It’s been one of those days when you start writing an article, and by the time you get to the end of the sentence there’s been some other significant development in the catastrocrash that passes for British politics. My hard drive is littered with the ruins of aborted and unworkable articles, so rather like the Conservative party then.
The day started off badly for Theresa May and has got steadily worse as the day went on. Under normal circumstances you’d feel a modicum of sympathy for a fellow human being who was being put under such stress in the workplace. But this is Theresa May we’re talking about here, a woman who thinks empathy is a Cypriot holiday resort frequented by socialists, and who responds to questions about human tragedy with robotic soundbites. She’s devoted an entire career to demonstrating as many different ways possible of exhibiting a lack of compassion. So these are not normal circumstances, and as such we’re only demonstrating a healthy human response by laughing at her discomfort.
It began with legal advice from the advocate general to the European Court of Justice, who gave his considered opinion to the court that the UK can cancel Article 50 unilaterally. Advice from the advocate general is not binding on the court, but it is generally followed, meaning that it is highly likely that the court will rule the same way. The ruling had been sought by a group of Scottish politicians, who had been fought tooth and nail every step of the way by Theresa May’s government. Supporters of Brexit claimed that they wanted to leave the EU in order to take back control, but apparently not so much control that campaigners can seek legal rulings against the UK government. The government doesn’t want the people to be informed, because the more that we know, the less that we fear.
What this means is that, if as now appears likely, the European Court of Justice follows the advice of its advocate general, British MPs will be able to halt the Article 50 process unilaterally. Activating Article 50 notified the EU of the UK’s intention to leave, but now the UK can halt it without having to seek agreement from other EU members. The UK would be able to remain in the EU and retain all its current opt-outs, rebates, and privileges, something that the British government was insistent was not the case. Just last week Michael Gove insisted that it was not the case. It would suit him and other members of the Tory party because if it were not the case then resisting their Brexit plans would be more difficult. Moreover, the British government was hell bent on ensuring that British citizens couldn’t find out whether it was the case or not. There’s that taking back control for you.
Then the British government’s control freakery fetish for secrecy took another battering. Despite a vote in the Commons to oblige the government to release the UK’s legal advice on Theresa May’s Brexit plan, the government had refused to do so. That would be that same Commons that Brexit was supposed to restore full sovereignty to. But not that sovereignty. Oh no. That’s the wrong kind of sovereignty. Not sovereignty to hold the British government to account. It was just supposed to be sovereignty as far as foreigners are concerned. Because we won the war you know. We have a government which is so arrogant that it believes it has the right to ignore the will of Parliament. That’s not just a step on the road to dictatorship, it’s a bus ride. A bus with lies about the EU painted on its side.
Angered at the disdain that the government had been showing for that very Parliament that’s supposed to be sovereign, opposition MPs forced a debate on holding the government in contempt. First the government attempted to introduce its own amendment to the contempt motion, only for it to be voted down by 311 votes to 307. Then despite an attempt at filibustering from Tory MPs more interested in the sound of their own voices than in the sound of democracy dying, the motion itself was carried by 311 votes to 293. It’s unprecedented for a government to be found to be in contempt of Parliament, but that’s precisely what happened today.
In order to avoid sanctions being taken against minister, the government has promised to publish the full legal advice tomorrow (Wednesday). All of this could have been avoided if Theresa May understood the difference between resolve and a pig-headed arrogance. She wants a divorce from the EU, but the only divorce on display so far is her government’s divorce from reality.
If losing one vote in Parliament is unfortunate for a government, and losing two is carelessness, losing three is the level of incompetent haunlessness that we should have come to expect given the progress of the British government in the Brexit negotiations to far. Well, I say progress. The UK’s handling of Brexit is to political progress as a clown car is to a luxury European sports car.
Operating on the principle that the best time to boot a guy in the balls is when he’s already on the floor, opposition MPs and Tory remainer rebels delivered another kicking to the government in the aftermath of the contempt vote. Tory Remainer Dominic Grieve tabled an amendment to the parliamentary motion setting out how the government’s Brexit deal would be debated over the coming days. According to the EU Withdrawal Act, the government has 21 days to return to Parliament with a new motion should Theresa May’s deal fail to attract the support of enough MPs.
The government had intended to present MPs with a take it or leave it deal, because you know, control freakery, but Grieve’s amendment allows MPs to make their own amendments to whatever the government puts forward. The motion passed by 321 votes to 299, meaning that Theresa May has lost control of the final form that Brexit will take should her deal not win a majority when MPs vote on it next week. MPs will now be able to prevent a no-deal by default.
Now no one knows what’s going to happen. The Brexit debates are still on-going in the Commons and are set to continue for the next five days. Rumours are circulating that the government might even pull the deal from the debate and not have a vote on it all rather than face a fourth humiliating defeat in the space of a few days. Other rumours say that Theresa May might be planning another snap General Election. Hard line Brexiteers are downcast, but their fears that Brexit could be stopped might be enough to get enough of them to support Theresa’s deal.
Theresa has suffered three strikes but she’s not out, yet. She’s certainly not safe. It seems that the UK falling out of the EU with no deal is less likely now than it was this time yesterday, but it’s impossible to say with any certainty what is going to happen tomorrow, never mind next week when Theresa’s deal is voted on in the Commons, and certainly not what’s going to happen in March next year. Maybe we’ll know more tomorrow. But I wouldn’t bet on it. The only certainties left are that there are no certainties any more in British politics, and that we can add the safety, security, and stability of the UK to the long and lengthening list of Better Together’s broken promises to the people of Scotland.
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