This Is What's Currently Happening with Brexit
After the extraordinary events of last week, you'd be forgiven for being completely lost.
A Leave protester in London. Photo: Ink Drop / Alamy Stock Photo
Where are we now? The news cycle tumbles onwards with barely a moment to reflect. Last week was one of the most extraordinary in UK political history, but in this Berlin Airlift called Brexit, when a plane crashes on the runway, we don't investigate it, we just sweep the bits off the tarmac and make ready for the next one coming in.
Last week, four cabinet ministers voted against the government's three line whip – the highest line of whip there is. None were sacked, or even offered to resign. This never happens.
Brexit Minister Steve Barclay finished up his speech by "commending the motion to the house", as is convention. Then – because MPs were allowed a free vote on extending Article 50 – immediately went and voted against the motion he'd just spoken in favour of. This never happens.
The Draft Agreement went down to the fourth-largest defeat in Parliamentary history. Yet in the aftermath it was still being touted that we might have a fourth vote on exactly the same document this week. This never happens.
We don’t have a written constitution in this country – our system's too old for that. Instead, we have a quilt of precedent, wrapped in a patchwork of legislation. It is often said that the British Constitution is "whatever happens", and that this subtle settlement can persist because of something called The Good Chap Theory – that the country is run by basically good chaps and chapettes, all of whom would rather fall on their swords than subvert the system's ancient norms.
All that went out the window last week. This generation of political nobodies has seen fit to treat our unwritten constitution as rules made to be broken. They seem to be suffering from the narcissistic delusion that the issues of their age are the most important ones there have ever been. Bigger than the Norway Debate that swept Churchill to power, bigger than Irish Home Rule, or the General Strike of 1926. How very modern of them.
It speaks of the scope of last week that it's only a footnote that the "People's Vote" was sunk in a confusing volley of friendly fire. An amendment in support of a second referendum went down, heavily – 85 for, 334 against – with Labour abstaining.
Somehow, it has fallen to John Bercow, the Speaker, to draw a line under the pissfuckery. He may be pompous. He may have been the subject of numerous bullying accusations, which he denies. He may have a bizarre way of saying the word "Order", but he is the hero we deserve. On Monday, he ruled that the PM was flouting the unwritten constitution by offering the same thing over and over again. He cited a precedent going back to the 1600s – one that hadn't been used by any Speaker in a hundred years.
So it all becomes meaningless – all that endless back-and-forth about ever-bigger bribes for the DUP, the latest odds on whether Jacob Rees-Mogg was going a bit floppy and how many Labour MPs May could pull over the line. The end. Rip up your betting slips and go home.
Could she still win her deal back? At this point it's like praying for a Harry Kane equaliser in the 93rd minute of a semi-final. Hope against hope. One option would be to modify it somehow – get the EU to give her some new goodies. But hasn't she spent five weeks trying and failing to do just that?
One other wheeze is feasible. Following a question from JRM, the Speaker has confirmed that it would be possible to reintroduce the bill if it were a new session of Parliament – in other words, May could suspend the House. Then start a "new" sitting. The political equivalent of turning it off and turning it on again. This would be some Latin American junta levels of tinkering.
Bar that, only one event remains in the calendar. On Thursday evening, May goes to Brussels again. Like hell's cocktail party, all 27 EU heads or their delegates will be waiting for her. There, she will ask them for an extension. Then they will shut her out of the room and debate whether to give her what she seeks. The decision will follow immediately, probably around 9PM.
It's almost certain they will grant her one. But the catch is that they alone get to decide on what the length of that delay is, then offer it back to her on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. They will go long – their entire strategy is to keep us as close as possible for as long as possible.
Still, we may be better off waiting it out anyway. In May, a new EU Parliament will be elected, and at least a third of those new members – maybe up to half – will be anti-EU populists. If we hung on, we could seek better terms from a new regime, one less wedded to the dream of Ever Closer Union.
But as the immediate constitutional crisis begins to fade, the bigger problem for May will be saving her own skin. MPs have tolerated the chaos, the riding roughshod over our ancient norms, because they have had no choice – the timetable has squeezed all the air out of the room. Once that timetable extends to two years, there will be plenty of space to depose a leader who, as of right now, can finally be judged to have failed on the only thing she was ever employed to do.