Richard North, 20/03/2019  
 


So, what should have been another busy day for the MP collective has turned out to be a damp squib. But there are always PMQs tomorrow, which will give the hon. Members a chance to misbehave, to the disgust of most of those who can still bear to watch the shambles.

But those seeking a rest from the unedifying spectacle of parliament will find little relief in the media, much of which is as insufferable as the politicians on whom they report or comment. However, there is some slight solace in the realisation that the House of Commons is now probably one of the least-loved places in the kingdom – even if very few commentators have any real idea of how to make it better.

It comes to something, though, when to get any sense out of the situation we have to go to Michel Barnier, who was speaking in Brussels yesterday following the General Affairs Council after discussions with the EU-27 on Brexit.

Sense, of course, is relative, but here was the man repeating all over again that there was "only one possibility for an orderly exit from the EU" – the adoption of the withdrawal treaty as "the only available and possible treaty that has been negotiated seriously and objectively together".

The absence of ratification of this agreement, he said with a fair degree of understatement, "today obviously causes a major uncertainty for the United Kingdom - but also for the European Union and for all the countries of the European Union". But then he made the obvious comment: "To get out of this uncertainty, we need choices and decisions from the UK".

For the moment, such "choices and decisions" are not to be had. Mrs May has spent the day talking to her cabinet and others, in discussions to which we are not privy. But, by today we expect to hear from her as to her intentions for an almost certain application to the European Council for an Article 50 extension.

The question for everyone is whether she will go for the long or the short – or, as seems to be the case, both. She might go for the short option to get her past another vote, held in or before mid-April, and then a longer period of up to two years to give the nation a chance to forge a consensus on what to do next.

If that is actually the plan, it is a poor one. With a divided nation and a parliament all at sea, providing a refuge for the educationally sub-normal, together with a government which gives new meaning to the word incompetence, the chances of there being even the slightest drift towards a common cause is extremely remote. This is a nation which lacks vision and purpose, which is not going to rally behind a single cause any time soon.

The chances are, therefore, that decisions we should be making for ourselves will be made by the EU-27, either now in terms of whether they allow a short extension, or later when they meet again to discuss the longer period. More so than when we were "normal" members of the EU, we are now entirely dependent on the decisions the "colleagues" will make.

There was just one way we could have defined our future, maintaining a modicum of control, and that was if parliament had ratified the withdrawal treaty the first time round, and then the second and then, given the opportunity, the third time round. But the MP collective instead chose to play games, bringing us to the parlous state where we are currently parked.

Before that, we could have had a prime minister who had taken the time to evaluate the options before acting, and then offered political leadership by explaining her decisions and seeing them through, rather than being blown every which way by the moronic ERG tendency.

We could also have had a media which had journalists who knew their subject, and were capable of acting skilfully and honestly, setting out to inform and educate the public. But, instead of that, we have venal, self-serving ignoramuses dedicated more to self-aggrandisement than their appointed task.

Simultaneously, we have suffered failures in three of the most important pillars of the establishment – government, parliament and the media. The loss of any one might have been recoverable, but the cascade failure we have experienced is near fatal to the political process. There is no obvious way out and, in the short-term, probably no remedy at all.

Thus, whatever Mrs May decides today, it will not make a lot of difference to the short-term. The likelihood is that she will only be going for the short option which – with the prospect of a longer delay to follow – makes it the worst of all possible worlds.

On the one hand, she is prolonging the uncertainty but, in leaving open the possibility of a further extension, there is no clear date in sight for businesses which will signal when the uncertainty is to end. Even the uncertainty is uncertain.

At a political level too, the uncertainty rebounds. Barnier in his press conference yesterday warned that "extending the uncertainty without a clear plan would add to the economic cost for our businesses but could also incur a political cost for the EU". On that basis, it is hardly surprising that the EU wants the UK government and parliament "to decide very quickly what the UK wants to do next".

This, currently, is being translated into any one of three options – a change to the government's red lines, a general election or another referendum. Only those, it is being said by Michel Barnier, would justify a longer extension.

Such conditions – if they are demanded by the EU-27 – could well-backfire. The prospect of the EU effectively demanding the removal of our prime minister – replicating the circumstances in Italy during the financial crisis – might be enough to harden sentiment and unite the country behind a no-deal. This could be seen as better than caving in to overtly political demands.

But if that remains a possibility – which indeed it does, even if it arises through the "colleagues" refusing to extend Article 50 – it further adds to the uncertainty. It becomes uncertain whether the uncertainty will continue. And, as for a referendum, this could magnify the divisions already evident in the country, with unforeseen repercussions.

All of this speaks to a nation that has lost its way. And that suggests more than just a lack of vision or purpose. We seem to have no mechanisms for repairing the damage.

In days past, one supposes the nation could rally behind a Churchillian figure, or entertain a national debate. But not only do we lack anyone in the political domain even approaching the stature of Churchill, there is hardly anyone who we could trust to lead a debate.

The showbiz glitz that the television broadcasters mistake for debate would obviously be entirely inadequate for the purpose, the newspapers are a haven for propaganda and misinformation and parliament has squandered any goodwill that it might have had. As for the prime minister, the quickest way now to shut-down any debate is to get her to deliver a speech calling for national unity.

There perhaps lies the heart of the malaise in that we have a nation which is not capable of having a conversation with itself – certainly not without it breaking down in rancour and recriminations. And if there is no communication, there can be no mediation.

Worst of all, despite the EU Member States, individually and collectively demanding that we tell them what we want from Brexit, we are unable to deliver a collective or consensus view. Now, more than ever, it thus appears that the failure to come up with a positive agenda is acting to our disadvantage, something to which I drew attention back in 2011.

Then I referred to a parliamentary debate on 15 October 1940 when, as the wreckage of London lay around them, MPs gathered to find out whether the government was prepared to make a definitive statement on war aims. But Churchill refused, point blank. He was guardian of the status quo, suppressing any debate on the issue.

Churchill's Information Minister Duff Cooper, very much supported the idea, and had been speaking secretly for it in Cabinet. On this day, he expressed his support as far as he could, but had been brought up sharply by Richard Stokes. He was the Labour MP for Ipswich, a Military Cross winner (and bar) in the First World War, a stern critic of British tank design and soon to become an arch critic of the area bombing policy.

Cooper, said Stokes, had enunciated what we were fighting against, but not what we were fighting for. "[It] is no use fighting for a negative object. You must have a positive one, and the sooner that [is] stated the better".

And that's exactly what we were lacking during the referendum campaign and what we lack now. It is all very well wanting to get out of the EU – the "negative object". But what are we to do with our new-found freedom? Where is our "positive object"? Until we have one, we are going nowhere. We have emerged from our own private war without one, and we are on our way to losing the "peace".

The idea of needing a "positive object", I called the Stokes precept. And for want of that, we are frozen in time, unable to decide where we want to go and unable to communicate our needs. At the time, in 2011, I wrote that we will continue to lose our battle until we are able to deal with the issues put by Richard Stokes, back on that awful day of 15 October 1940.

We are still losing.






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