Whatever else this week’s defeat for the government in parliament was about it was not the words on the order paper. In fact it was about much more than that.
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Many of the most prominent Tory “rebels” were in fact embittered sacked ministers, passed over hacks and Europhile fanatics like Kenneth Clarke. No-one should underestimate the fact that hell hath no fury like a minister parted from their ministerial Montego. In this like in so much else Armando Iannucci’s “The Thick of It” truly was art imitating life with astounding verisimilitude. Most MPs (and overwhelmingly most) want nothing more in life than to remain MPs. There is no indignity, no apostasy most of them would baulk at if it meant they could continue a life where the only heavy lifting is the wages and expenses package.
With ministers this goes into overdrive even if it is only a Montego they’re driving.
So scorned ministers and disappointed MPs love hung parliaments. Apart from anything else, they get the people who sacked them begging all day for at least an abstention! And if they can “change the course of history” as a pitiful footnote to their careers of failure, then why not. Nobody remembers their time as Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Paper Clips but they might fare better if they bring their own government down.
And then there is the Labour Opposition. For some of them, particularly at the very top this week was merely a parliamentary manoeuver. The goal of Jeremy Corbyn is to bring about an early general election, which on current trends labour would win.
There is no point in complaining about the opposition opposing the government, its like a ship’s captain complaining about the sea. That is their job. I personally have no doubt whatsoever that Jeremy Corbyn is looking forward to leaving the European Union, after all I sat next to him behind Tony Benn for decades, both of us complaining about it and staying up through the night voting against Maastricht and Lisbon. And agreeing with every word of Mr Benn’s theoretical expositions on how the politics we believed in were fundamentally incompatible with membership of the Bankers Club.
Corbyn wants a General Election and he knows bringing down Theresa May would be a major stride towards getting one. Don’t blame him for that at least.
Where he is in danger however is that the great majority of Labour MPs (many of whom don’t want an election which could put HIM in power in any case) don’t want to leave the European Union even though 70% of Labour constituencies voted Leave. For them the manoeuver is about something else entirely. Not getting the prime minister out but keeping Britain in!
The Russian Roulette over Brexit being played by Corbyn depends on there never being a bullet in the chamber. For many of his troops there remains the hope that the next bullet may have his name on it. And Brexit is a bullet Corbyn cannot dodge for much longer. Any game of musical chairs has to end when the music stops. The music will now stop when the terms are brought back to parliament for a “meaningful vote” which after this week they now must.
Then, Labour will have to make a definitive choice, to Leave or to Remain. Whatever Corbyn chooses may not, carry the day in a Parliamentary Labour Party now intoxicated by the grievous wound that has been inflicted on the referendum result this week.
Our problem has been from the start that the Tory government is too incompetent too divided and too unpopular to deliver Brexit. When I said all along that they could not be trusted to deliver what the people voted for I didn’t just mean they are a shifty bunch of spivs. I meant also that they were literally incapable of doing so.
The Prime Minister and the Chancellor are against Brexit. Nobody would buy a second hand car from Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. And anybody would lock up their loved ones if Liam Fox came calling door-to-door.
A government dependent for its existence on the political wing of the Ulster Volunteer Force and the UDA is the very definition of a coalition of chaos.
Our problem has been from the start that Brexit, with 17.4 million supporters, didn’t have 17.4 parliamentary leaders of any consequence to fight for it in Parliament. This and the collapse of UKIP has meant that one form of backslider, mountebank, maneuverer, charlatan or another has had the floor all to themselves.
Farage quit front-line politics at just the wrong time, our referendum movement, demob happy, went home too early. It may be that Brexit will not survive the current parliamentary situation. The “partners” in Brussels are not blind or stupid. They now know they have a rock-solid reason to make the outcome of the negotiations as beastly as possible, the better to ensure they will be rejected by Parliament when they are brought home.
But the reasons for Brexit have not gone away. A Brexit coalition may yet come into being again, there will be by-elections, there always are, and as Nye Bevan said “where there’s death there’s hope”. We have all been outmanoeuvred. Its time we got back into line.