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Brexit: the House of Stupid

2018-07-18 08:33:07

OK, so Vote Leave and the ghastly Darren Grimes have been fined by the Electoral Commission for exceeding spending limits. I'm not sorry they deserved what was coming to them and I hope they don't escape on a technicality and the fines stick.

I am not going to accept, however, that this in any way affects the legitimacy of the referendum result. Those that complain about a weakening of democracy need to remember that we joined the EEC in 1972 without a democratic mandate.

Joining was not in the Conservative manifesto, the vote in the Commons was rigged and, in the 1975 referendum, where the effect was reversed, there were no spending controls. The pro-EEC groups, got through 1,481,583 (roughly 11.2 million in today's money), vastly outgunning the "no" side, which spent a mere 133,630 (just over 1 million today).

Those born-again democrats who argue that the extra spending by Vote Leave would necessarily have garnered extra votes (as if politics was that simple) must, if they apply that measure to the 2016 referendum, concede that the 1975 vote was invalid.

That notwithstanding, the chances of a re-run are vanishingly small and it is about time frustrated remainers stopped trying to re-run the referendum and concentrated on the issues to hand not least the almost complete collapse of our parliamentary system.

For my part, I can't remember exactly when it was that I decided that the House of Commons had lost it over Brexit. But if we needed any reminders of how far the MP collective has departed from reality, yesterday's proceedings in the House serve more than adequately.

There are various reports on which we can rely, but they all say roughly the same thing. The PM "squeaked home" on a vote on a customs union, only to lose by 305 to 301 a vote on an amendment calling for the UK to stay in the European medicines regulatory network.

The amendment was tabled by former minister Phillip Lee, who quit over Brexit last month. In his view, continued participation "makes the process of accessing life-saving new medicines and moving medicines quick and easy". It was vital, he said, to ensure that British citizens continued to get the treatment they needed after leaving the EU.

Specifically, the amendment required the government to make it a "a negotiating objective" to secure an agreement that would allow the United Kingdom to continue to participate fully in the partnership.

The point about this fatuous Clause 17 amendment is that membership of the European medicines regulatory network is open only to the national competent authorities in the Member States of the European Economic Area (EEA).

This is a man, a self-declared remainer, who resigned from his post as Justice Minister in order to campaign for a "proper meaningful vote" on Brexit. Yet, unless he was conspiring to invent a back door into the EEA (which seems unlikely), his fog of ignorance absolutely typifies MPs' approach to Brexit much noise and very little knowledge.

And just in case there is any idea that this ignorance is confined to the Tory ranks, we can see Jonathan Ashworth, Labour MP for Leicester South, declare on Twitter: "Can't understand why Tory govt opposed amendment to keep Britain in the European Medicines Agency its (sic) vital for patients and NHS - fortunately govt lost the vote just now".

If parliament was ever in need of a new motto, at least Mr Ashworth has found it for his fellow MPs, in the first two words of his tweet: "can't understand". For some, though, "won't" might be more appropriate, even if the effect is the same.

Not one of the 305 MPs who voted for the measure appear to have understood that the object of the amendment was unattainable. For instance, Kenneth Clarke could "not understand, given that the White Paper also supports keeping our present arrangements, if we can, by remaining within the European Medicines Agency, is why on earth these proposals are being resisted".

This is the Mr Clarke who famously didn't read the Maastricht Treaty, so he was not going to read the negotiating guidelines which states that, "the Union will preserve its autonomy as regards its decision-making, which excludes participation of the United Kingdom as a third-country in the decision-making of the Union bodies, offices and agencies".

Chris Leslie, Labour MP for Nottingham East thought the new clause was "a no-brainer". Said "no brain" Leslie, "If we are going to preserve anything, we must surely keep the frictionless flow of medicines and treatments for our national health service going".

Dr Paul Williams, Labour, Stockton South, similarly exposed his ignorance when he declared that "we still have the chance to be part of the European medicines regulatory network partnership, and continue to benefit from the work of the EMA (European Medicines Agency)", adding to this by stating that "we could do that by remaining a member of the EU, by becoming a member of the European Free Trade Association, or by negotiating an associate membership of the EMA".

While the first of his three options is correct, Efta, per sec does not give access to the network, and while there are international agreements with EMA, there is no provision for associate membership.

For all that, the actual debate on the motion was remarkably brief, yet not one MP opposing the motion nor even a government minister intervened to say that current government policy of remaining outside the Single Market made the amendment impossible for the government to pursue it.

What gives this wider relevance is that it illustrates how the House has lost touch with reality, arguing over the details with not the slightest appreciation of how Brussels will respond to their votes. So self-obsessed and inwards looking have MPs become that they seem to have lost any awareness that the European Union is a party to Brexit. They behave as if Brussels has ceased to exist.

Despite that, the political instability in London and turmoil in Westminster has not gone unnoticed. The Irish government is to step up its preparations for a hard Brexit and there is a report that the EU is preparing the release of "strongly-worded" emergency guidelines on preparations for a no deal Brexit, with an announcement planned from Barnier on Friday.

Meanwhile, in Calais, former French minister and president of Hauts-de-France, Xavier Bertrand has said that his port and his counterpart in Dover are facing "economic catastrophe" because of Brexit.

He complains that both the UK and the EU are allowing the two ports to drift towards disaster and has called on Emmanuel Macron to break the EU ban on bilateral talks to salvage the situation and have direct negotiations with Theresa May. "The way things are going", he says, "we are going to be left standing staring at each other like strangers. It's madness, pure utter madness".

Bertrand has made five trips to Britain to try to impress upon politicians and officials the need to swing contingency plans into action. He said his talks had been frank, but Dover-Calais was not "first in line in negotiations" meaning nothing was happening. "I am going to one more time try to increase the pressure and warn people about the dangers: what about the catastrophe?" he says, but time is running out.

"For a long time I was very optimistic", Bertrand adds. "I was afraid, but I believed the common sense and pragmatism would prevail. Now I am losing my sense of optimism but I want to find a way to avoid that catastrophe if things are not going to get better".

Rather than appreciating the urgency and potential consequences of this inactivity, the House of Commons is indulging in the equivalent of fiddling while Rome burns, perhaps better put as "blathering while Brussels fumes". It must surely realise that in a world of television and the internet, what it does and says can be seen round the world. No longer does one have to wait for the following day to see a print copy of Hansard.

Basically, if the House of Commons can't do better than it has been doing, and start realistically to address the problems of Brexit, it doesn't deserve to exist. Largely, it is devoting time to party political games and internecine squabbles, making it a complete waste of time and space. From the House of Commons, it has become the House of Stupid.