Historic defeat

Print edition : February 15, 2019

Prime Minister Theresa May making a statement in the House of Commons on January 15 directly after MPs resoundingly rejected her government’s Brexit Withdrawal Agreement. Photo: MARK DUFFY/AFP/U.K. Parliament

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn speaking in the House of Commons on January 16 after the vote on the no-confidence motion, which he had called for the previous day. Photo: AFP/Parliamentary Recording Unit

Pro-E.U. supporters celebrating outside the Houses of Parliament on January 15 after MPs voted against the government’s Brexit deal. Photo: Ben STANSALL/AFP

Pro-Brexit supporters demonstrating outside the Houses of Parliament on January 14. Photo: Adrian DENNIS/AFP

Well before Brexit day, March 29 at 11 p.m., the toll the issue is taking on the United Kingdom has been sharp, enduring and devastating.

On the evening of January 15, ahead of the historic vote on Prime Minister Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement, which set out how the United Kingdom was to leave the European Union (E.U.), Tulip Siddiq, a 36-year-old Labour Member of Parliament, was wheeled into the chamber to cast her vote. Pregnant and with gestational diabetes, Tulip Siddiq had been set to have a caesarean section early in the week, but she chose to postpone the procedure to be able to attend the vote. There is no remote-voting option for pregnant MPs or those with medical conditions, and the convention was to pair two MPs from opposing sides not to vote.

However, last year, when Jo Swinson, a Liberal Democrat woman MP, was “paired” with Brandon Lewis, the chairman of the Conservative Party, for both of them to be absent so that she could remain at home on maternity leave, she was let down. Lewis ended up being present for a crucial vote on the Trade Bill, which would have enabled the U.K. to remain in a customs partnership with the E.U., and the government won the vote narrowly. The Conservatives insisted that it was an honest mistake, but Jo Swinson accused the Conservative Party whips of “desperate stuff” and a “calculated, deliberate breaking of trust”. Pointing to this incident, Tulip Siddiq, who is a niece of Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, insisted that the only way to ensure that her vote counted was to come to Parliament. “My decision to delay my baby’s birth is not one I take lightly. Let me be clear, I have no faith in the pairing system; in July, the government stole the vote of a new mother.”

Politics gone topsy-turvy

The incident highlights the extent to which the system of trust and respect under which the British political system had operated (mostly smoothly in recent years) has collapsed in the run-up to Brexit. Tight margins, high stakes and strongly opposing positions (even within individual parties) have put paid to convention. Mostly anything goes, guarantees count for nothing, facts count only to a certain extent and opposition can come from pretty much anywhere.

The topsy-turvy nature of politics was evident ahead of the withdrawal vote as John Bercow, the Conservative Speaker of the House of Commons, courted outrage from within his own party for allowing votes on amendments to a law that would require the government to come back to Parliament with a Plan B if the Withdrawal Agreement was rejected (as it was). It has now emerged that he is likely to be the first Speaker of the House not to be put up for an honour because of his Brexit stance.

Opposition to Theresa May’s withdrawal deal has come from a range of forces. There are those who oppose it because they do not want Brexit at all. There are others who believe it is only now there is clarity on the kind of deal that can be achieved with the E.U., and therefore, this realistic assessment needs to be put to the people in a new referendum. The Labour Party front bench opposes it because it does not meet a number of tests, including the test of keeping the U.K. in a customs union with the E.U. and ensuring that the U.K.’s protections for the environment and for workers, among other things, remain in line with those of Europe. Then there are hardliners who oppose the deal because of the so-called Irish backstop—a mechanism designed to prevent a hard border developing between the Republic of Ireland (an E.U. nation) and Northern Ireland (part of the U.K.), which would keep the latter in an E.U. customs union if no satisfactory future trading agreement were agreed upon. The backstop operates effectively as an insurance policy and, like any decent policy, has constraints on how it can be terminated, which the hardliners are unhappy with. The likes of Boris Johnson believe that this could leave the U.K. in an indefinite customs arrangement with the E.U., essentially making it a “vassal” state of the E.U..

Many Brexiteers, some of whom form part of the influential European Research Group (ERG), are not particularly concerned about a hard Brexit, insisting that crashing out of the E.U. on World Trade Organisation terms will not be nearly as nasty as most observers claim it will be. They believe it will be just as bad if not worse for Europe and this fact should be used to exact further concessions from Europe (in particular the end of the backstop). In fact, one Brexiteer, the right-wing Conservative Cabinet member Priti Patel, at one point suggested that the prospect of food shortages could be used to persuade Ireland to change its stand on the backstop. This position led to much criticism given Ireland’s terrible history of famines, including the one that occurred between 1845 and 1849 when an estimated one million people died.

It was these hugely differing groups who came together on January 15 to oppose Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement. It is noteworthy, and a sign of the complexity of what is going on, that when the scale of the defeat became clear—the 230 margin of loss was the biggest ever suffered by a British government in modern history—members of the public from both sides who had gathered outside Parliament celebrated joyously.

