Friday 11 January 2018
Legislative amendments are like reproducing cells, they help to sustain the life of a parliamentary democracy, but when they begin to quickly multiply, the body powerless to stop them, cancer metastasizes. Brexit is by no means terminally ill, but it needs urgent treatment to stop the spread.
This was the week the Tory traitors and their allies on the Labour benches contrived to use two dubious amendments in as many days to enfeeble an already decrepit minority government.
Tuesday’s no-to-no-deal amendment to the Finance Bill tabled by Labour’sYvette Cooper was mainly symbolic. Threatening to block emergency no deal tax-raising powers unless Parliament approved a WTO exit was how the amendment was clumsily tacked on legislation not directly relevant to Britain’s withdrawal from the EU. Treasury officials said they’d still have plenty of room for manoeuvre. Besides, in the unlikely event of an economic apocalypse, this Parliament will most certainly do what needs to be done. As we’re repeatedly told, the priority is jobs and growth, jobs and growth…
The next day, another amendment, tabled by Conservative MP Dominic Grieve successfully reduced May’s timetable to come up with a second withdrawal arrangement, after the first inevitably fails, from twenty-seven days to just three. 433 MPs have now pledged to vote against the current deal, nineteen more since before the Christmas break – May’s whips were supposed to have narrowed the gap in that time.
Grieve’s amendment to the meaningful vote is on seriously shaky constitutional ground. By the House of Commons’ own rules it should never have been allowed through to the chamber, but Pro-Remain speaker John Bercow had an opportunity to both top-up his gigantic ego and win favour with Labour MPs – without whom he would have been forced out by now – so it was put up for debate and duly won a majority in the Europhile House.
According to the terms of the amendment, the prime minister is only obliged to return to “move a motion” within three sitting days – i.e. next Monday the motion doesn’t have to be on a revised deal, however. She can simply approach the dispatch box and say, “I’m off to Brussels tomorrow to meet with Michel Barnier”, done.
Nevertheless, the political pressure against May has ramped up yet another notch, which is why she has taken the unwise decision of seeking Labour support for meaningful vote #2. A group of Labour MPs are pondering another amendment that will secure continued adherence to the EU’s ruinous environmental regulations and workers’ rights guarantees too. The MPs, numbering no more than twenty, have already met with Downing Street officials who have said they would consider accepting such a compromise. Meanwhile, May herself has had contact with Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite.
Twenty votes to plug a deficit exceeding a hundred. Even by May’s very low standards, this is dire political manoeuvring, spelling out yet again why she’s such a hopelessly inadequate leader. Aside from the steel we’re continually assured May possesses in spades, a decent leader needs to have charisma and an authentic vision. Theresa May lacks both. Unfortunate in the normal times, let alone during the greatest political project of our age.
“Having had that vote, it was in the national interest for that negotiation to be conducted by someone playing the hardest possible hardball,” said Times columnist Melanie Phillips on Question Time last night (watch the clip here) to resounding applause.
Following the prime minister’s own example, her Conservative colleagues are now brazenly approving Labour motions in Parliament – twenty Tory MPs voted for the Cooper amendment, fake conservatives the lot of them. Anna Soubry and Sarah Wollaston’s constituents are already fed up with them. We learnt this week that Nick Boles has received more than a hundred letters from party members in his seat calling for his deselection. Grieve will almost certainly be done with politics if the Tories aren’t done with him once this nightmare is over.
These are the fundamentalists. Few leaders would have kept them in line, but a prime minister seeking a truly sovereign departure from the EU with the character to do the job would have got Jacob Rees-Mogg’s European Research Group onside along with some soft Remainers as well as the DUP and Labour’s strident band of Eurosceptics, enough to fulfil the democratic mandate bestowed by the people and get a majority. May will only get that now by going all in with the opposition, which she appears ready to do, even if it means betraying the core of her Parliamentary party and the entire grassroots, and of course, the Referendum result itself.
In the here and now, May’s Conservatives are already divided into three distinct groups, Leavers, Remainers and loyalists, fuelling Jeremy Corbyn’s (another weak leader) hopes of securing a general election. His party is deeply divided too. Unlike him, most of his MPs are angling for a second referendum.
Cabinet ministers are now in on the act. In an op-ed for Politico, followed up by a distressed Today programme appearance, Greg Clark openly called upon Labour to come forward with their wish list to append May’s dreadful deal.
“Most MPs, across the House, including many in government, would not countenance leaving on March 29 with no agreement. Once that was clearly demonstrated, then Parliament could make a clearer choice of how to proceed. It is not sufficient to record disapproval of no deal – a further step would need to be taken to prevent it happening by default. This is a time for parliament to come together and work intensively to establish an agreement that can command majority support,” pleaded Clark in his piece.
Note, the business secretary has previously pushed hard for Britain to remain in the Customs Union. By virtue of the backstop, CU membership is already a de facto permanent feature of the deal. Obviously, Clark wants to make that formal, doing so would satisfy Labour’s six ludicrous tests and secure the “majority support” he craves. Has he not paused for a moment to consider the cost, not only to his own party, but to the fabric of the nation and our democracy too? What recklessness.
Clark is just one minister, but there are four others in the Cabinet who have threatened to resign in the event of a no deal. Meanwhile, party grandee Oliver Letwin and his Norway+ faction have openly invited the shadow Brexit secretary to lay down a blueprint for a Customs Union with the EU, a longstanding Labour priority.
A stronger prime minister would call the ministers’ bluff and knock Letwin down a peg. Sadly, that’s not the kind of leader we have.