Tak­ing back con­trol? An ex­tra­or­di­nary week in par­lia­ment

Par­lia­ment is caught in grid­lock and as deeply di­vided as the coun­try. Toby Helm and Nosheen Iqbal re­port on a week when ran­cour ex­ploded in the House and on the streets

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To­wards the end of the Chan­nel 4 drama Brexit: The Un­civil War’

which was broad­cast last Mon­day evening, the lead­ers of the ri­val Re­main and Leave cam­paigns meet in a cen­tral Lon­don bar. By co­in­ci­dence Craig Oliver, David Cameron’s then di­rec­tor of com­mu­ni­ca­tions, and Do­minic Cum­mings, di­rec­tor of Vote Leave and in­ven­tor of the slo­gan “take back con­trol”, spot one an­other across plat­forms at Moor­gate tube sta­tion. They had reg­u­lar rows when they worked as Tory ad­vis­ers be­fore the cam- be­gan and have been at dag­gers drawn through­out it. But both are phys­i­cally and emo­tion­ally ex­hausted as vot­ing day ap­proaches and – in an en­counter Oliver has in­sisted was fic­tional – they agree to talk over a pint.

It is shortly af­ter the mur­der of Labour MP Jo Cox by a right-wing ex­trem­ist in her West York­shire con­stituency. Oliver clearly feels things are slip­ping away from Re­main. Sit­ting op­po­site his foe, the look on his face be­trays his grim and grow­ing re­al­i­sa­tion that Cum­mings is win­ning the war and head­ing for a stun­ning vic­tory with unimag­ina- ble con­se­quences for the coun­try – al­beit, he feels, by em­ploy­ing the basest of cam­paign­ing meth­ods.

“You’re feed­ing a toxic cul­ture where the very no­tion of ev­i­dence­based truth is dead, where one side never be­lieves the other, no one lis­tens any more, we just yell,” Oliver says. Twitch­ing a lit­tle, Cum­mings replies that Leave “had to yell, to be heard” and adds that the bi­nary “in” or “out” ques­tion on which the Bri­tish peo­ple would vote within days was al­ways go­ing to force peo­ple “into tribes”.

Oliver then says his great­est fear is that the tribal di­vi­sions which the cam­paign has al­ready es­tab­lished will be­come per­ma­nent. “I worry it won’t heal.”

Ear­lier on Mon­day, be­fore that broad­cast, ugly scenes – of ex­actly the kind to which Oliver had al­luded in the film – were play­ing out out­side the House of Com­mons. And, in this case, they were all too real.

Anna Soubry, the Tory MP and Re­main cam­paigner, was mobbed by far-right pro-Brexit cam­paign­ers who yelled that she was a “Nazi”, a “traitor” and a “fas­cist”. The in­domitable Soubry was shaken by the ho­spaign

tility that Brexit had fos­tered. In the House of Com­mons there were swift calls for the po­lice to do more to pro­tect MPs caught up in the fever­ish at­mos­phere cre­ated by Brexit.

Two days later Soubry was equally hor­ri­fied when a right-wing colum­nist mocked a fel­low MP for in­vok­ing the mem­ory of Cox dur­ing a pod­cast in which they all took part. “I was on [this Sky News pod­cast] with [Labour MP] Jess Phillips dis­cussing the prob­lem of how to get women into pub­lic life – which is very real, a hugely im­por­tant sub­ject – and Jess men­tioned Jo Cox,” Soubry tells the Ob­server af­ter the in­ci­dent. “And then this deeply of­fen­sive man – who if they had told me be­fore­hand was on it, I wouldn’t have gone on, so I was al­ready cross – he said: ‘Oh, to use a mur­der for po­lit­i­cal pur­pose’. And I lost it.

“How dare he? We are talk­ing about some­thing that ac­tu­ally hap­pened. It was clearly linked to the far right, which some of these peo­ple who are roam­ing out­side par­lia­ment are, and he kept be­lit­tling it. This is a very present threat. It is not protest – they are thugs.”

It was not just out­side par­lia­ment that democ­racy had gone awry and turned sour. On Wed­nes­day in the House of Com­mons – to­tally dead­locked on Brexit with just over two months to go un­til the UK is due to leave the EU – there was con­sti­tu­tional up­roar.

The speaker John Ber­cow had con­tro­ver­sially al­lowed an amend­ment that will force Theresa May to come up with a Brexit Plan B within three days if the prime min­is­ter’s cru­cial mean­ing­ful vote is lost on Tues­day. On the gov­ern­ment front bench five cab­i­net min­is­ters, in­clud­ing May, Ju­lian Smith, the chief whip, and the leader of the House, An­drea Lead­som, sat shak­ing their heads in fury at Ber­cow.

Pro-Brexit MPs shouted about “con­sti­tu­tional out­rage” and claimed Ber­cow was bi­ased. One Labour MP ob­served later that “an­ar­chy had spread from out­side to in­side the mother of par­lia­ments”. Rather than par­lia­ment “tak­ing back con­trol” – which was what Brex­iters had in­sisted Brexit was re­ally about – it seemed to have com­pletely lost it.

