EUROPEAN leaders are bewildered by the antics of the UK Government, the Bishop in Europe, Dr Robert Innes, said this week.
Speaking on Tuesday, after the postponement of a Parliamentary vote on the EU Withdrawal Agreement, Dr Innes, said: “It is very bewildering for Europe. My European friends cannot understand what is going on in the UK. I find it very sad to see my country in this state of confusion.”
On Wednesday, the uncertainty deepened, despite the victory of Theresa May in a vote of no confidence in her leadership, triggered by the filing of 48 letters critical of her to the 1922 Committee.
In the result, 200 Conservative MPs backed the Prime Minister; 117 voted against. After the vote, Mrs May spoke outside No. 10, saying that it was time for her party to “come together in the national interest”. But the size of the opposition to her Brexit strategy within her own party remains a stumbling block for the deal that she has been promoting.
The trigger for the no-confidence motion was the cancelling of the Parliamentary vote on the Brexit deal. She announced on Monday afternoon that, since it was clearly heading for defeat “by a significant margin”, she was deferring the vote.
Her intention, she said, was to seek clarification from her European counterparts in an attempt to salvage the deal. When challenged in the Commons about whether anything in the deal would be changed, Mrs May only repeated that she was looking for clarifications and assurances. The European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, said later that there was “no room” for renegotiation.
The Brexit vote could now be delayed until 21 January, it has been suggested.
Dr Innes said that a no-deal scenario would be “disastrous. . . We are in uncharted territory, it is hard to see where we will go now. I don’t think the EU27 will renegotiate the withdrawal agreement, although the Prime Minister could get some clarifications. . . It would be irresponsible for the Government to drift towards a no deal.”
The Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, also expressed his despair at the week’s proceedings. Speaking on Wednesday, he said: “The infighting within the parties in Westminster seems to relegate the national interest to a secondary matter. Surely it’s time to identify a different narrative that holds the country together.”
As for the future of Brexit, Bishop Baines said that it was “impossible to see what will happen next”. Anyone who purported to know what would happen next was a “fantasist or a liar”.
Like other bishops we spoke to, he was adamant that no deal was not an option. “The one thing that is pretty strong across the Commons and the Lords is that there can’t be ‘No deal’.”
The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, also spoke about the need for co-operation. She said on Tuesday: “The discussions around Brexit are not simply about legislation — they are about identity and the type of society we want to be. The EU referendum exposed divisions in our society, and the present political process risks deepening them.
“These divisions cannot be resolved by legislation — strengthening relationships amongst our communities is the key. Whilst I hope that politicians co-operate across party boundaries to find a way forward in the common good, I also hope that churches lead the way to build communities which are integrated and strong.”
Bishop Baines has spoken favourably about a second referendum in the face of a parliamentary impasse (News, 23 November). The Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, disagrees. He said on Tuesday that he did not think that a second referendum would solve anything. “Part of the difficulty is, following the  referendum it is becoming clearer and clearer that what looked like a simple choice has been interpreted in many different ways.
“Nobody is happy now, and there is no consensus as to the way forward.” Mrs May was in “a very difficult position”.
Dr Smith said that he had been planning to support the Prime Minister’s deal “in broad terms — because it is bound to involve some sort of compromise: as with all divorces, the problem is that neither side walks away happy”.
He went on: “We need to have a realistic view that there will be other people wanting to get things out of this, and it will mean compromise.”
His words were echoed by the Bishop of Lincoln, the Rt Revd Christopher Lowson. Although he voted Remain, his diocese voted Leave. He said on Wednesday: “It would seem that, as a nation, we have forgotten what compromise means.” It was essential to find a new way to work together, “wha—tever one’s personal opinions”.
The Bishop of Chester, Dr Peter Forster, said on Tuesday: “I hope that modifications, in some form, can be achieved, which will enable the proposed deal to go forward. Given the 52-48 split in the Referendum, a fairly soft Brexit seems to me to be the right way forward, if it can be enacted in a principled way.”
The Bishop of Oxford, Dr Steven Croft, urged politicians “to look to the national interest, and not have belief in turning the clock back.
“As the Church, we need to be praying for the nation and for our politicians. We need to be saying to them ‘please act in the national interest’, because there are other more important issues that are being ignored.”
Arguments continue to focus on the Irish border. In a letter to the Church Times this week, the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Michael Jackson, pledges that the Church of Ireland would continue to function as a cross-border organisation.
“It is the duty and the opportunity for members of the Church of Ireland . . . to continue to contribute, not least in Brussels and elsewhere, to the sorts of encounters around civic and cultural issues proffered in the EU treaties and through the European institutions.”
The Roman Catholic Bishops’ Conference in England and Wales has criticised the proposed government settlement scheme to allow EU citizens to remain in the UK. A statement said on Wednesday: “We strongly oppose the decision to charge people for securing the rights they already have. This is not only unprincipled but will also create a barrier for larger families or people facing financial difficulties.”