At last, par­lia­ment is tak­ing back con­trol of Brexit

The Guardian Australia - - Opinion - Rafael Behr

It’s com­ing home, it’s co-ming … pol­i­tics is com­ing home. The seizure of ini­tia­tive by par­lia­ment on Tues­day night is a repa­tri­a­tion of power worth cheer­ing. For two years Brexit has been a per­for­mance of blus­ter and bluff in pub­lic. Theresa May ham­mered out the terms in pri­vate and in Brussels. Now the House of Com­mons, the home ground of Bri­tish democ­racy, is tak­ing back con­trol. May’s frag­ile ad­min­is­tra­tion suf­fered three de­feats, in­clud­ing a con­tempt mo­tion, ex­tract­ing the at­tor­ney gen­eral’s le­gal ad­vice on the deal from be­tween grit­ted min­is­te­rial teeth.

That was the most his­tor­i­cally res­o­nant of Tues­day’s par­lia­men­tary dra­mas, but the more sig­nif­i­cant leg­isla­tive event might prove to be the vote that fol­lowed. Do­minic Grieve’s amend­ment sounded tech­ni­cal, but in the Com­mons, pro­ce­dural ob­scu­rity can be a lethal weapon. Grieve, a for­mer at­tor­ney gen­eral, now a lead­ing pro-Euro­pean Tory back­bencher, won a con­ces­sion as­sert­ing that – and bear with me here – the pro­vi­sions of stand­ing or­der 24B should not ap­ply to any mo­tion pur­suant to sec­tion 13 of the 2018 Euro­pean Union (with­drawal) Act. What the hell does that mean? In short, it beefs up the power of the Com­mons in the event that May’s deal is beaten and she or her re­place­ment can’t get another deal through par­lia­ment. It re­duces (but does not elim­i­nate) the risk of Bri­tain leap­ing off the Brexit cliff with­out a para­chute.

Pre­vi­ously, in an im­mi­nent no-deal sce­nario, the prime min­is­ter would have been obliged only to in­form the House of her in­ten­tions. Grieve’s amend­ment, backed by Labour, opens that state­ment to amend­ment. In the­ory, the Com­mons could put on record its call for a much softer Brexit, or a ref­er­en­dum, or a re­quest in Brussels to ex­tend the ar­ti­cle 50 ne­go­ti­at­ing win­dow, or even a re­trac­tion of the ar­ti­cle 50 no­ti­fi­ca­tion. None of those things would have the force of law, so some (pre­sum­ably de­ranged) prime min­is­ter could ig­nore them and run at the cliff edge any­way. But the bal­ance of con­trol has shifted. It has been said many times that there is no ma­jor­ity in par­lia­ment for an in­sane course of ac­tion, but no one has been able to say how a ma­jor­ity for san­ity might con­sti­tu­tion­ally as­sert it­self. Now a coali­tion of the rea­son­able is start­ing to take shape.

The list of Tories who voted in favour of Grieve’s amend­ment in­cludes for­mer min­is­ters and MPs who have tried to be loyal to May, or at least not be wan­tonly de­struc­tive in their di­ver­gence from her ap­proach. One co-spon­sor was Nick Boles, who is tout­ing a back-up plan to steer the UK into Nor­we­gian-style ar­range­ments with the EU. Another is Oliver Letwin, once a fix­ture of David Cameron’s cab­i­nets, who de­clared that he would vote for May’s deal next week and was act­ing only to pro­vide in­sur­ance against no deal, which would be “a catas­tro­phe for our coun­try”.

Those Tories who think the op­po­site, that no deal is just the brac­ing tonic that Bri­tain needs to snap it out of a Europhil­iac stu­por, have been rel­a­tively quiet. Boris John­son, who has found him­self, largely by ac­ci­dent, at the head of the posse of uni­corn-rustling ul­tra-Brexit cow­boys, did not get a good reception. His speech was a ram­bling med­ley of Vote Leave myth­mak­ing and Daily Tele­graph op-eds while par­lia­ment’s ears were tuned for his­tor­i­cal grav­ity – an id­iom John­son only does as cod Churchillian pas­tiche.

Con­ser­va­tive party mem­bers might still like that tune and the Ja­cob ReesMogg B-side, but the par­lia­men­tary party is tired of it. The fail­ure of ReesMogg’s Euro­pean Re­search Group to muster enough let­ters to trig­ger a no­con­fi­dence vote in the Tory leader has dam­aged that fac­tion’s cred­i­bil­ity. For months they were boast­ing about rebel num­bers and it turns out they can’t count. They had a shot and they threw it away. They might get another one, but the pres­sure of the clock – the need to con­front, in re­spon­si­ble terms, the con­se­quences of what they are re­ally propos­ing – works against them. ReesMogg’s smooth style has soured un­der scru­tiny. No one can spray that amount of venom with­out even­tu­ally look­ing like a snake, and Con­ser­va­tive MPs are see­ing the Slytherin side to the man in the Harry Pot­ter-style glasses.

It is too early to call the peak of ERG no-deal bravado, but it feels as if a fever is break­ing. There is a wide spec­trum of opin­ion in the Con­ser­va­tive party, and much of it has been un­rep­re­sented in the po­lar­i­sa­tion be­tween Brexit ex­trem­ists and die-hard re­main­ers. There is a mulch of re­luc­tant pro-EU Eu­roscep­tics and un­dog­matic, get-on-with-it leavers in the mid­dle who have lacked lead­er­ship.

Cru­cially, also, there is the Tory tra­di­tion of dogged prag­ma­tism that cares about sta­bil­ity, se­cu­rity and up­hold­ing the con­ti­nu­ity of in­sti­tu­tions. That school is in­stinc­tively sus­pi­cious of the ide­o­log­i­cal pu­ri­tanism em­bod­ied by Rees-Mogg and friends. Main­stream Tory Euroscep­ti­cism was al­ways rooted in the idea of par­lia­men­tary sovereignty and so not nec­es­sar­ily at­tracted by the quasi-Lenin­ist rev­o­lu­tion­ary Brexitism that is be­ing drummed up on the hard right. It isn’t yet clear how the bal­ance will shift in the com­ing weeks, nor what that means for the prime min­is­ter and her deal. But it is surely sig­nif­i­cant that now, at the 11th hour, the Con­ser­va­tive party is fi­nally be­com­ing con­ser­va­tive again.

• Rafael Behr is a Guardian colum­nist

‘Now the House of Com­mons, the home ground of Bri­tish democ­racy, is tak­ing back con­trol.’ Pho­to­graph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/GettyImages

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