When Cameron an­nounced in Jan­uary 2013 that the Bri­tish peo­ple would be able to vote in a ref­er­en­dum on whether the UK should stay in or leave the Euro­pean Union he as­sumed this great ex­er­cise in democ­racy would set­tle the decades-old ar­gu­ment for good.

“It is time for the Bri­tish peo­ple to have their say,” he said at the time. “It is time to set­tle this Euro­pean ques­tion in Bri­tish pol­i­tics.” Many pre­dic­tions by politi­cians and com­men­ta­tors over re­cent years have proved wildly wide of the mark, but none, per­haps, more so than this. This week­end, two and a half years af­ter the UK voted nar­rowly to leave the EU, and as Tues­day’s cru­cial vote on May’s Brexit deal ap­proaches, noth­ing is set­tled at all. Di­vi­sions in West­min­ster and the coun­try are deeper, wider, and more vis­ceral than ever. Our par­lia­ment, to which Brex­iters want to re­turn sovereignty, is grid­locked and un­ruly to the point of paral­y­sis. At the point when its de­ci­sions are most ur­gently needed, it is un­able to agree on a way for­ward.

“The po­lit­i­cal bub­ble has never been po­larised like this be­fore,” says Ken­neth Clarke, the Con­ser­va­tive for­mer min­is­ter, fa­ther of the House of Com­mons and a life­time proEuro­pean. “It’s a tragedy ... a par­ody of democ­racy.”

With May fac­ing seem­ingly in­evitable de­feat this week, Clarke, who will re­tire at the next elec­tion af­ter more than five decades at the fore­front of pol­i­tics, can­not see a way out of an in­ter­minable mess he never imag­ined could de­velop, and fears things will get worse be­fore they get bet­ter.

From his lofty po­si­tion as par­lia­ment’s wise old man he is also scorn­ful of the prime min­is­ter. “It was al­ways the plan of gov­ern­ment to lose this first vote [on Tues­day] and then raise the Project Fear stuff,” he says. “But what do we do if [May] gets up in front of the House again and says: ‘The sky will fall in if we don’t vote for this deal’ and all this crap? If she comes out and says there is no deal now, she will have a lot of min­is­te­rial res­ig­na­tions and I don’t quite know what will hap­pen then.”

On his of­fice wall Clarke, a sur­vivor of Euro­pean ar­gu­ments that scarred, and in the end did for, the pre­mier­ships of Mar­garet Thatcher and John Ma­jor as well as Cameron, has a framed copy of a 2017 front page in which he and 14 col­leagues were no­to­ri­ously branded Brexit mu­ti­neers. He con­sid­ers it a re­minder to keep go­ing. But he fears the cur­rent prime min­is­ter sim­ply has no idea where she is go­ing. “The key events now are: what is Theresa May’s re­ac­tion to this three-day dead­line she’s got?,” he asks. “Will she ac­tu­ally tell any­body what her Plan B is, be­yond her rather light­weight en­tourage? I would be faintly ap­palled if I learned she wasn’t even turn­ing her mind on what to do.”

When Soubry re­flects on the wider pol­i­tics and the im­pact on her party she, too, is scathing about May and says she has never known times so un­cer­tain and tur­bu­lent. “It is an ut­terly re­mark­able time,” she says. She be­lieves the prime min­is­ter is try­ing to force her deal through the house de­spite the huge risk of end­ing up with a no-deal Brexit that many in her own cab­i­net have ad­mit­ted would be eco­nom­i­cally cat­a­strophic. It is a kind of po­lit­i­cal sui­cide mis­sion. “Her tac­tics are to run the clock down de­lib­er­ately,” Soubry says. “I think she’s pre­pared to crash out with­out a deal.”

But would that not spell the end of the Con­ser­va­tive party, and dis­as­ter for the coun­try with it? “I agree, but she’s pre­pared to do it,” she says.

‘Some peo­ple roam­ing out­side are clearly linked to the far right. It isn’t protest – they are thugs’ Anna Soubry MP

There is one thing, how­ever, that has brought to­gether MPs on all sides of the Brexit di­vide – even Soubry and May. She re­veals that the prime min­is­ter – “who I have no re­la­tion­ship with” – sent her a hand­writ­ten let­ter about the abuse against her out­side the Com­mons.

“Dear Anna,” it reads, “I hoped to see you in the House to­day, but I wanted to write and say how sorry I was to see the treat­ment you re­ceived near par­lia­ment yes­ter­day. That was ap­palling and no one should be sub­ject to such abuse.”

Soubry con­tin­ues to read aloud. “We all know there are dif­fer­ing views, of­ten very strongly held on the Euro­pean is­sue, but ev­ery­one should be able to put their views with­out the risk of in­tim­i­da­tion and abuse. I know you are a ro­bust per­son, but in­ci­dents like this are un­set­tling and I’m sorry you were sub­ject to such be­hav­iour. Yours ever, Theresa.”

