Andrew Rawnsley / The Observer: Brexit
Britannia contemplates a bleak future.
Ghosts past and present haunt the Commons vote on Theresa May's Brexit deal
There are no winners, only losers, in this profound crisis in our politics
The seesaw is smashed. The pendulum is stuck. The tides are frozen. All the trusty images that used to help explain British politics have been scrambled by Brexit .
Back in simpler times, a bad week for one politician or party translated into a good one for a rival. Seesaws went up and down. Pendulums swung. Tides flowed in and out. It is one of the unique characteristics of the Brexit crisis that it makes winners of none and losers of all. The past seven days have demonstrated that this is a wind so ill that it blows no one any good.
The most deserved losers are the Brexit ultras. They finally launched their leadership coup and failed miserably. Without a plausible plan or a credible leader, these are the men who put the ass into assassin. After all their prating about “taking back control”, they couldn't even organise the removal of a mortally wounded prime minister. The Brexit fanatics have always been a minority of a minority and now no one can be in any doubt about that. And this same gang claim they could negotiate a superior agreement with the EU or handle a no-deal Brexit in 100 days that are left? Oh, please. Yet there was no humility in defeat from the ultras. It was with a poisonous lack of grace that they continued to demand Mrs May's resignation even after she had prevailed in the confidence vote that they forced upon their party. You are entitled to belly laugh the next time that anyone tries to commend Jacob Rees-Mogg as a courteous gentleman. The mask of phoney civility slipped when this serpent in a double-breasted suit continued to hiss for Mrs May's head after his coup had failed.
Alas for her, the defeat of her tormentors did not amount to a victory for the prime minister. To keep her job for now, she had to pledge to give it up before the next election. Mrs May purchased her survival in the currency of humiliation.
For her, it is always crisis and never catharsis. The Brexit fanatics will still not vote for her deal. These political arsonists would rather torch their party and their country's economy than compromise. Mrs May remains imprisoned by the parliamentary maths, her past mistakes and her lack of dexterity. After all the to and fro between Westminster and European capitals, pinging from one side of the Channel to the other like a battered shuttlecock, there is no better prospect of her deal passing the Commons than there was on Monday when she swerved the vote. European leaders have little inclination to make substantial concessions to help her and they have no incentive without a guarantee that she can get the agreement through parliament, a promise she cannot give. In so much as Mrs May has an idea about what to do next, it is to delay the moment of reckoning until we are hard against the deadline. If she is allowed to get away with postponing the vote until the second half of January, there will be a sharp escalation in the risk of Britain hurtling over the cliff edge.
Several of her senior ministers regard this do-or-die strategy as sensationally reckless. They ought to step in to prevent this happening and prove that cabinet government still means something, but they appear to be too paralysed by their own divisions to act with the necessary conviction. One faction of the cabinet is headed by Jeremy Hunt , a man with such an impeccable sense of timing that he declared himself a born-again Brexiter just when the full magnitude of its horrors were revealing themselves. This groupuscule wants to prepare for what it likes to call a “managed no deal”. That euphemism is designed to veil what a dreadful outcome it would be. A second grouping, the most vocal of whom has been Amber Rudd, suggest pushing towards some iteration of “Norway” in the hope that this would attract sufficient support from opposition MPs to be viable. A third and overlapping element of the cabinet, which includes David Liddington, the de facto deputy prime minister, is shuffling towards the lifeboat called “another referendum” as the only escape that it may be left when every other option has been exhausted. No single cabinet faction appears strong enough to command a majority or to impose its will on the prime minister.
The executive is flailing, but unfortunately this has not meant that parliament has taken the opportunity to assert itself. After more than 160 MPs had spoken in the five days of debate on Mrs May's deal, the Commons could not stop the prime minister running away from the vote. The Speaker huffed, MPs puffed, but all their outrage was wasted breath. It is clear what ought to happen now. Before the clock runs down, the sensible MPs who care about their country need to take the initiative and establish a mechanism to determine which, if any, of the possible resolutions to the Brexit nightmare might command majority support. Ken Clarke, a sane voice in a deranged world, is absolutely right about this. Yet most MPs are still too trapped in partisan tribalisms and the pursuit of short-term term tactical advantage to initiate the cross-party pursuit of a solution that is urgently required.
The Tories savage struggles over the Maastricht treaty in the 1990s looks like an epoch of peace and goodwill in comparison
Were the traditional seesaw of politics still functioning, we would expect such a terrible week for the governing party to produce at least one clear winner: the official opposition. The last time that British politics went through anything comparable to this was during the Tory party's savage struggles over the Maastricht treaty in the 1990s. That extended bout of Tory fratricide, which now looks like an epoch of peace and goodwill in comparison with the demons unleashed by Brexit, helped to propel Labour into a double-digit poll lead. This was a harbinger of a landslide victory at the subsequent election.
In this respect, history is not repeating itself at all. Our Opinium poll today indicates that Labour is deriving no benefit whatsoever. The agonies of Mrs May are many multiples worse than those that afflicted John Major. More than a third of her MPs have just declared that they have no confidence in the prime minister. The Tory party's uncivil war has never, in the many decades that they have been waging it, been more vicious. The risks to Britain are enormous and yet Britons have no more faith in the official opposition than they do in a government falling apart before the country's eyes. In the midst of the worst period for the Conservative party since the ERM crisis, the poll tax, Suez , the Corn Laws or another precedent of your choice, Jeremy Corbyn's Labour has become less popular and the leader's personal ratings are even more negative than those of the prime minister. Labour is getting a similar warning from the private polling that the party commissions. However lustily they may demand a general election when in front of a live microphone, some members of the shadow cabinet are muttering privately that they are not at all eager to go to the country for fear that their party will get a verdict from the voters that it will not like.
There may be all sorts of complicated explanations for Labour's failure, but I think the root cause is pretty simple. The party's leadership has been rumbled. Labour's own version of fantasy Brexit has been to pretend that it could negotiate a deal that gave Britain all the benefits of EU membership from the outside. The voters aren't buying this bogus prospectus. Despite it all, the public trusts Mr Corbyn with Brexit even less than it trusts Mrs May. People can see that the Labour leadership obsesses about Brexit process questions because it doesn't want to grip the issues of principle. The endless ducking and diving about when they might call a no-confidence vote against the government makes Labour look like opportunists desperately hoping to luck into office on the back of Brexit turmoil rather than a party with the national interest at heart. You can't keep demanding that the Tories “make way” for Labour, the daily mantra of Mr Corbyn and his drones, and then never trigger the only mechanism for making that happen. At the heart of it is Labour's continuing refusal to come clean about whether it will or will not support another referendum. What has always smelled of unprincipled tactical prevarication now reeks of a refusal to be honest with the electorate.
Failed by both its major parties, the biggest loser of all is Brexit-broken Britain. Our country is careening towards disaster. All of its political institutions know this. None of them seems capable of arresting it. They continue to play their games of charades as we lurch towards the abyss.
• Andrew Rawnsley is an Observer columnist
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Andrew Rawnsley is a British political journalist and broadcaster. A columnist and chief political commentator for The Observer , he has written two books on New Labour. Petroleumworld does not necessarily share these views.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published by The Observer, Dec. 16, 2018. All comments posted and published on Petroleumworld, do not reflect either for or against the opinion expressed in the comment as an endorsement of Petroleumworld.
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