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Brexit delayed — but still the clock is ticking

29 March 2019

The battle over the EU divorce deal has eclipsed other issues and created paralysis at Westminster, says Mark D’Arcy

“IT IS not the end, it’s not even the beginning of the end, or even the end of the beginning. . . ” A gloomy ex-minister channelled Churchill as he contemplated a political future completely dominated by the ramifications of Brexit. The public may be sick of it, and the politicians utterly weary, but even the act of leaving the European Union — whether in April, May, or later — will not put an end to the debate: it will simply shift the terms a little.

The fundamental issue how closely Britain should align its economy with its giant neighbour is not resolved by the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal, which simply provides a transitional period to allow the UK to move to an, as yet, unspecified new relationship. That could mean anything from membership of a customs union and single market to a more distant relationship, maximising Britain’s freedom to strike new international trade deals around the world.

This is much more than a technical issue for trade negotiators: it goes to the heart of what kind of country Britain wants to be, and sets up new conflicts and contradictions. Can a buccaneering economy based on free trade afford over-strict controls on immigration, for example? Can the UK allow imports of American genetically modified soya or chlorinated chicken, banned in the EU, without setting up elaborate and expensive checks to reassure European importers of British food products that, say, a chicken and bacon pie is uncontaminated by forbidden American fowl?

IN WESTMINSTER, these are questions for future debates. At the moment, the whole focus of politics is on the Prime Minister’s divorce deal with the EU — and the possible alternatives to it.

That crowds out not just contemplation of the future for Brexit Britain, but also of the issues which would normally be the stuff of politics: the economy, public services, homelessness, the legion of international crises, or the state of the environment. These all crop up in Parliament’s agenda from time to time, when they hit the headlines — but they fade away just as quickly. Pressing problems are simply not getting the sustained level of parliamentary and ministerial attention that they would receive in “normal times”. Brexit takes precedence.

A little-noticed fact of Westminster life is that MPs and peers are now approaching the end of the two-year parliamentary session proclaimed in the wake of the 2017 General Election. At some point in the next few months, it will end, and a new legislative cycle will begin, and the Government will announce a new programme of law-making in a new Queen’s Speech.

What will be in it? The Queen’s Speeches are normally a way of laying out a government’s vision for the future, and a ministerial “second session committee” has been looking at what should be in the next one. The trouble is, it is hard for most Cabinet ministers to look beyond Brexit. Frank Field, the formidable chairman of the Work and Pensions Select Committee, was only being half-mischievous when he suggested that Theresa May might sub-contract her social agenda to the Commons select committees, who all had constructive reform proposals for their particular areas.

And, almost unnoticed, this is beginning to happen on a modest scale, where middle-ranking ministers can be persuaded to run with some scheme that has picked up cross-party support in a select committee.

Keep an eye on the Human Rights Committee’s emerging proposals to reform the treatment of mothers who face prison, and of their children. The impact of a parent’s being jailed can be catastrophic for families, and proposals to make judges take more account of the interests of children in sentencing decisions, and to safeguard the children when the mother is jailed, are expected to emerge from the committee, and then be taken forward by a clutch of sympathetic middle-ranking ministers, while their bosses are busy intriguing around the Cabinet table.

BUT the idea of reform — any reform, of pretty much anything — hits another difficult fact of current parliamentary life: the Government’s lack of a functional majority.

A couple of weeks ago, a cross-party alliance led by two formidable backbenchers — the Conservative ex-Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell, and Labour’s Dame Margaret Hodge — proposed an amendment to an apparently technical piece of legislation, the Financial Services (Implementation of Legislation) Bill, to require British Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies to set up public registers of beneficial ownership of companies registered in their jurisdiction. This was a transparency measure to clamp down on money-laundering, and ensure that the proceeds of corruption or organised crime were not laundered into, for example, the British property market.

When it became clear that the amendment commanded a clear Commons majority, the Government responded by cancelling consideration of the Bill. It was a revealing moment. Conservative Party discipline had crumbled to the extent that an important piece of legislation had to be shelved.

