UK politicians must come together in the spirit of compromise
British television viewers were treated to a fine drama last week, with Benedict Cumberbatch in the lead. Entitled “Brexit: The Uncivil War,” it took us back to the extraordinary referendum campaign of 2016. Embedded within it were uncomfortable reminders, if they were needed, of the bitter divisions, but also the darker side of modern electioneering — the use, legal or otherwise, of big data and algorithms. Weirdly for a docudrama, it covered the fresh, raw, recent past in what for many is turning out to be a five-act tragedy, even tragicomedy, that has many twists and turns to come.
In a world where reality out-dramatizes fiction, few could have foreseen last week’s twist: The full-on constitutional struggle between the executive and the legislature, between a government out of control of the Brexit process and a Parliament determined to assert its will, albeit not being quite sure what that is.
Seasonal goodwill and peace to all did not make an appearance in the Commons chamber and certainly not outside, where extremist far-right thugs in yellow vests screamed “Nazi” at a pro-remain Conservative MP. The chances for civil unrest are on the rise.
Everything is focused on Tuesday’s vote on the prime minister’s withdrawal deal — a vote that had to be pulled in December as the government realized it would lose, and lose comprehensively. A similar fate appears likely on Tuesday, but the government cannot duck it now. Political pundits are predicting a defeat by more than 200 votes. An epidemic of fearmongering is a weak and ill-advised tactic unlikely to alter the math, with government ministers claiming blocking Brexit could fuel the far right. The opposition is no less divided, with the Labour leadership under Jeremy Corbyn still dreaming of a general election; of toppling the government more than toppling Brexit. Many within his party’s ranks prefer a second referendum.
The uncivil war re-erupted over the decision of House of Commons Speaker John Bercow to depart from precedent to allow a vote on a rebel Tory amendment that would compel the government to return to Parliament if it loses the vote with a Brexit Plan B within just three working days, with a vote likely around Jan. 21. The amendment was passed, but losing votes is now becoming such a habit for this government that it is no longer even remarkable. The amendment means that Parliament can reject both May’s deal and no deal.
Remainers see this as a requisite measure to rule out what they see as the cataclysmic possibility of a no-deal Brexit. The most passionate will do anything to avoid this. Brexiteers see this as part of a “very British coup,” albeit many struggle to see quite how strengthening Parliament’s role to determine the nation’s future is subversive.
If plan A, the Theresa May withdrawal agreement, does not pass, what could be Plan B? The incredible thing is that the government is no longer in control of what this might be and may have to concede further defeats. For the first time in the Brexit process, the PM has had to open up channels to opposition Labour MPs. Groupings are lining up behind multifarious plans — for a no-deal exit or a second referendum, neither of which seem likely to get a majority, or a Norway-plus or Canada-plus plan B. Some Labour MPs hanker after a general election, but perhaps more to oust the government than resolve the Brexit dilemma.
And, oh yes, there are just over 70 days left to Brexit on March 29 — less than 40 days when Parliament is actually sitting — so no rush.
Losing votes is now becoming such a habit for this government that it is no longer even remarkable
The timetable looks so daunting that many are backing the position of former Prime Minister Sir John Major. He argues that Britain should take time out and revoke Article 50. “The cost of a no-deal Brexit to our national wellbeing would be heavy and long-lasting. The benefits are close to zero. Every single household — rich or poor — would be worse off for many years to come. Jumping off a cliff never has a happy ending,” he said.
Whilst politicians are scurrying around Westminster for plans B, C and D, the civil service’s focus is on planning for a no-deal exit, with 4,000 officials reportedly redeployed solely for this purpose. The national embarrassment is not eased with the government awarding a £13.8 million ($17.7 million) contract to run ferry transport in the event of a no-deal. The one hiccup is that, er, the company does not own any ferries and has never operated any cross-channel routes.
All this begs the question: Who is at the helm of project Brexit? In the battle between government and parliament, the latter is edging ahead. Yet, given it is five minutes to midnight and the clock is ticking fast, can political parties and politicians come together in the spirit of compromise, not combat, of national interest before party and personal gain? Only this can lead to a resolution, a way forward.
• Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). Twitter: @Doylech