Parliament prepares as power drains away from Theresa May

Parliament prepares as power drains away from Theresa May

“When do they bring on the Queen?” asks a producer friend in Los Angeles. He is agog at the apparent collapse of the British government and enthralled by the visual ceremonial possibilities.

But even the redoubtable Elizabeth ll cannot wave a magic wand to heal the Brexit divide. And prosaically, the 2011 Fixed Term Parliaments Act has weakened her prerogative power to dissolve parliament. But my American friend has spotted the key point. Theresa May has lost the confidence of her colleagues, who do not believe the prime minister can push through her “deal” with the EU in Tuesday’s scheduled vote.

Ever since Mrs May lost her majority at the 2017 election, she has been presiding over a minority government with the support of the Democratic Unionist party. Now her government has been defeated three times in a row — something which has not happened since the 1970s — and been found to be in contempt of parliament. Although the prime minister continues to repeat her mantra that there are only three options available: her deal, no deal or no Brexit, there is a fourth: parliament takes over. And that is precisely what is happening.

Until now, MPs have been largely frozen by the referendum outcome, which many felt they should respect. They voted in overwhelming numbers to trigger Article 50, starting the clock for departure from the EU ticking before the government had a proper negotiating strategy.

But now, many MPs feel they cannot vote to make their country poorer. It has become all too clear that the Brexiter vision was a fantasy, Boris Johnson has failed to update his platitudes and Jacob Rees-Mogg has ditched what I once thought was a good grasp of finance.

There is a rhythm to politics, an underlying drum beat, which does not always follow technical rules. Right now, in Westminster, there is a palpable sense of power draining away. Conservative MPs trudge the corridors, watching the maths rise against Mrs May. Labour MPs feel momentum surging their way. They can see the Conservative party looks like a bunch of incompetent, heartless ideologues, headed by a leader so intent on her own political survival that she may seek to buy herself more time by postponing Tuesday’s vote. She may instead wait until after her trip to Brussels on Thursday, and try to convince the EU to offer concessions.

Two developments this week have made MPs more confident about voting down the draft agreement. Manuel Campos Sánchez-Bordona, advocate-general at the European Court of Justice, has opined that Article 50 could be revoked unilaterally, giving hope to some, that it is now possible to turn the clock back. And Dominic Grieve’s amendment to the planned “meaningful vote” on the deal has given parliament the right to amend any second proposal Mrs May makes.

Taken together, these suggest that disaster has been averted. The House of Commons will not allow the UK to crash out of the EU with no deal. That gives MPs a free pass to vote down Mrs May’s deal. Brexiters find themselves attacking parliamentary sovereignty, fearing that MPs will “steal Brexit from the British people”. But when what is on offer is so abjectly different to what was promised, it is hard to claim that it represents the people’s will. And when there is such a huge gap in public understanding about the economic consequences and trade-offs, it seems right that MPs try to resume their role as representatives rather than delegates.

It is easier to listen to the “clarity” offered by Mr Johnson, who is unconstrained by any need to be economically literate, than study the dull, complex realities of life outside the EU. Brexiters who talk up future deals with countries such as Australia are wilfully ignoring a basic rule of trade: you become richer by staying close to your neighbours. That’s why Norway and Switzerland have surrendered some freedoms to preserve close EU trading relationships.

Incredibly, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn did not ask Mrs May a single question about Brexit at this week’s Prime Minister’s Questions, the last one before the vote on Tuesday. It was left to the Tory warhorse Michael Heseltine, in the House of Lords, to speak about the devastation that leaving the single market will wreak on disadvantaged people, who have been most fervently lied to.

Uncomfortable truths are dawning. On Wednesday, YouGov polled again on the question: “Do you think Britain was right or wrong to leave the EU?” There is now a record 11-point lead for “wrong”. That does not mean the country has comprehensively changed its mind. Academic Matthew Goodwin says there is still a slim 45-44 per cent majority for Leave, and a larger one against a second referendum (50-40). The only thing the public clearly supports is renegotiating with the EU if Mrs May’s deal fails (45-25).

The constraints on any such re-negotiation, and the need to heal a divided country, are making many MPs lean towards an European Economic Area option: exit the EU and the jurisdiction of the ECJ but keep a close economic relationship.

Mainstream MPs of all parties are seeking a consensus. It might be a second referendum; it might be Norway Plus; it might be something else. What they need is time: which Mr Sánchez-Bordona may just have provided. If Mrs May will not ask to change the exit date, parliament must force her.

Without dreaming of second guessing the Queen, I imagine that Her Majesty would like politicians to fix this mess. The onus is on parliament to show that it can.

The writer, a former head of the Downing Street policy unit, is a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School

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