Field frets over the mid­night hour

The Guardian - - NATIONAL | BREXIT -

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.

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