Brexit
(Image: House of Commons/PA Wire)

We have moved the international affairs desk of Crikey to the Raffles Café in Paddington. Paddington, the gully trap of London. Paddington, where hope comes to die. Paddington, a warren of streets of Georgian terraces, flea-bitten hotels, rooms carved out of stairwells, dying pubs, crammed corner shops.

Paddington, ungentrifiable, the great glass arches and vaults of the station rising like a waking kraken above the shabby streets. And in the middle of it, the Raffles, king of a row of sad cafes. Its Raffles breakfast, a three-quarters English, used to be three quid with tea thrown in, kept me going through thin times more than once.

So we are sitting here with the Raffles (egg, sausage, bacon, beans, and most important, fried bread) and the papers spread out, and even though it feels like, in Paddington, nothing has changed since 1976, we are nevertheless in a country where people are openly joking about who the prime minister is.

Yesterday, in parliament, Tory wonk Oliver Letwin put up a motion to take control of the order paper of Commons business, and, to the surprise of many, it got through with a 27-vote majority, 329-302. That took Brexit out of the hands of the government, and into the hands of, well, who? The speaker really.

Though Letwin is now being called “the provisional prime minister” or “the prime minister of West Dorset” (his constituency), the whole thing has become mediaeval, with speaker John Bercow emerging from a purely administrative role to setting the agenda.

Tomorrow, the House will debate and vote on a number of alternative proposals to the government’s “customs union-single market-backstop” push, which has been defeated twice. It is said there are currently as many as 16 alternative proposals floating around to vote on, from which the speaker will choose a half dozen or so. There is Norway, Norway plus, Canada, Common Market 2.0 and others. Actual Prime Minister Theresa May has said she won’t allow a free vote on these alternatives, and will whip the government to reject them all.

However, that proposal presumes that there’s a government to whip. What is actually extraordinary sitting here, amid London getting about its business in the usual way, is that there’s some vague confusion about what the prime minister actually is.

She’s a minister of the crown, sworn in, as is the cabinet. She can make foreign deals and enact internal regulations. But once parliament sits, what is she? All authority has disappeared. The country has no president. The Queen is not going to resume executive power, so, er, who is actually running this joint?

Rumour is — I saw it on BBC2 — that up to 20 ministers would quit if the shrinking May clique attempted to whip them against voting for “indicative” proposals.  

The alternative, indicative proposals, in brief summary are:

  • “Norway” — the UK stays in the single market, by remaining in the EEA, the larger body that includes the EU, Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein.
  • “Norway plus” — Norway, plus staying in customs union. Both involve freedom of movement.
  • “Common market 2.0” — a variant on Norway plus, but I don’t understand how (and I’ve read it three times).
  • “Canada” — a quick interim free-trade agreement along the EU-Canada lines, dismissed as a fantasy cover for no deal by many.
  • No backstop/smart backstop — this removes the special status for Northern Ireland, which would keep it in the EU, and whose continued existence dissuades the DUP from voting up the deal. Has been rejected by EU.
  • Second referendum — plus a further EU extension.
  • No deal  — voted up as positive move.
  • General election — not a vote per se, but a possibility.

So will it all be sorted tomorrow? Haha, no. This will be a paper vote in the Commons, as a non-ranked preferential vote, i.e. you choose one, two, four, however many proposals you like. That will most likely produce a scattering of low-yield votes and no decisive result. So, on Monday, there’ll be a ranked preferential vote, if no clear preference has emerged.

Before that, on Thursday, May may present her withdrawal bill a third time. But only if she believes that enough Tory Leavers have been scared into supporting her, out of fear of what will happen if they don’t. Belloc’s “always keep-a hold of nurse/for fear of finding something worse” certainly exercises a big hold over men raised by nannies.

Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Jonson have already indicated that they may now back May’s deal, to the howls of protest from loyalists. Tomorrow morning, May meets the Tory 1922 Committee (their average birth date); it is said she will offer to leave, if her deal is passed, which puts her in the history books.

That’s where we’re at in the evening tomorrow (early Thursday morning in Oz). It is… there are no words for how exciting this is; the sudden fluidity of institutions, the genuine fact that no one knows what will happen in 24 hours. It is as English as a breakfast: it works when hot. Ten minutes later, it’s all cold beans, the lip of the fried bread curling as it looks at you. What better place to contemplate it than a seedy Georgian labyrinth? Hangover Square is my Baedeker, as the great English road rolls on.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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