Who Made the Best Brexit Speech as Parliament Voted for Article 50?

MPs reluctantly pushed us another step towards catastrophe.

by Gavin Haynes
02 February 2017, 11:36am

(Photos (L-R): Financial Times, via; Scottish government, via; M Holland, via

So close.

If only a couple hundred more MPs voted the opposite way over Article 50 on Wednesday the whole Brexit thing could have been stopped and everyone could have gone back to Brussels; panic over.

Instead, they were frogmarched through the lobbies by those Nazi bastards the Great British Public and their stupid referendum.

It was, though, quite the occasion. Over 200 MPs gave speeches. It was Parliament's equivalent of the Met Gala – a rare packing-out of the House. A see-and-be-seen occasion where different generations of political stars mingled. So who was wearing Balenciaga, and who was wearing some shitty Marc Jacobs thing where the sleeves looked like bat wings?

Ken Clarke speaks in the House of Commons during the second reading debate on the EU (Notification on Withdrawal) Bill. Picture: PA Wire/PA Images

105-year-old semi-pro Bagpuss impersonator Kenneth Clarke became the only Tory to rebel in the vote – as against more than 100 Labour MPs. Which was all rather lovely, like a heartwarming British film from the 90s where some past-it old duffer rediscovers his lease on life by winning a breakdancing competition.

Ken could have been Tory leader in 2001, and history could have been very different – not least on the question of Iraq. But he was stuffed by his insistent pro-Europeanism, which jarred with an anti-EU party base, who went and elected unknown outsider IDS instead.

So Clarke was damned if he was going to quit being a big Brussels-loving pansy now. His speech was a roughly-wielded axe of sarcasm. "Apparently you follow the rabbit down the hole and you emerge in a wonderland where suddenly countries around the world are queuing up to give us trading advantages and access to their markets."

'Oh Ken,' everyone thought – and in the script Richard Curtis cued a 1960s pop hit.


It's odd when Ed Miliband's title flashes up on the TV beneath him – "Labour Leader 2010 to 2015" – and you realise, wow, we spent five years with him turning up in our newspapers every day, pretending to him that he might one day run the country. What were we thinking? He's the political equivalent of the person you dated in your early twenties for two whole years just because they were there.

"I can agree with the Prime Minister that 'Brexit means Brexit'," he said, and everyone got quite nostalgic for the confused cowardice of his old policy positions. "But I can't go along with the idea that 'Brexit means Trump'." Like many spurned lovers, Ed was just concerned that the British people were dating Trump now, and well, you know, purely platonically, he didn't think it was the right thing for them – and yes, maybe he hadn't given up hope that they could get back together at some point in the future, but really he just wanted to see the British people happy.


Some speeches had little to do with Article 50 and a lot to do with retroactively massaging their author's legacy. So it was with ancient historical figure George Osborne, who kept banging on about the economy.

Embarrassingly, George had predicted that every household would be £4,000 a year worse-off after Brexit, and that that he'd personally do a spending-slashing meaningless-pain budget in the days after any "Leave" vote.

He never got round to writing these factoids on the side of a bus, yet here he was still trying to defend them, like an Old Testament prophet who had predicted a great flood desperately checking his palms for a few spots of rain. He was going to vote for the bill, he said, even though "the government has prioritised immigration over the economy". It was a day for people to use the words "even though", then insert what they actually thought but weren't going to do. Outside on College Green, several MPs were treated by paramedics for severe cognitive dissonance.


Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer, (Photo: PA Wire/PA Images)

Labour's Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union was having a very difficult time.

"For the Labour party it is a difficult bill. We are a fiercely internationalist party, we are a pro-European party," he mithered. "But we lost the referendum…" In fact, because people kept shouting over him, he kept repeating the word "difficult" in a slightly forlorn tone, like he was just really sadcore about the whole thing. He appealed to the Speaker for the barracking to stop, told him how "difficult" it was conveying his message, and everyone just thought: 'Helicopter parenting is destroying our country.'

But then, Starmer was also one of several MPs who – with a 75 percent Remain constituency of Holborn and St Pancras – had to cry great big crocodile tears and then do it anyway. "Blub blub blub," he went, like the nice crucifixion guard in The Life of Brian.


"We're gonna go ahead with hard Tory Brexit, or Full English Brexit, as we're calling it in Scotland now." Salmond, a man who should be careful around name-based puns, did a solid job of staking out the SNP's decision to vote against the bill.

Despite his showy words, his tactic really hasn't changed in a decade: getting emotional and accusative about how Scotland is always being pushed around by England, then bouncing that into a teenage sense of entitlement. The SNP don't play by your earth rules, and somehow, like Trump, that flouncy exceptionalism means no one can ever lay a glove on them.


Tim Farron, (Photo: PA Wire/PA Images)

From a vote-winning perspective, the Lib Dems have a clear strategy – target the 48 percent. But on days like yesterday, the moral incoherence that it pushes them into gets dialled up to a cacophony. It was like Tim had asked his secretary to just mash her fists against the keyboard until they got the speech to 500 words.

As the grumbles swelled around him, Farron both argued against accepting a referendum he'd already voted to hold and for holding another referendum: "Democracy means accepting the will of the people, Mr Speaker. At the beginning of the process. And at the end of the process."



Margaret Beckett is one of those people you're always surprised to realise is still in Parliament. Isn't there a PFI company missing a board member?

But then you recall, yes, it was only 18 months ago that Dame M hit the headlines for declaring herself a "moron" – for putting down the final signature that permitted her ideological opponent Jeremy Corbyn to launch a leadership bid – all because she thought it would "be good for democracy".

No change, then. "Although I will vote for the bill, I fear its consequences are potentially catastrophic," she announced. With no irony.


In the midst of so much suffering, it was good to see some old faces who felt this was the happiest day of their lives.

John Redwood was into destroying the European Union back when that was un-cooler than playing Dungeons & Dragons with your mum's friends. Like Bill Gates telling you about how he was going to put "a computer on every desk" back in 1987, we had long tolerated his Vulcan frothings by writing him off as a dork hobbyist. But now… he was as rich as Croesus and back to show us his hot new girlfriend: National Sovereignty. "If the country had voted to stay in the EU, I would have stood down as an MP at the next election," he said, and people on both sides of the aisle wept.


Labour, East Ealing and Acton.

"There may be a crock of something at the end of the rainbow. But it may not be gold."



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George Osborne
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Article 50
Ken Clarke
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