario which all but the most ardent and committed Brexiteers admit would be bad for the country. Monday’s failure to find a way forward had made avoiding that worst-case scenario even more pressing. Yet one vote was all that secured victory, by 313 votes to 312.
Over the past months, many people have said to me how exciting it must be to be at the centre of a pivotal moment in our country’s history, to be making the defining decision for this and future generations.
I will probably think that in years to come.
However in truth, at the moment, I don’t think I am alone amongst MPs in feeling that the dominant emotions at Westminster are frustration and fear.
Frustration that so many of us are agreed that we need to find a way forward out of this morass and then put it to the people, but are unable to overcome the trench warfare that has come to dominate our two-party system.
Fear that if we cannot find a way to persuade those most entrenched to compromise soon, that the minority who would happily accept crashing out – and all that it might bring – will have their way.
There is still, however, one other emotion which, in the most frustrating, worrying, moments we all cling on to. Hope.
It is only a few days since the Prime Minister’s apparent refusal to accept that her third failed attempt to push her flawed deal through parliament should be her last had left the majority of us in something approaching a state of shock.
And yet we rallied, pushed through that important Yvette Cooper Bill, and then found that the EU too was prepared to help avoid that worst-case scenario. Hope.
Over this past weekend, those of us at the centre of the drama have been determined to continue the cross-party conversations that we hope will lead to compromise and wait while the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition do the same.
But, with a parliamentary system that is looking increasingly damaged by political parties held hostage by their extremes and a country holding its breath for an outcome, we cannot afford to fail.
This week there is no more road for the Government to kick the can down.
Instead the time has come to remember that while, some day, people might pay to read about or laugh at the time when a 40-year-old argument in the Conservative party created a crisis which almost paralysed the system, this is all very real.
We were elected to find a solution and it’s time that we did.
The end of the drama, or at least this act of the play, has to come soon.
The clowns have done their bit – and I’m not referring to anything that took place in the public gallery.