As she lost control of both Parliament and her government, Prime Minister Theresa May also lost her voice. Unable to speak in the debate to take ‘no deal’ off the table — Michael Gove deputised for her — Mrs May was forced to watch as the House of Commons reduced her to the Parliamentary equivalent of Henry VI. That unfortunate monarch had squandered the gains of his predecessor before being reduced to a marionette, passed around from faction to faction during the Wars of the Roses.
Earlier she had had to watch as her very own Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, effectively announced his own Brexit policy from the government’s despatch box. By the time the divisions came, she had Cabinet Ministers defying the whip and abstaining while more junior Ministers even voted against her. That none will be asked to resign only serves to underline the Prime Minister’s lack of authority. As per the old cliché, she is in office but not in power.
Yet it did not have to be this way, despite the seeming inevitability of events. Mrs May failing voice might be put down to her having shouted at everyone on Monday. As predicted, the 11th-hour trip to Strasbourg — rather than Brussels — led to the ‘legally binding changes’ her backbenchers and DUP allies had demanded. The only problem was that, as ever, nothing had in fact changed. With the European Union saying it was a final offer and the choreography already well underway at home, Mrs May could only walk or play along. Facing not only the prospect of her own Attorney General marking her homework, after he had failed to win said changed the previous week, but also the legal minds of her sceptical MPs’ ‘star chamber’, she decided to brazen it out and bounce her MPs into coming with her.
They come in threes. Britain now joins Israel and Canada as countries where the Prime Minister is at risk due to the actions of the Attorney General. Tuesday morning saw the folding of the Tory Eurosceptics in full swing with even former Brexit Secretary David Davis, who had resigned to oppose the deal, indicating he would support Mrs May in the ‘Meaningful Vote’ if the Attorney General would give it his seal of approval. Speculation about a most remarkable political turnaround was rife. Immense pressure was being applied on Leave MPs and the dominoes were trembling, ready to fall. Yet the Attorney refused to play along and Mrs May’s gambit was revealed for what it was — a final call for party unity under her leadership. The Speaker of the House obliged by not calling any of the tabled amendments and the choice before reluctant Leave MPs was to back Mrs May’s Brexit or risk the Remainer-dominated Parliament seizing control. They refused to blink, seventy-five Tories voted with the opposition; some were Europhiles but the bulk were Eurosceptics.
Why did they do it? With many of their strongest supporters in the media urging them to not make the perfect the enemy of the good, to emulate President Reagan and take half a loaf; with their Remain colleagues threatening the whirlwind to come and the prospect of being the generation of Conservative Eurosceptics who voted against Brexit, they joined the Remainers, the Reversers and the Wreckers in the opposition lobby. The simple answer is of course that Mrs May’s ‘deal’ is nothing of the kind and certainly not the trade deal Brexiteers were arguing for. It is an international treaty that obliges the UK to follow laws legislated without any UK representation while paying for the privilege. It also denies the Thatcherite Leave MPs any of the free trade opportunities while barring any free market reforms. Why would they vote for it?
Beyond the legal text of the treaty, which does allow for the hint of a possibility of potentially leaving in the future, voting for Mrs May’s Agreement would have been voting for her to continue as leader for probably the rest of this Parliament, such would have been her triumph. Yet the Brexiteers doubt her intentions are to ever leave. The Spectator’s website published a piece during the day that sketched out the strategy: Keep the UK tied to the legal framework of the EU for two and a half years, or indeed much longer, while the federalising project accelerates. Obliged to follow all the EU’s laws, the UK would be forced “down that road, whether it likes it or not.” This chimes with the warnings from anti-dealers such as Martin Howe QC and the Brexiteers’ own fears.
Meanwhile, the UK will be stuck, left frustrated by the never-ending Brexit process. Politicians in Britain will seethe again and again over their powerlessness as it has to nod through EU legislation that comes its way. The UK will discover the hard way that unilateral interpretations of treaties are meaningless and that leaving out ‘how long is too long’ has real legal consequences.
