It’s hard to know what to write when your country is in meltdown. So much has happened in the past week that it would take a PhD to do it justice. If this was a film, it would be first class entertainment. But it isn’t a film. It’s my country. And it’s currently looking as if it’s up shit creek.
Last Sunday, the Prime Minister invited some MPs to Chequers. There was Iain Duncan Smith, in a black cap, in an open-topped vintage car. There was Jacob Rees-Mogg, with his 11-year-old son, Theodore Alphege, who read The Wit of Cricket while the grown ups talked. There was Boris Johnson, freshly slimmed down for his bid for Downing Street. There was Dominic Raab, there was David Davis, there was Steve Baker, who invited himself.
The Sunday papers were full of reports of a planned “coup”. It didn’t happen. Coups nearly always collapse, particularly when they’re leaked. And particularly with a PM who could be forced by her MPs to swim in sewage every day, but still vow that she wanted to carry on.
The “Grand Wizards” had been summoned in the hope they could be persuaded to vote for May’s deal when it was brought before the House later that week. No, they said. They couldn’t. At that point, at least.
On Monday, it was clear that she didn’t have the votes to bring her deal back to the House. In cabinet that morning, she said that she was “reluctant” to accept no deal as an option, because of its impact “on the constitutional integrity of the UK”. She didn’t mention its impact on the people who would then not get the drugs or medical treatment they needed, or on the hundreds of thousands of people who would lose their jobs. These, it’s clear, are a price well worth paying to keep the Tory party together.
These middle-aged white men call themselves “The Grand Wizards”, apparently. Yup, like the Ku Klux Klan.
On Tuesday, some of those “Grand Wizards” said they would vote for her deal, as long as it was also supported by the DUP. Boris Johnson, who on Monday had written a column in The Telegraph, saying it was time “to let my people go” and embrace no deal, decided it was time to panic at the prospect of a softer Brexit, and plump for the deal. So did Jacob Rees-Mogg. Iain Duncan Smith announced that there was “a pretty good chance” that the deal was going to get through.
On Wednesday, Parliament took control of the House. There were “indicative votes” on different ways forward. There was no majority for any of them, but the proposal by Ken Clarke, to keep the UK in a permanent customs union with the EU, won 264 votes, with 272 votes against. Margaret Beckett’s proposal for a “confirmatory” public vote on any proposal for a future relationship won 268 votes, with 295 against. Since Parliament has only been allowed to express a view on alternatives to May’s plan two days before it was meant to leave the EU, it’s hardly surprising that it didn’t come up with a very clear view, but the two most popular proposals had a lot more support than May’s deal second time round.
That night, May told Tory MPs that if they supported her deal, she would resign. She didn’t say exactly when, but she decided that if her head on a platter was what it took to secure her legacy of “delivering” Brexit, so be it. Or at least she said that’s what she would do. You’d have to be a very trusting person to trust Theresa May. You’d also have to be quite an unusual person to offer your resignation as a carrot. Most leaders say they’ll resign if they don’t get what they want, not if they do.
As I listened to the results of the “indicative votes”, I started cooking a risotto. When I weighed the rice, I thought May’s deal would now go through. By the time I sat down to eat it, it was clear it wouldn’t. The DUP had announced they wouldn’t support it. It was, said Arlene Foster, a matter of “regret”. She, or at least her party, had had a billion-quid-bribe, and offers of the sun, the moon, the stars and even, surreally, discussions about the Brazilian and Argentinian football teams using Belfast as their base if the UK wins the 2030 World cup. But it wasn’t enough. This lady wasn’t for turning. Or at least, not this week.
When I weighed the rice, I thought May’s deal would now go through. By the time I sat down to eat it, it was clear it wouldn’t.
On Thursday, the Government panicked. There was, as one member of the cabinet said earlier in the week, “no secret plan”. There has never been a plan. And there has certainly never, as EU leaders discovered at their summit the week before last, been any Plan B. In the end, the Government decided that they would have another go on May’s deal. To make sure it hit the Speaker’s condition of being “substantially different”, it was cut in half. It was the withdrawal agreement without the “political declaration”. Which mean that voting for it would have been like standing at the altar and pledging to love, honour and obey a man in a gorilla suit, while having no idea at all which man you’d see once the suit came off.
This, to be fair, isn’t far from the actual political declaration, which rules out a customs union or membership of the single market, but essentially says that, after that, all bets are off. Those hard Brexiters who aren’t having daily fainting attacks about the “backdrop” have always assumed that a “no dealer” would take over from May and steer the UK to the hardest, cleanest, purest, and most economically damaging Brexit they can get.
On Friday, May’s deal, or half of it, lost again, this time by 58 votes. May said that the situation was now “grave”. But not, it seems, “grave” enough to do what Parliament wants. Parliament has control of the House of Commons today and probably on Wednesday. It may find a majority for a permanent customs union. It may even find a majority for a confirmatory vote. It seems likely that the EU would allow us to pursue both of those, but most people think May will find a way to stop it. She has said she wants to have another go with her vote. She has hinted that if it doesn’t pass, she will call an election.
voting for it would have been like standing at the altar and pledging to love, honour and obey a man in a gorilla suit,
Nobody, literally nobody, knows what would happen next. Tory MPs fear that an election, with May still as leader, would be fatal to their party. But if May supports a customs union, the party would probably split. Labour, as always, is all over the shop, but one poll in yesterday’s Mail on Sunday had it five points ahead. If it promised a “confirmatory vote” on any deal, it would probably win. Since Corbyn and his inner circle are all Brexiters, it seems unlikely that they would make this switch, but new, nasty Labour will do almost anything to get into power.
Our politicians are still behaving as if the UK holds all the power. What they don’t seem to realise is that Europe is sick of us. They want shot of us. Angela Merkel may be endlessly patient, but the same certainly can’t be said of Macron. And why should they give us extra time for an election, if it leads us deadlocked, which it might? Just one veto, and in eleven days’ time, if Parliament doesn’t find a backbone and vote to revoke Article 50, we are, to use a technical term, f***ed.
Friday was meant to be Brexit day. The day of our glorious future. Leave-voters protested in Parliament Square. Tommy Robinson addressed the crowds, screaming about Muslims. A fat woman in leggings yelled through a loud speaker about Europeans raping our children. Some protesters tried to set things on fire. A man pulled dummies of political leaders, dragging them along like corpses.
Friday was also meant to be the issue day for a new Brexit “friendship” coin. It was a 50p, with the slogan “Peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations”. When I read that, I wept.