Well, it’s currently panto season in the UK. Across the country, old Royal Shakespeare Society Actors actors, Home and Away stars and failed Big Brother contestants are squeezing into shopworn tights in the “dressing-room” (bogs) of the Theatre Royal Scroggington and such. They’re learning the new Donald Trump jokes (“Repulsive, let down your hair,” [orange toupee floats down] “It is the best hair, the most beautiful hair…”) and wondering how the hell they ended up here.
So too are the great British public contemplating Brexit, and suddenly realising that it is this year, THIS YEAR, on the March 29. That’s TEN WEEKS AWAY. There’s no withdrawal agreement in place as ratified by parliament, no guarantee of an exit delay if one is not put in place, and no idea what will happen should a no-deal crash-out occur. Clap your hands if you believe, children.
This will all come to a head on Tuesday afternoon and evening in the UK, when PM Teresa May’s increasingly notional government is scheduled to put her proposed withdrawal agreement to the House. This agreement is itself a stopgap: it preserves a customs union and single market between the UK and the EU until a full trade agreement is negotiated. However, as part of such it agrees to conform UK law to EU directives indefinitely. It also allows for Northern Ireland to be treated as a separate entity if necessary, to preserve the open border on Ireland, thus putting a border through the UK. Howled down by pro-Leave Tories when it was negotiated, it was withdrawn from a proposed vote in 2018.
Perhaps May hoped that time and desperation would focus sufficient “middle” Tory minds, so it could be pushed through when presented closer to March 29. May made a show of shuttling to Brussels — it’s practically on the London Tube map — to renegotiate, but no-one believed she would get anything. She didn’t. Next Monday, January 21, is the last date by which an agreement must be ratified by the Commons according to the withdrawal act. She’s really running out of options.
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However, the agreement scheduled to come to a vote tomorrow is not the same one that was withdrawn before a vote last year. Last week, the speaker John Bercow, a Tory who has become increasingly independent of the government’s wishes as the Brexit process has thundered on, permitted Tory Remainer Dominic Grieve to add an amendment to the withdrawal agreement. This would oblige May, should the agreement be voted down, to give a “statement of intentions” to the Commons by January 21. Presumably “get paralytically drunk” would not cut it. It would have to be a statement on whether she would continue as PM, or whether she would seek an extension, a second referendum or a general election.
Thus, Widow Twankey appears, but in a suicide vest. The intent, by Grieve and others, is a hair-raisingly risky move to leave a Tory government in place, but to simultaneously change parliamentary procedure by reversing the priority of government and backbench motions so that the latter have priority. That would effectively hand control of proposing legislation to the Commons as a whole, pretty much challenging the Westminster practice of the executive leadership of the legislature. The accepted amendments to the withdrawal act thus functioned as both precedent-setter and trigger for the crisis within which the new precedent will be employed. Which is a bit clever, I must say.
Stage two of this process would be that Remain MPs from both major parties would take over the process to see what they could get. Tory Remainers — Oliver Letwin and Nick Boles are the leaders of the push — would like, if they thought they could get away with it, to revoke Brexit in parliament without a second referendum. But that would really take the UK to the edge of a major political disruption and the repudiation of parliament’s legitimacy. The safer course would be an extension for the withdrawal date — leading to a second referendum, at which they presume a Remain vote would have a majority.
But of course, compelling the PM to set out a decisive course of action immediately also makes a vote of no confidence more likely. The Labour leadership have resisted calls to bring one as they knew they would lose. It will take a great deal to detach the Democratic Unionist Party or extreme pro-Leave Tories from supporting the government through clenched teeth. But making May jump one way or the other might be enough to do it. A no confidence vote doesn’t trigger a general election per se, nor would May’s resignation. But the former would make the latter close to unavoidable, and that brings a general election closer as well.
It’s actually all a bit more complicated than even this rendition, but I suspect that’s about as much as most people need or want. Above all, it points to one of the many paradoxes of this process — that a referendum that sought the “people’s will” now sees British government being reconstructed using parliamentary arcana accessible only to professional politicians. History in Britain repeats as tragedy and farce, and now as panto — dry ice and a lit mirror pointed from the back of the Gods. It’s all going to be alright. OH NO IT ISN-.