Things Fall Apart II: The Centre Does Not Hold

Okay, for Parliament fans.

Last night was tedious, reckless and embarrassing. Her Majesty’s Government is attempting the ludicrous trick of leveraging the EU negotiation team and the UK Parliament against each other rather than actually doing its job, while large parts of Parliament are either arguing about which colour unicorn to ask for, actively scheming to throw us into the toilet or desperately hoping someone else will fix things for them.

There actually was a bit of momentum for some sort of resolution, up until a day or two ago, but May expended considerable energy into convincing everyone to kick the can down the road for no very good reason, and a narrow majority accepted it, essentially out of fear of the electorate.

The Setup

With less than two months to go, and with her extant deal comprehensively rejected, May came back to Parliament with a Plan B (which was really just Plan A again). Like last time, this was amendable, but whereas last time MPs agreed to withdraw all amendments so they could give a clear and conclusive answer to the deal as it stood, this was seen as their chance to forge a way out of the deadlock. This was when we would start to Get Shit Done.

The motion was tabled for yesterday, giving MPs a week to submit amendments, lobby for support and prepare their arguments. More than twenty amendments were advanced, some of them very thoughtful, well-crafted tools for helping ease our way out of the crisis. Statements of intent, referendums, extensions to the Article 50 deadline, citizens’ assemblies, non-binding “indicative votes” to determine which solutions had the most support in the House and one rather elegant (if radical) tool for shutting the Government up for a few days and letting the MPs work on a compromise.

May’s Strategies

This House has Considered: May’s first play was making the vote an advisory motion. Rather than moving that “This House accepts the Withdrawal Agreement,” she moved that “This House has considered the Withdrawal Agreement,” which meant it had no consequence. The purpose of the debate and vote was thus to let May know how MPs feel about the deal (which they did, by a 230-vote margin, two weeks ago) and to propose solutions; but not to actually achieve anything. There would be another debate and vote, no later than Valentine’s Day (a day commemorating a community leader who was prosecuted for making outlandish claims, challenged to perform miracles and then executed for failing to do so). May claimed this was some sort of constitutional requirement relating to the 21st January “statement on no-deal” requirement of the Withdrawal Act, but even constitutional lawyers had no idea what she was on about. So it was basically to take the urgency out of the vote.

(This is because, while there’s a clear majority against no-deal, there’s no majority for anything, so MPs aren’t going to rally around any one solution until it’s too late to do anything else. As long as May can keep them feeling like it’s not too late, they won’t unite.)

The Brady Amendment: Graham Brady, leader of the 1922 Committee (the Conservative backbench), tabled an amendment endorsing the Withdrawal Agreement, sans the Irish Backstop, and asking the Government to replace it with an “alternative arrangement” to keep the border open.

The Malthouse “Compromise”: At the same time, Steve Baker, a junior minister in DExEU, put together a magnificently bullshit document dragging out the old “technological solutions” to the border and proposing a “managed no-deal” (that is, a withdrawal agreement about not having a withdrawal agreement, which is as nonsensical as it sounds) as a fallback to the technological solutions. A managed no-deal isn’t a thing, and the technological solutions don’t exist, and legit the ERG spent half of 2017 and 2018 peddling this nonsense and were repeatedly knocked back, but because this time it was padded out with passages from May’s agreement and some extra legalese, to make it look like an actual proposal rather than a pipe-dream, MPs started treating it like an actual thing. Housing Minister Kit Malthouse called it a “compromise” between the ERG hardliners and the Tory soft-brexiters and brought people together to support it.

These two things came together, with May whipping MPs to support the Brady amendment while broadly hinting she would take the Malthouse “compromise” to the EU to renegotiate. Which means, yes, she was ordering her own MPs to fatally undermine her own deal, which she’d said only days ago was the only deal available, to take an alternative deal back to the EU which she knows won’t work and which the EU has already rejected.

Essentially, she’s dealing with two groups, neither of which she can persuade to budge, so she’s decided to get them to try and budge each other and absolve her of responsibility for doing so. She’s trying to be the fulcrum, rather than the lever: wielding the EU’s intransigence against Parliament’s indecision and vice versa. It’s not going to work.

What Happened

Broadly what was expected, really, once May had done her damage. Seven amendments were accepted for debate by the Speaker. Of those:

  • Labour’s and the SNP’s amendments were just political statements, essentially saying, “If we did things our way, it would go better,” and were predictably voted down because they were political statements and neither party has a majority in the House;
  • Grieve’s (which provides for six sitting days between now and Brexit Day in which backbench Brexit bills have precedence and the Government can jolly well sit down and listen), Cooper’s (which provides for an automatic request to extend Article 50 if a deadline is reached with no progress) and Reeves’ (which does much the same as Cooper’s in a slightly different way) amendments were narrowly defeated;
  • and… Brady’s bullshit amendment asking the PM to negotiate the non-negotiable was passed with a comfortable margin.

The only real upset was Caroline Spelman’s amendment, which asserts that Parliament won’t leave without an agreement. Slightly promising as it shows (as previous votes had suggested but not unequivocally shown) that there is a majority against no-deal, but as much use as a chocolate teapot, not least because they had the opportunity to meaningfully insure against no-deal with Grieve’s, Cooper’s or Reeves’ amendments but voted against them. It’s like voting against being rained on, but also against buying an umbrella.

But Why, Dave? Why Did It Happen?

Because May knew what she was doing, in a horrifying way. She doesn’t want no-deal either; she wants MPs to accept her deal, which she worked hard to secure. And she thinks the best way to do that is to drag things out until it’s too late to do anything else, and is banking on that anything-but-no-deal majority to accept her deal when the time comes. Until then, she’s running the clock down.

She played them, taking the urgency away by making the vote non-binding and promising another vote down the line (she even used that line in Parliament: “there’ll be more chances to prevent no-deal”) and dangling Brady’s amendment and the ridiculous Maltford “compromise” in front of them to give false hope that a solution could yet be found. And she won.

What Next?

Who knows? May goes to Brussels, pointlessly. There’s more debate, more amendments, more voting. Maybe Parliament will finally show its courage. But it’s hard to imagine when; this would, after all, have been a great time to do it.

But it’s important not to look at the House as having collectively voted for this motion, against that motion. All these votes were pretty narrow, in the neighbourhood of 300 votes to 320 each time. Which means there’s a solid 300 MPs who either back May’s deal or are consciously gunning for no-deal; and a solid 300 MPs who oppose May’s deal, who support Grieve’s and Cooper’s ideas and are desperate to avoid no-deal by any and all avenues; and around 20 MPs who are loudly and firmly against no-deal but are terrified of doing anything that could be seen as preventing the “will of the people.”

Twenty MPs. Just over a dozen Labour MPs from the Leaveiest seats, around half as many Tory moderates whose constituents will not tolerate the backstop. Twenty MPs who are clear-eyed about the dangers, but don’t want to go home to their constituencies and face deselection; who will give May every chance they can to try one more time to fix this problem; who would, all things considered, much prefer it if someone else altogether fixed it so they could pretend to their constituencies that they were disappointed that Brexit was “sabotaged” (while secretly breathing a sigh of relief).

Twenty cowards, truth be told, who need to get off the fucking pot, clearly tell their constituents what the deal is, and take action. Because their chances to do so are quickly running out.

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