The Brexit crisis is deeper and more calamitous than most imagine. We must change course now, writes Lesley Riddoch
Another weekend, another wave of Brexit-related chaos – but perhaps a weekend when MPs finally accept that the future authority of parliamentary democracy depends on their intervention now.
Theresa May has delayed her flagship EU withdrawal bill in the face of a threatened rebellion by pro-European Tory MPs working across party lines to rewrite it. The bill was expected to begin eight days of detailed scrutiny in the Commons this week, but that timetable has slipped as the prime minister tries to head off multiple rebellions.
A Europhile group including former Tory chancellor Kenneth Clarke, several Conservative ex-ministers and prominent Labour, SNP, Liberal Democrat and Green MPs aim to give parliament the ability to veto, or somehow legally prevent a “bad deal” or “no deal” outcome.
At last MPs seem to have woken up to the car crash being perpetrated in their names and have stopped expecting campaigner Gina Miller to defend parliamentary democracy for them.
If Brexit is now visibly falling apart – and it is – MPs in the two main Westminster parties must abandon the blind pursuit of power, abandon the pretence that any aspect of Brexit is on course and accept that the European Referendum of 2016 was advisory not binding. It has suited everyone to ignore this inconvenient detail.
The SNP hardly want to create the precedent of allowing Westminster MPs to thwart the popular will expressed in a referendum, but the circumstances surrounding Brexit are now so serious, a rethink is needed. MPs are elected to vote for what they believe to be in the interests of Britain. Yet we have an absurd situation where the majority of MPs believe Brexit to be deeply dangerous, yet allow the parliamentary process to hurple on, knowing that if they insist on change, demand minimum standards of transparency, or try to protect the competence of devolved assemblies and parliaments, they will derail the process hopelessly and entirely.
Yet raise these important issues, MPs must.
Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs still want guarantees that devolved powers transferred from the EU are passed directly to Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast. And the former Tory attorney-general, Dominic Grieve, is leading pressure for Mrs May to water down sweeping “Henry VIII powers” in the bill which let ministers make big Brexit-related legislative changes without parliamentary scrutiny.
And yet these serious questions aren’t the biggest stumbling blocks.
Internal cabinet bickering has now reached such a crescendo that Theresa May is being pressed to fire both Philip Hammond and Boris Johnson, when she lacks the authority to sack her dry cleaners and cannot possibly hope to keep the “strong and stable” blather going for another week if her Chancellor and Foreign Secretary must be shown the door. In any case, the in-fighting has already done the damage – Theresa May revealed last week that her government is spending £250 million on preparations for a possible “no deal” result because negotiations with Brussels have stalled.
That’s not an inconvenient amber light – that’s a Brexit car in need of a pit stop, or indeed a scrapyard. Already.
The curious thing is the casual way those with recent experience of Westminster describe the developing omnishambles. On John Pienaar’s Sunday Radio 5 Politics programme, the former head of the civil service Sir Bob Kerslake didn’t pull his punches.
“Every time you think [Brexit] can’t get any worse, it does. I’m naturally optimistic but you have to work hard to see glimmers of hope. The cabinet is behaving like a scene from Reservoir Dogs with extra tomato sauce thrown in.
“We need at least a four-year transition period and we are nowhere near starting proper talks about trading relationships because we need to sort the payment issue out. £50 billion looks like a lot of money but in the scheme of government spending, it isn’t. This should simply have been agreed, but Theresa May has been held back by hardliners. Even this critical period for reflection is being eaten up by the dog fight within the Cabinet.”
Meanwhile, Theresa May spent last week wooing Saudi princes and letting it be known that Britain is prepared to bend the rules to let Saudi oil giant Aramco be listed on the London Stock Exchange.
But she’s taken no tough stand against Donald Trump’s decision to impose 300 per cent tariffs on imports of C-Series jets made by the Canadian aircraft manufacturer Bombardier which employs 4,000 people in Northern Ireland.
With “allies” and possible trading partners like these we should be worried. When we survey the world’s countries and discover that only five exist without a regional trade agreement of some kind, we should be very worried. When we realise no other complex issue will be dealt with properly for perhaps a decade as both Holyrood and Westminster are paralysed – voters should react.
Instead, many have completely switched off – not because of the fiendish complexity of Brexit but because the Westminster party system makes a rational solution nigh on impossible. An anonymous comment on a Financial Times article last week explains the predicament perfectly;
“The Labour leadership, while notionally pro-Remain, really want to leave while the Tory leadership, who are pushing through Brexit, are on the whole in favour of remaining. The Labour leadership has to argue half-heartedly for Remain to hold its coalition together and the Conservative leadership has to argue unconvincingly about the benefits of leaving to hold its coalition together.
A significant majority of MPs want to Remain. Most Conservative MPs are in favour of Remain but fear that if they do what is right, and oppose the government, they will pave the way for a Labour government. Most Labour MPs are also in favour of Remain but fear that, if they vote for what they believe in, they will lose seats to the Tories. Many Tories would accept that a Corbyn government, though unpleasant, would be a price worth paying to stop Brexit. Many Labour MPs would see [Corbyn’s] defeat as a price worth paying to save Labour from left wing extremism. But no one can say any of this.”
If MPs had been elected by PR, such stagnant “coalitions” would have been broken up. As it is, the survival of the two main parties depends on MPs acting across party lines to pause this disastrous episode and to take back control over Brexit.