In the harsh light of Brexit, none of us looks our best

The Guardian - Journal - - Opinion - Is­abel Hard­man

How do you find out some­one’s char­ac­ter flaws? We all go to great lengths to con­ceal our own, pro­duc­ing im­prob­a­ble lines in job in­ter­views about our great­est weak­ness be­ing our ten­dency to work too hard. Politi­cians em­ploy ad­vis­ers who plot news grids to show how busy and ef­fec­tive their lead­ers are, even as those lead­ers reg­u­larly fail to take im­por­tant de­ci­sions. Shake­speare liked to use two de­vices to get his char­ac­ters to re­veal their true selves: he ei­ther put them in dis­guise or got them drunk. In pol­i­tics to­day, the de­vice for un­mask­ing peo­ple’s weak­nesses is rather less fun than a masked ball or ses­sion with a tankard: it’s Brexit.

It was in­evitable that the af­ter­math of the EU ref­er­en­dum would put a kind of pres­sure on politi­cians that would make it very dif­fi­cult for even the strong­est to con­ceal their im­per­fec­tions. Theresa May is the most ob­vi­ous vic­tim of this ex­tra­or­di­nary pres­sure. She claimed when try­ing to be­come Tory leader that she was some­one who be­lieved in get­ting things done, rather than gos­sip­ing in the bars of West­min­ster. Yet her ap­proach to Brexit has largely been char­ac­terised by pro­cras­ti­na­tion at a level that man­ages to make David Cameron, nick­named the “es­say cri­sis prime min­is­ter”, look like a model stu­dent.

Ini­tially, May be­lieved the mean­ing­ful vote would suc­ceed in De­cem­ber – and was told by her chief whip Ju­lian Smith that it would, too. Smith made clear “this is a deal we can sell to MPs”, be­fore rac­ing back to the prime min­is­ter a lit­tle later to re­port that MPs were not buy­ing it after all.

Cab­i­net min­is­ters now re­port May’s lat­est pro­cras­ti­na­tion in­volves re­fus­ing to dis­cuss what her plan B might look like. She will only have three days be­fore she must set that out in par­lia­ment if she is de­feated to­mor­row, but one sec­re­tary of state re­marks that “if she’s got any sort of plan, she’s keep­ing it to her­self ”. Back­bench MPs re­port that the whips now seem more in­ter­ested in how they can get their sup­port for the next vote.

The whips are court­ing Labour MPs, too, and they may find a few more from the op­po­si­tion benches are driven their way by Jeremy Cor­byn’s com­ments on The An­drew Marr Show yes­ter­day, in which he ad­mit­ted he would rather get a ne­go­ti­ated Brexit deal than have a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum. It is pretty easy to see how the pres­sure of Brexit has caused se­ri­ous cracks in the Labour party, and not just when it comes to those mod­er­ates who have al­ways dis­liked the leader.

But what has been less dis­cernible is the way in which Brexit has shown up par­lia­ment. Both sides in the de­bate now use the in­fa­mous “take back con­trol” phrase as the jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for what they are up to, with re­mainer MPs in­sist­ing the plots and amend­ments – and in­deed what they see as the sup­port of the Speaker, John Ber­cow – rep­re­sent the house tak­ing back con­trol. It is also strik­ing how many pro-leave MPs are pri­vately upset about the way Com­mons pro­ce­dure is be­ing abused, not just by the speaker, but also by the gov­ern­ment. One re­marks that the way min­is­ters and MPs are ig­nor­ing the very rules de­signed to check the power of the ex­ec­u­tive is a ter­ri­ble ex­am­ple to emerg­ing democ­ra­cies around the world.

At a gran­u­lar level, MPs of­ten don’t un­der­stand the do­mes­tic leg­is­la­tion they are vot­ing on, let alone the new pol­icy ar­eas that are go­ing to come un­der par­lia­ment’s au­thor­ity after Brexit. One Tory MP re­cently told their whip they were minded to vote against the deal be­cause their con­stituents didn’t un­der­stand it. They seemed to have for­got­ten that their con­stituents had elected and were now pay­ing, via their taxes, for this MP to un­der­stand the deal on their be­half.

Mind you, it’s not en­tirely fair to blame MPs for this mess. Po­lit­i­cal dis­course more gen­er­ally has bro­ken down, to the ex­tent that par­lia­men­tar­i­ans are now ask­ing not to have to leave the par­lia­men­tary es­tate to con­duct TV in­ter­views, lest they be pur­sued and ha­rassed by an­gry pro­test­ers. Those who claim the mobs on Col­lege Green are noth­ing new and just some­thing tough politi­cians should be able to put up with seem to for­get that harass­ment isn’t some­thing any­one de­serves, no mat­ter what a fool they prove them­selves to be in the Com­mons cham­ber.

They also seem strangely will­ing to for­give those who are at the ex­treme end of a wider prob­lem in

British so­ci­ety, which is that we have for­got­ten how to dis­agree. There are the silly ex­am­ples, which largely emerge from uni­ver­si­ties, but then there are the splits within fam­i­lies, be­tween the gen­er­a­tions and across the coun­tries and re­gions of the UK. Some re­main­ers re­cently hailed a map of ar­eas that had op­posed Brexit as a “lovely ar­chi­pel­ago”, pre­sum­ably be­cause they felt they could re­lax only when they didn’t have to en­counter those who were dif­fer­ent to them. These ten­sions were bub­bling long be­fore Brexit, but like a strong drink for Shake­speare’s Cas­sio the ref­er­en­dum forced the anger into the open.

We are reach­ing the point in Jan­uary where peo­ple start aban­don­ing their new year’s res­o­lu­tions to get fit, re­al­is­ing it is just too much hard work. Yet so few of the po­lit­i­cal class seem pre­pared to ad­mit that their great­est un­fit­ness at the mo­ment con­cerns their in­abil­ity to deal with the chal­lenge of Brexit, pre­sum­ably be­cause to do so would be to ad­mit to weak­nesses they have long tried to ig­nore.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: MARK DUFFY/AP

The speaker of the house, John Ber­cow, calls for or­der

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