The House of Commons is sitting, as I write, on a freezing night in Westminster — winter’s last rally before Spring takes hold. There are no more than a dozen protesters round the building; all Remainers, hardy folk in their 50s and 60s, veterans, possibly addicts of blockades, marches, sit-ins in the heat and cold, enjoying the chance once again to wear silly hats, to grip cups of hot beverages tightly, and to sing.
For years the TV networks recorded interviews with politicians on various green patches between Parliament and Westminster Abbey, which is to its immediate north. The occasional protester would video-bomb the background, but that just added to the colour. In recent years, however, people have been jostling to get into the shot, until the interviews started to break down. So the networks built raised interview platforms, which got Big Ben in shot, but excluded protesters — until they started to break out the stilts (circus skills, useful at last!).
When the whole of College Green was locked off, they began shouting. No, not shouting — keening, calling. Half of them are keen bushwalkers and have been in radical North London choirs, so they’re polished. “Noooooooooo Breeeeexittttttt”, they trill, in duos and trios. You can hear it through the stone labyrinth of Westminster, and the televisions of the nation.
“How long have you been here?” I asked a tired, 60-something woman with straggly hair, leaning against a wired-up “Revoke” sign. “Why are you doing this?”
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Her Answer: “twelve hours” and “because it’s mad”.
“A majority voted for it…”
“It doesn’t matter, if something’s mad! You don’t get to be mad! A kid knows that!”
There’s something in that. It’s oft-suggested that Lewis Carroll lifted the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party from the form that the House of Commons had taken by the mid 19th century; its caterwauling members, bizarre self-contained rules, uproar and torpor mingling.
Knowing that, you cant help but see pint-size speaker John Bercow, bawling “Ordddddderrrrrrrrrr!” like a music-hall barker or yelling “DIVISIONNNNN!” like 10-year-olds yell “fight”; seeing Jacob Rees-Mogg chide his opponent for being an Etonian who argues like a Wykehamist*, other than in the style of Tenniel. The whole thing is so serious and so silly at the same time.
You may recall that the last cliffhanger was that on Monday all four “indicative” motions — the most important being committing to a conservative customs union and a second referendum — put forward by backbenchers, not government, failed to get to yes. The 35-strong Scottish National Party contingent held out on a customs union (they want a referendum or nothing), and about 40 Labour Leavers defied the whip to vote against a second referendum. The hour or so after was pure thrill, the rare site of actual sovereignty returning to the parliamentary floor, backbenchers trying to work out what to do, in dialogue, in real time.
PM Theresa May had a plan. She announced that inner “political” cabinet and full cabinet would meet for five hours on Tuesday to hammer out something new. On Tuesday it was announced the meetings had been cut to three hours; they went for seven.
At the end of the day, May came out for a three-minute presser — cabinet had been locked in Number 10, their phones confiscated, to prevent gazumping — and announced that she would be reaching out to the opposition leader to craft a deal that could be jointly presented to parliament.
The response was immediate: white hot fury from Tory Brexiteers, and the suggestion from many Labour folk that having wrecked their own party, the Tories were now asking Labour to wreck theirs in pursuit of getting an orderly Brexit — which was meant to be the Tories’ job for the past two years.
Two outer Cabinet members resigned, one assailing Corbyn as a “Marxist”. The latter point became the talking point of the next day, with Tory Brexiteers lining up to use the M word. Corbyn said he would be happy to meet with the PM and hear what she has to say.
Politically, the situation is dangerous for both parties. Leaks from the seven-hour Cabinet meeting had 14 against a meet with Corbyn, seven for. The move was rammed through on May’s say-so, but with up to 15 possible ministerial resignations pending.
But if Labour comes to own Brexit, it’s killing itself. Corbyn, a left Leaver — hilariously, his position on the EU as an imperialist inner-sleeve of NATO makes him more Brexitish than Rees-Mogg — has taken up the position of a second referendum because Labour members want it, and because it gives Labour an out. But a hard core of Labour Leavers — party chair Ian Lavery chief among them — believe any form of such would split Labour asunder.
Corbyn and May met through Wednesday, while the Commons sat to do a whole bill in a day — a final reading of a bill to make it illegal to leave with no deal — and produced the by-now usual cliffhangers, with the question of whether a third presentation of the “indicative” motions should be put. This came to a draw of 310 each, and the speaker used his casting vote to kill it. The third reading of Labour’s pro-remain bill — an anti-no-deal bill, and building in delay — rushed through in a day, won 313-312. Tomorrow, it goes to the Lords.
So tomorrow May, a conservative Remainer, will try and have the UK leave the EU, with the help of a Leaver who will try and impose a referendum on her, which may result in remaining. Mad, as was said.
The Python sketch — no not the Black Knight, the one about the election between a Sensible and a Silly party (“Kevin Smith vs F’tang F’tang Ole Biscuitbarrel”) — comes to mind. The idea in UK politics that only one party is sensible at any given time, and that that is part of the country’s deep structure.
If so, Theresa May has just handed Jeremy Corbyn the “sensible” mantle, and it may be enough for an eventual victory — especially if rabid Brexiteers, feeling the first chill of the next winter, howling in the wilderness, force an election in months, not years.
*alumnus of Winchester college school, allegedly over-intellectual.