Now is the time for Parliament to assert its will over Brexit, writes Richard Leonard
Theresa May is not the first Tory prime minister in modern times to be rocked and overpowered by a political crisis because of Europe.
But she has carved out a special place in that hall of infamy because of her incompetent handling of the Brexit negotiations and her arrogant, foolish, ill-judged treatment of the House of Commons. The Sunday papers at the weekend were full of talk about a coup to take her out. As things stand we do not yet know where that will end. But it is not just Theresa May who must be removed but the whole sorry lot.
If we look back over the course of the last thirty years it is remarkable just how often the Tories have boiled over with internal Tory rancour over this one issue.
Europe has now poisoned the premierships of the last four Tories to hold that office, including the current one. It is true that Margaret Thatcher faced revolt in the streets with the Poll Tax but it was over Europe that many of her own parliamentary party rebelled. John Major was ground down by trench warfare on the backbenches and Eurosceptic “bastards” in his Cabinet. David Cameron caved in to the Brexiteers and the threat of Ukip, believing he could fend them off with a referendum he would surely win. Instead he divided the country and destroyed his premiership.
The Tories have imposed their decades-long crisis on the rest of us. The wider interests of the country have been sacrificed in the narrow interests of the Tory Party. And even by that measure it has failed. There is chaos because of Theresa May’s attempt to push through a deal that no one really wants.
There is dismay in Europe, in Parliament, and amongst the public about the way in which Theresa May has dealt with this process. She withdrew the meaningful vote in December, put it off to January – and lost in record breaking fashion. She put it off to March a second time – and resoundingly lost again. In response she tried for a moment to resort to some dangerous sub-Trump, anti-politics Parliament and MP-bashing. It spectacularly backfired, driving away the very MPs she needed to be bringing around.
Even if May’s critics in the Cabinet are able to hammer out a mechanism to remove her, the crisis will not go away. It is far too ingrained in the politics of the Conservative Party. And Scottish Conservatives are not at all immune from this. In fact, Ruth Davidson and David Mundell have been amongst the most loyal and ardent supporters of May throughout her leadership. Scottish Conservatives MPs in Westminster have propped her up. They have played no useful role in this and nor can they. They have shown that when spin is overcome by substance Scottish Conservatives are not some liberal oasis in a party of villains – they are every bit as culpable for Theresa May’s leadership failure as the representatives of the Tory shires.
So regardless of Theresa May’s fate, we need a change of government and a change of direction, not simply a change in the occupant of Number 10 Downing Street. A general election will allow a government to be formed that is capable of not only looking beyond the internal divisions of the Conservative Party but which will also start to address once again those matters that are simply beyond the political framework of the Tories, from investment in our people, communities and services, to public transport and climate change.
In times past, with parliamentary defeat after parliamentary defeat on such a defining policy of the government’s principle basis for office, the impulse for a general election would be unstoppable. And I firmly believe that the conditions have been created for this to still be where we reach.
A general election is the best way for the nations and regions of the UK to move forward, but I accepted that we are not going to the polls this week. In the absence of a functioning Conservative government, Parliament will have to act.
Millions have petitioned for article 50 to be revoked. The weekend saw public mobilisation for another referendum. The Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament have taken a joint position opposing a no deal outcome. At our conference earlier this month Scottish Labour agreed that in pursuit of our objective of preventing either no deal or May’s deal from inflicting economic damage on the people of Scotland we will move an amendment in Parliament in favour of a public vote, with a credible leave option and remain on the ballot paper.
In the days to come the House of Commons has an opportunity to move the country beyond May’s catastrophic failure. It is the best immediate prospect for averting the worst possible conclusion.
Labour has been trying to break the deadlock by talking to MPs from across Parliament. We continue to press and look for common ground around our proposals for a permanent and comprehensive UK-wide customs union with the EU, and close alignment with the single market underpinned by shared institutions and obligations. Theresa May on the other hand has resisted real engagement. Her meetings with the official opposition and the other parties have been a sham, as indeed was her earlier engagement with business leaders and trades unions.
Now is the time for Parliament to assert its will. The Executive is in crisis: in office but not in power. If the will of Parliament cannot be delivered by the government, then it must go to the country and a general election should be called. Because in the end, we need leaders who are selfless, who are prepared to act not in their own self-interest but in the wider common interest.
Not pursuing an arid agenda of closed and defensive nationalism: whether Scottish or British, but seeking to extend horizons and offer a vision of hope that holds out the prospect of a better future. And that will inspire an engaged electorate, a people prepared to demand not simply national sovereignty but popular sovereignty, and so a renovation and a deepening of democracy itself.
Only Labour is able and ready to provide that leadership.