Benjy Goodwin explores our state of parliamentary chaos and apportions the blame for the latest bout of Brexit deadlock.
Yesterday, the House of Commons voted overwhelmingly against Theresa May’s Brexit deal for the second time by a factor of 149 MPs. With 16 days to go until we are set to leave the European Union, this is nothing short of a crisis. Conservative MP Charles Walker yesterday dubbed this parliament “the Failing Parliament” for its inability to pass any of its business: He is not wrong.
The term is reminiscent of the ‘Do Nothing Congress’, a term originally used in the USA to describe the unproductive 80th congress, and later reapplied to the 113th congress under Obama’s second term, which struggled to pass almost anything. I think what we have in the UK today is worse. The combination of Theresa May’s fragile working majority since the 2017 election and Brexit has meant that domestic issues are a no-go.
And so since 2017, this parliament has had one goal: to deliver Brexit. For better or worse (worse, in my opinion) this was the task set by the previous parliament who voted to invoke Article 50, and by both the Labour and Conservative parties by pledging their support for Brexit in the general election campaign. While appearing reluctant at times, parliament has voted to advance the Brexit process to the next stage on multiple occasions. Yet now it finds itself deadlocked: Parliament has voted to make Brexit a reality, and now can’t even bring itself to make Brexit manageable.
Most MPs in the current parliament were around before the 2017 general election, and voted to trigger Article 50. Having done so, it is their political imperative to try to make Brexit work. That means voting for Theresa May’s deal, which does nothing bad except take us out of the European Union. It provides us with the time needed to negotiate a future relationship without disrupting our current arrangements, and provides a guarantee that the Good Friday Agreement, essential to peace on the island of Ireland, is upheld. But the deal was once again defeated in the House of Commons by 391-242.
This deadlock can’t be explained away by allegiances on Brexit. Many who voted against were MPs who had backed Remain during the referendum. If they didn’t want Brexit to happen, that’s fine – me too. But they can’t now complain, having voted to trigger Article 50 already. Those who have always wanted Brexit also have no excuse; if they have a serious alternative to the deal, they’ve kept quiet about it in the House. For them to vote against the deal is hugely dishonest and irresponsible.
Of course, Theresa May is to blame too. She took the wrong course in setting red lines that were mutually incompatible simply to appease the hard right in her party. She never planned for the obvious eventuality that she would have to climb down and significantly soften her Brexit plans. She also didn’t reach out to the Labour Party until the very last minute, something which could have brought more Labour MPs on board. If she had taken a more realistic approach from the start, we wouldn’t be in this mess.
But the blame ultimately lies with the MPs themselves. Theresa May eventually brought a deal to the house (twice), which is not based on fantasy and is the necessary consquence of the vote for Article 50 and the vote for the Withdrawal Act. It is as sensible a Brexit deal as there could be. What MPs were expecting, I don’t know. But every time an MP who voted for Article 50 but against the Brexit deal complains about the chaos we are now in, I lose a great deal of respect for them.
It is very possible that we end up with no deal by accident. The motion being voted on tonight does nothing to prevent no deal; it merely expresses dissatisfaction with it. No deal will happen on 29th March unless we pass a deal or extend Article 50. In the latter scenario, it will happen at the end of that extension unless we pass a deal. It’s that simple. Unless MPs are willing to confront reality, they will continue to be the sole architects of this parliamentary chaos.
The current parliament is rotten. We still have a vast number of ongoing problems in this country: the gig economy, social welfare, housing, adult social care, the environment – to name just a few. We are in desperate need of a truly functioning legislature, and yet the House of Commons continues to perpetuate a Brexit crisis of their own making. I’m not saying that everything will be fine if Brexit goes ahead with May’s deal, but it would be far more damaging to prolong this crisis.
A general election might be the only way out; my only fear is that we could end up with a parliament just as incompetent.