Field frets over the midnight hour
Finally the nitty-gritty. With just eight days to go line by line through 200 pages of amendments, time was of the essence as the Commons began its committee stage reading of the government’s EU withdrawal bill. So Labour’s Frank Field chose to focus on the big issue. The timing of Britain’s exit from the EU.
Field wasn’t at all happy with the fact that the government had agreed to leave at midnight European time on 29 March 2019. In fact it was an outrage. Field was fed up with the EU getting all the good stuff, like Christmas, an hour before us. So what he wanted was to bloody well make the Europeans wait an extra hour until midnight British time for the pleasure of us telling them to sod off. That would show them.
This was greeted with low groans from his own benches – Labour can tolerate an intelligent rebel, it’s the idiots they find embarrassing – but got huge applause from the Brexiters on the Conservative benches. Keep British time for the British. Some were concerned that the cheating Europeans might try to use the confusion over which midnight we were leaving on to try to keep us in the EU for an extra day. Others were panicky that the EU might use the extra hour to do unspeakable things to British pet cockapoos stuck at Calais.
Having declared himself a “reluctant Brexiter”, Field turned out to be a massive enthusiast for putting the country on an emergency footing. He said Brexit was going to be such a risk to the British way of life it was imperative to constitute a war cabinet made up of politicians from both sides of the house to manage the disaster. Field went on to compare Brexit to buying a house. You don’t sign a contract without knowing the date it will be yours. Labour’s Hilary Benn interrupted to observe that you don’t sign a contract without viewing wing the house first.
“I’ve always bought my own houses, not inherited them,” ” said Field snippily. A sure sign he had only just begun to realise he had lost the argument. Benn reminded him that he too had bought his own houses, whereupon Field slipped into a shame spiral. He sloped out of the chamber at the earliest opportunity.
After Field’s eccentric intervention had wasted a good half hour of everyone’s time, the Brexit minister Steve Baker tried to explain why the government had only last Friday come up with its own amendment to fix a Brexit date in the bill. The main reason being that the prime minister had wanted to look tough and keep the hardline Brexiters on side. She was much more concerned about managing the Tory party than governing in the national interest.
Longtime Eurosceptics Bill Cash and Owen Paterson approved. They hadn’t voted to let the British parliament take back control of British laws only to allow the British parliament to take back control of British laws. Sovereignty was far too important an issue to be left in the hands of a few elected MPs.
At which point the committee stage of the bill began to disappear through its own looking glass, with MPs loyal to the government trying to claim that allowing the possibility of extending the Brexit talks by even a few minutes would be the unacceptable thin end of the wedge. The best way to maintain a flexible negotiating position was by being utterly inflexible. Better to have no deal to implement in an implementation period than a good deal to implement in a transition period. And if that meant the government had to repeal its own repeal bill, so be it. It was enough to make the four pot plants pull their leaves out in frustration. It took Ken Clarke and Yvette Cooper to raise the debate above the level of a remedial reading class, but it was the Tories’ Dominic Grieve who gave the occasion the gravitas it deserved. In a speech lasting the best part of 15 minutes he took apart the feebleness and self-serving nature of the government’s position.
The Tories were embarking on an act “of national self-mutilation” that made him question the government’s competence. He wasn’t the only one.