Richard North, 14/03/2019  
 


For Liam Fox, parliament yesterday was engaged "in the most important democratic debate in this country's history". The British people had given our parliament a clear instruction. It was, he said, time for us to determine who is the boss.

And they blew it. A fractious House of Commons listening to Mrs May's response to the vote sounded significantly less dignified than feeding time at the zoo. But, while they could compete on noise with the animals they were emulating, they would have struggled to match collective IQs, having just voted for the Spelman/Dromey amendment, seeking to rule out for all time a no-deal Brexit.

This had been disowned by its original sponsors but had been taken over by Labour's Yvette Cooper, allowing the House their fantasy motion to resolve that: "That this House rejects the United Kingdom leaving the European Union without a Withdrawal Agreement and a Framework for the Future Relationship".

The House managed to support this by 312 votes to 308, but then it came back as part of the government's amended motion, whence 321 MPs then supported the "no-deal forever" fantasy, despite government whipping, with 278 against. That brought the final majority to 43.

It was then left to the prime minister to respond to her second defeat in two days, addressing the House by way of a point of order. With no let-up in the background volume, she noted that the House had "provided a clear majority against leaving without a deal", then starting to repeat what she had said before.

This she was forced to do to a background of raucous cheers, so loud that it required the speaker to intervene. When she was finally able to continue speaking, she told the House that the votes were "about the choices this House faces". "The legal default", she said, having to repeat herself to be heard above the din," in UK and EU law, remains that the UK will leave the EU without a deal unless something else is agreed".

Now with the air of an exasperated headmistress, Mrs May spelt out that the onus was "now on every one of us in this House to find out what that is". But giving the MPs a dressing down didn't go well. "The options before us", she said, "are the same as they always have been", going on to say:
We could leave with the deal which this government has negotiated over the past two years, we could leave with the deal we have negotiated subject to a second referendum, but that would risk no Brexit at all, damaging the fragile trust between the British public and the members of this House. We could seek to negotiate a different deal. However, the EU has been clear that the deal on the table is indeed the only deal available.
This took us to the meat, where Mrs May spoke of having confirmed that if the House declined to approve leaving with a deal on the 29th March 2019, the government would bring forward a motion on whether the House supports seeking to agree an extension to Article 50 with the EU.

That motion, she declared, will set out the fundamental choice facing this House. If the House finds a way in the coming days to support a deal, it would allow the government to seek a short, limited, technical extension to Article 50 to provide time to pass the necessary legislation and ratify the agreement we have reached with the EU.

And there was the rub. Such a short, technical extension would only be likely to be on offer if we had a deal in place. Therefore, Mrs May said, "the House has to understand and accept that if it is not willing to support the deal in the coming days, and as it is not willing to support leaving without a deal on the 29th March, then it is suggesting that there will need to be a much longer extension to Article 50".

"Such an extension", she continued, "would undoubtedly require the United Kingdom to hold European Parliament elections in May 2019". And then came the denouement: "I do not think that would be the right outcome, but the House needs to face up to the consequences of the decisions it has taken".

Yet, facing up to consequences is clearly something the MP collective is not prepared to do. It is willing on the one hand to reject decisively the Withdrawal Agreement but when the necessary consequence of that is a no deal Brexit, it shies away from dealing with it.

More or less going into denial, Angela Eagle followed a little later, grandly declaring that: "The House has spoken, and the will of the House is clear". But, of Mrs May's response, she described that as "rather churlish". The prime minister's message had had no impact whatsoever.

I suppose we could take some small comfort from the fact that the "no deal forever" amendment hadn't been the only mad event of the day. There had also been the so-called Malthouse amendment, sponsored by Damian Green.

This sought a set of "mutual standstill agreements" with the EU and Member States for an agreed period ending no later than 30 December 2021, during which period the UK would pay an agreed sum equivalent to its net EU contributions.

It comes to something that the House was prepared even to consider what had already been described by Michel Barnier as a "dangerous illusion", the idea that the EU would agree to transition without the backstop.

Latterly, Sabine Weyand is said to have told EU ambassadors that the decision to vote on the motion, already rejected by Brussels umpteen times, showed that parliament was "divorced from reality".

Fortunately, only 164 MPs voted for the motion, as against 374 noes, but that marks down 164 of them who have definitely lost the plot – including Jacob Rees-Mong - more so than could possibility have been imagined at the start of the Brexit process.

But that leaves Mrs May with her motion for today which is being hailed as a prelude to yet another vote on the Withdrawal Agreement, to be put to the House next week.

This is revealed by the text of the motion, which states that, if the House has passed a resolution approving the negotiated withdrawal agreement and the framework for the future relationship by 20 March, then the government will seek from the EU a one-off Article 50 extension, ending on 30 June of this year.

My understanding is that a motion already submitted to the House and rejected cannot be resubmitted in the same session, so there will have to be some creative framing to get this in the House again. But what seems to be the case is that Mrs May has turned the tables on her tormentors.

Initially, as the sequence goes, MPs rejected the Withdrawal Agreement, which then led to a vote on the no-deal, which was to lead to a vote on an Article 50 extension as a means of avoiding (pro temp) the no deal. Now, Mrs May seems to be making the extension conditional on MPs accepting the Withdrawal Agreement.

This is set against the proposition that, should a longer extension be sought, "it is highly likely that the European Council at its meeting the following day would require a clear purpose for any extension, not least to determine its length, and any extension beyond 30 June 2019 would require the United Kingdom to hold European Parliament elections in May 2019".

The inference is clear, and the consequences are stacking up. First, it was Mrs May who had painted herself into a corner with her Lancaster House speech, but now parliament has followed suit, rejecting the deal on offer – the only deal on offer – while then contradicting itself by refusing to accept the necessary consequence of a no-deal Brexit.

Behind this, we are told, lies "secret compromise" talks with the DUP and the Brexiteeers of the ERG, based in part on further clarification of Geoffrey Cox's legal advice, which makes it clear that there are circumstances under international law when the UK could walk away from the backstop.

But, of course, nothing of this solves the Irish border problem, with the government yesterday announcing that it was prepared in the event of a no-deal Brexit to allow free passage over the border into Northern Ireland, creating potentially a smugglers' paradise in the province.

From this side of the fence, all we see is yet another example of the shambles to which Brexit policy has deteriorated, on top of the meltdown in Westminster, and the prime minister's loss of control. Never have the Tories been so divided, never has Labour been so inept, and never has parliament as an institution so completely lost its way.

The media, of course, is loving it, but the journalists in their own way are as bad as the politicians, with both print and broadcast news becoming excruciatingly tedious, neither readable nor watchable. But, while chaos reigns, the nation watches in despair.

Consequences there will be plenty, with Pete warning that the politicians are close to parting with democracy for good.






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