The big bet of the EU is that this will culminate in Britain applying again to rejoin even before it actually properly leaves the EU legal framework. If so, the UK – with its tail between its legs – will prove less of a troublemaker then before as it will be more integrated in the EU legal framework than is currently the case. Moreover the UK is likely to lose all its current special rebates and opt-outs with the EU. It’s no wonder that the EU is desperate for MPs to back the deal – and no wonder, too, why those same MPs are nervous about doing just that.
That Mrs May’s own motivations have been suspect for many Brexiteers is nothing new, but a recent piece by James Delingpole referencing a mysteriously removed memo reveals their worst fears, that Mrs May has been planning this with Angela Merkel all along. Whatever their darkest suspicions, Mrs May’s last appeal was never likely to succeed after she had promised delayed gratification and delivered procrastinated submission.
So, what next? Mrs May’s Withdrawal Agreement was defeated again but it could still come back for a third go next week. After voting against ‘no deal’ yesterday, today, Thursday, MPs will most likely vote to extend Article 50. Both votes are motions, not law, but the chase is on for the Remain MPs as they seek to forge an even softer Brexit or cancel it altogether. Amendments could cause further divisions on the government benches and deepen Tory splits beyond repair. After today the government will seek an extension at next week’s EU summit but Mrs May will probably try and bring her Agreement back before then.
However, the Speaker could rule that out of order. The role of the Speaker here is crucial. His office bears little resemblance to that in the US, he simply chairs the House. A strong government would usually have little to fear from a hostile Speaker, but with a hung Parliament and the House attempting to wrestle control from the Executive, his decisions take on immense importance. The current Speaker, John Bercow, was a Eurosceptic as he climbed ‘the greasy pole’ but nowadays is a confirmed Remainer. Nor is he a friend of the government. The Speaker’s ultimate aim will be to allow a motion or amendment for revocation of Article 50 at the most opportune moment.
Even if the Agreement did come back a third time it will not pass without a significant number of Labour MPs, a hardcore of those seventy-five Tories (both Leave and Remain) will never switch. Nor is it likely that the ground will not have shifted even more next week and Mrs May might be in no position to bring it back. Plans for cross-party groups could yield a ‘softer Brexit’ in the form of membership of the Custom Union and Single Market, hence removing both the need for the problematic ‘Irish backstop’ and any of the potential gains from Brexit.
In all this, Mrs May will be forced to look on. She cannot dissolve Parliament on her own, the Prime Minister’s usual safety valve, as David Cameron’s coalition government passed a Fixed Terms Parliament Act to stabilise their administration. Consequently, two-thirds of the House of Commons must vote for a dissolution and why would they when they have taken control? It is simpler than wasting time with a vote of No Confidence.
The Prime Minister will turn up at next week’s EU summit with no leverage. She will have to accept whatever is offered and relay it to Parliament. Assuming one of Nigel Farage’s Eurosceptic friends in Italy or Hungary do not veto it, the terms are likely to be harsh. At this point expect the calls for the revocation of Article 50 to grow loudest, under the guise of cancel and start again. Although the EU’s preferred outcome is the purgatory of Mrs May’s Agreement, they would probably allow the cancellation on the condition that it could not be started again.
So, have the Leave MPs blown it? Not yet. The legal default has not been changed and is harder to do than MPs think. The opponents of Brexit can easily overplay their hand and public opinion will have a part to play, with support for a ‘clean break’ rising. MPs have to go to their constituencies and most Conservatives have their AGMs in the next two weeks, where they could be deselected.
Nor is Mrs May a complete cipher. She can take back control herself should she so chose by proroguing Parliament. However, to do so would be a gamble that makes a clean break almost unavoidable. She would also have to face the same MPs within a few weeks anyway and if she genuinely believes ‘no deal’ would be bad she would expect to be voted out as soon as she recalls them, stamped indelibly in history as the Prime Minister who drove off the cliff. Then again, does she want her legacy to be the non-delivery of Brexit and the end of the Conservative Party?
No-one expects her to resign. But then no-one expected Mr Cameron to do so either. Until he did, when it then became blindingly obvious that he had to. The Ides of March come tomorrow….Published in