In a hundred years’ time, I imagine that the British Psychological Society will still be using the behaviour of the House of Commons during the Brexit saga as an essential case study. It offers adult infantilism, a refusal to confront reality, an abdication of personal responsibility, an utter lack of self-awareness and a mania for scapegoating – all of them on an epic scale.
On 9 June 2015, the House of Commons passed an act to hold an in-out referendum on membership of the EU by 544 votes to 53. On 1 February 2017, it passed an act to give effect to Britain’s withdrawal from the EU by 498 votes to 114. One might think that these votes indicated overwhelming support both for holding a referendum and for implementing its outcome. This is clearly not the case.
An unholy and disparate alliance of MPs is conspiring to make Brexit in any sensible form an impossibility. Some are so opposed to leaving the EU that they will do anything to thwart it, despite most of them having voted for implementation. They are crooks. Some are so ideologically wedded to an extreme form of Brexit that they will vote against any lesser version of it. They are fantasists. Some see the present chaos solely as an opportunity to force a general election and bring about a change of government. They are knaves. All are engaged in political posturing. All are duplicitous. All are increasing the risk of chaos through a no-deal exit.
Yet all of them claim, in different ways, to be fulfilling their sacred mission of defending what the people did (or didn’t) vote for. This is dishonesty or self-delusion or both. The people were asked one question – to remain or to leave – and they expressed, narrowly, a wish to leave. That is all they expressed, because it is all they were able to express. Any MP who attacks a form of Brexit that he or she doesn’t like because it “betrays what people voted for” is distorting the truth for personal ends.
There are five options. The first is to cancel Brexit. That is the one thing that would be a betrayal of what people voted for, as well as a betrayal of what MPs themselves overwhelmingly voted for in 2017.
If Brexit proceeds, the remaining four options all come with drawbacks. These drawbacks are unavoidable, and anyone who claims that they either don’t exist or can somehow magically be negotiated away is being dishonest. The biggest drawback is attached to a no-deal exit, with its potential not just for short-term chaos, but also for long-term catastrophe. Only a tiny minority of MPs would support this outcome, yet the behaviour of all of them is making it more likely.
That leaves us with three versions of a negotiated settlement. Theresa May’s deal has the drawback of the Irish backstop. A Canada-style deal has the twin drawbacks of a hard Irish border and damage to our trade with the EU. A Norway-style deal has the drawback of continued free movement. If the referendum is to be honoured and a no-deal exit avoided, one of these options needs to be chosen along with its drawback.
All three options need a withdrawal agreement. No one has yet suggested a convincing way that the existing agreement is likely to be improved upon. Yet MPs will not support it. What exactly do they want, apart from fluffy toys for everyone?
I have deliberately not mentioned a second referendum as an option, because to me it is not an option. It is a cop-out. It is being touted either by MPs who do not intend to honour the referendum vote, or their own vote to implement it, but who don’t have the honesty to say so, or by MPs who can’t make up their own minds and are hoping that other people will do it for them. More deceit. More dereliction of duty. And, for that reason, if there was a second referendum, this time I would vote to leave.
It is an axiom of politics that governments should provide firm leadership. However, since every other axiom of politics is in abeyance at the moment, perhaps this one should be ditched as well. At present, the Prime Minister – along with a handful of her colleagues – are the only grown-ups in the room. It is time to force the pubescent rabble that passes for a House of Commons to take some responsibility.
It may not be possible to change the withdrawal agreement, but it should be possible to change the political declaration that accompanies it. Instead of that declaration envisaging one specific outcome of trade negotiations, it could simply outline the three options, and any others that may exist, including their respective drawbacks. And MPs should then be obliged, on a free vote, to state which option they support. If they do choose to support one of them, they will also need to support the withdrawal agreement. If they won’t support any of them, they will individually and collectively be telling the country that – contrary to all they have said and done – they decline to implement the referendum result and are happy to put the country at risk of a no-deal exit.
As may be apparent, I am angry at the moment. Until today, I have been uncertain as to the true target of that anger. Now I have had time to consider it, I know precisely the target. And it is not the Government which, whether one agrees with its position or not, has been honest and conscientious throughout. It has laid out the practical options for withdrawal, for which it has been vilified and scapegoated by a pathetic array of political pygmies who either lack the courage of their convictions, or whose extreme convictions are to be foisted on everyone else by blackmail. In particular, their treatment of the Prime Minister has been disgusting.
My anger is directed at our immature, deceitful and self-serving members of Parliament. Where is Guy Fawkes when we need him?