Few weeks now pass without some kind of revolt against the whipping instructions issued to Conservative or Labour MPs — indeed, it’s usually both at the same time. The two defeats suffered by the Government on Mrs May’s Brexit deal were, respectively, the biggest and fourth-biggest government defeats of the modern political era.

©UK Parliament/Mark Duffy The Prime Minister speaks in the House of Commons on Monday evening, when MPs voted to take control of the Commons agenda, to debate alternatives to the Government’s Brexit policy

More than that, the cohesion of both party leaderships is weaker than at any time in modern history. Mrs May once quipped that there was a Cabinet app that enabled confidential discussions to be rendered into a James Forsyth column in The Spectator.

Today, that sounds understated: real-time leaking of Brexit battles around the Cabinet table is now a regular feature of political and journalistic life. Cabinet factions have voted in different lobbies, ministers openly discuss the circumstances in which they might resign, coups are mooted, and alternative leaders are proposed.

On Monday evening, a cross-party faction of MPs, including grandees such as Yvette Cooper and Sir Oliver Letwin, successfully seized control of the Commons agenda, to debate alternatives to the Government’s policy. It was a move that set a new benchmark for backbench power, and inflicted a serious humiliation on the Prime Minister and her Government. As the Church Times went to press on Wednesday, MPs were due to vote on a series of indicative votes to test the will of Parliament, as the future of Mrs May and her Government still looked extremely uncertain.

ACROSS the Chamber, Jeremy Corbyn has equally serious problems with party discipline: many of his parliamentary troops are deeply unhappy with his leadership, and he has lost eight MPs to the new force, the Independent Group. One MP, who sympathised with the departed but remained within Labour, told me wistfully that he did not think the prospects for TIG were great, “but they looked so happy.”

The combination of a hung Parliament, in which the Government does not command an automatic majority, the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, which prevents a Prime Minister’s holding a snap General Election, and an increased tendency of MPs to work with one another across party lines would make life tough for any government — but Brexit makes it almost impossible. It cuts through normal party alignments, creates new dividing lines, where once there was solidarity, and transfers power from compliant middle-ground MPs to well-organised factions of ultras.

Earlier generations of MPs could take refuge in anonymity. But not this one. The Commons elected in 2017 is the most scrutinised in history. Every word and every facial twitch can be replayed on the BBC Parliament channel, or on Parliamentlive.tv, and then publicised, criticised, and denounced via social media. Edmund Burke could get away with his famous assertion that an MP owed the voters his (it was always “his” in that era) judgement rather than his obedience, because, when he said it, it was illegal to report the proceedings of Parliament; he never faced the glare of publicity that modern MPs endure.

The current political environment is dangerously toxic: there is a nasty undercurrent of violence. The Speaker’s Chaplain and the Bishops have been reaching out to provide stressed and pressurised MPs with pastoral support. Perhaps what is needed is a revival of the lost art of disagreeing well — which may be where the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Brexit tea-and-sympathy events in parish churches could come in (News, 22 March). The politics of Brexit do not lend themselves to understanding or respectful differences; but a wounded, divided, sometimes embittered country needs those things now more than ever.

A SHORT postponement of Brexit buys our politicians a little breathing space — but not enough to change the choices before Parliament. It does not give enough time to pivot to a new position, such as a “Norway Option” soft-Brexit, based on membership of the European Economic Area; so, the choices are some reheated version of the PM’s deal, a no-deal exit (maybe “managed”, maybe not), a longer postponement, or no Brexit at all. A longer postponement opens up many more options, including a further referendum, or maybe a General Election, not to mention leadership battles in the two big parties.

What is lacking in all this is a “sweet spot”. There is no option that brings the country together without a substantial group crying “Betrayal!” And maybe that accounts for some of the paralysis: when there is no way out, the instinct is to hunker down. But, in spite of the proposed modest postponement of Brexit, time is still running out.

Mark D’Arcy is the Parliamentary Correspondent for BBC News.

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