However, that moment of unity was brief, and divisions have swiftly widened. When Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn put a motion of no confidence against the government in the House of Commons, Conservative MPs quickly fell in line, with members of the ERG and supporters of a soft Brexit and a second referendum making plain their opposition to Corbyn. The Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, which has never wielded as much power as it does now, unsurprisingly backed the government. While all Labour MPs backed the party’s motion, some spoke out against the Labour line on Brexit and the party’s failure to push for a second referendum.

Corbyn’s risky strategy

Divisions have become even more pronounced since Corbyn has said he remains convinced that pushing for a general election is the party’s top priority (despite a party conference resolution that called on it to push for a second referendum if its attempt to get an election failed). He believes that as the clock ticks down towards Brexit day, 11 p.m. on March 29, some moderate Conservatives may lose their nerve and back his motion to oust the government. However, it is a risky strategy as many of these MPs are not convinced by Corbyn’s offering on Brexit either.

The Scottish National Party has joined Labour in refusing to talk to the Prime Minister, who supposedly reached out to the opposition parties in an attempt to thrash out a deal. Both say it is a “faux” attempt and that unless she agrees to take a no-deal exit off the table there is little point in talks. But the Liberal Democrats have taken up the government’s offer and are now warning that they may not back Corbyn in future no-confidence votes if he does not back a second referendum.

Further complicating things for Corbyn, The Guardian and other newspapers have spoken to the Labour’s shadow cabinet members who have expressed their strong disquiet with the drive for a second referendum and indicated their readiness to walk out of the shadow cabinet were Corbyn to back it. Polling too suggests that while most party members do back a second vote, pushing for one could alienate voters in many Labour constituencies that voted to leave.

The hugely divisive state of affairs within and between political parties makes the road ahead practically unknowable. There are some people who are convinced that what they regard as common sense will prevail and that for all its tough talk the government will have to back down, extend Article 50 (the E.U. treaty mechanism that triggered Brexit) and eventually see sense and have another people’s vote.

Unpredictable future

But there is a huge danger in this complacency. Theresa May is not a politician known for her willingness to budge. In fact, it is she who has been pretty much single-handedly resisting any fundamental change to the U.K.’s hard-line approach to immigration. So when she says she is unwilling to move on the issue of allowing the country to be part of a customs union with the E.U. or a second referendum or seeking to postpone Brexit even for a matter of months, it is unlikely that she will change her tune. On one of the few occasions she did change her mind, when she called an election last year, it proved disastrous for her personally and for her party.

The sad truth is that none of the roads ahead will do anything to tackle the huge chasm that has opened up within the British public. If there is another referendum, the margins will remain relatively tight. A recent YouGov survey found that just 48 per cent of the population said they would remain, 38 per cent said they would leave and the remainder said they did not know or would not vote, which indicates a high level of unpredictability. It is far from the decisive verdict against Brexit one might have expected given the shambolic nature of parliamentary politics at the moment.

And even if a second referendum were to take place, could it avoid the pitfalls of the past? The “Remain” campaign was widely acknowledged to have been run disastrously: focussing too much on generating fear and pointing to irrelevant positives of the E.U. that had little to do with people’s everyday lives. Is there anyone who could carry forward a unifying positive campaign? And what question should be put to the public if the simple question of E.U. membership the first time round was the wrong one? What promises could be made?

The situation has been stoked by the far Right, which has sought to portray Theresa May’s stance (let alone those of soft Brexiteers) as a betrayal. Some MPs have faced aggressive harassment on the doorstep of Parliament over their position, which many see as a grim reminder of the aggressive environment in which the Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered during the referendum campaign. Words such as “betrayal”, “treachery’ and “coup” have been bandied about in the media and elsewhere by those conveniently ignoring the fact that such initiatives are being made through democratic parliamentary processes.

The fundamental problem is that for all the questions about the propriety of the “Leave” campaign (and many questions remain about this, not least the ones about funding sources, the figures cited and the pledges made), the public anger that contributed to it remains unassuaged.

During the no-confidence vote, Labour politicians sought to point to the host of ways in which conditions in a U.K. distracted by Brexit had continued to decline rapidly, hitting those worst off in society. “Out on the streets, in homes, schools and hospitals, people are struggling, and they take no hope and no strength from this ailing government,” noted Tom Watson, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, who closed the debate on the no-confidence motion. “What happened to those burning injustices that the Prime Minister said it was her mission to fight when she came into office? Racism, classism, homelessness and insecure jobs have all grown and burned brighter than ever before, and for so much of this, she is responsible. ”

No-deal Brexit

It is ironic that a government that was so adamant about the need to push through austerity measures despite its huge human toll has nonchalantly shelled out vast sums of money for Brexit and in particular for preparations for a no-deal scenario, for which it has set aside £4.2 billion. Earlier this month, the government announced a plan under which civil servants from a number of departments would be seconded to no-deal Brexit preparation roles. With no one to replace them, their existing work has been put on hold. And on the day before the withdrawal deal vote while politicians were focussed elsewhere, the government introduced changes that would cut the social security that many pensioners could claim, which could push many people further into poverty.

Well before it is due to take place, the toll of Brexit on the U.K has been sharp, enduring and devastating.

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