De­spite such oc­ca­sional shows of sol­i­dar­ity be­tween op­pos­ing sides in par­lia­ment, ar­gu­ments over Brexit are all that newer MPs have known dur­ing their times as par­lia­men­tar­i­ans. Layla Mo­ran, the first eth­nic mi­nor­ity Lib­eral Demo­crat MP, who has been serv­ing the vot­ers of Ox­ford west and Abing­don since 2017 and is push­ing hard for a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum, says she’s ex­hausted by it all and now re­gards it as the norm.

For her there is no respite and the fear of what may lurk out­side the safe in­te­rior of the Palace of West­min­ster is ever present. “We’re in the sit­u­a­tion where we’re all in cam­paign mode,” she says. “It feels like we’ve been on the precipice of a gen­eral elec­tion for the whole time I’ve been an MP; we know we’re in the mid­dle of a mo­ment of his­tory that will be writ­ten about, but not know­ing what hap­pens next is mak­ing it re­ally tense and emo­tional.” She fears for her safety and that of oth­ers. “They’re bruisy men out there. You’d cross the road at night if you saw them.”

Out­side par­lia­ment the yelling from both sides of the Brexit ar­gu­ment con­tin­ues. In re­cent weeks dozens have lined up with ban­ners, flags and plac­ards by mid-af­ter­noon ev­ery day. The ac­tiv­ity ramped up in the weeks be­fore Christ­mas. “That’s when the yel­low jacket lot first came,” con­firms a po­lice­man out­side Black Rod’s gar­den last week.

Has it made his job much harder? “Well it’s not got eas­ier,” he sighs in the cold. Be­hind him, and dot­ted in pairs across West­min­ster, at al­most ev­ery en­trance and gate, are po­lice armed with ma­chine guns.

Andy Cur­zon, an en­gi­neer from Manch­ester, finds it “crazy that many peo­ple, in­clud­ing MPs, are in­ca­pable of un­der­stand­ing the ba­sic facts of trade and that we’re go­ing to sever these links.”

He waves an EU flag next to a sign for pass­ing cars that reads “TOOT TO STOP BREXIT”. Asked whether he has talked to any of the Leave pro­test­ers to­day, Cur­zon sighs. “You try but ... na­tion­al­ism now is just

crack­ers – I can’t un­der­stand why peo­ple want it. We all have phones. We’re all con­nected and have friends and fam­ily all over the world.”

Two male Ukip pro­test­ers, who won’t share their names, blame “fake news”, un­der which they clas­sify all ma­jor me­dia, with no ex­cep­tions. “Leave means leave. We’re not un­rea­son­able,” in­sists the younger man, dressed in a parka and blue jeans. He de­scribes him­self as “a cit­i­zen jour­nal­ist from south­west Lon­don”. About the Soubry in­ci­dent, he is flip­pant: “This is a West­min­ster bub­ble, that’s how peo­ple talk in the pub. Get used to it. There is no such thing as hate speech, it’s just dif­fer­ent opin­ions. I find your paper of­fen­sive. I won’t shut you down or get you ar­rested.”

On the street, the man still bel­low­ing a full-throated “out means out” is en­raged by a host of con­spir­acy the­o­ries he be­lieves in. “I find news the way I need to find it,” he

says when asked about his in­for­ma­tion. “I re­search peo­ple that I get it off. If I can get it from a fam­ily mem­ber then that’s it. If you were on my side, you’d be do­ing all that.”

The coun­try should pre­pare for ri­ots, he says. “They can’t ex­pect the peo­ple to be law-abid­ing cit­i­zens when gov­ern­ment is as cor­rupt as it is. All them peo­ple in here,” he claims, “are get­ting paid back­han­ders all the way through the sys­tem.”

On 23 June 2016 the Bri­tish peo­ple voted by 51.9% to leave the EU and 48.1% to stay in. Cameron’s gam­ble not only back­fired by de­liv­er­ing a Brexit vote which forced his res­ig­na­tion and set the UK on a road out of the EU, but his hope that a ref­er­en­dum would lance the Euro­pean boil has been ex­posed as ap­pallingly mis­placed – for the pre­cise op­po­site has hap­pened.

The Bri­tish pub­lic is now more di­vided, more aware and more con­scious of who is on which side of the ar­gu­ment at the heart of Bri­tish pub­lic life. Politi­cians, com­mu­ni­ties, fam­i­lies are – 31 months on from the vote – un­able to come to­gether and seem largely im­mune to per­sua­sion, un­bid­dable and un­will­ing to budge from en­trenched po­si­tions. The coun­try stands just 75 days away from the sup­posed mo­ment of Brexit but with no na­tional or po­lit­i­cal con­sen­sus over what Brexit should en­tail, or whether it should go ahead at all.

Dead­lock in par­lia­ment re­flects divi­sion in the coun­try. “Brexit has paral­ysed the demo­cratic sys­tem,” says a se­nior Tory MP. “And the re­ally alarm­ing thing is I can­not see how this does not en­dure for decades. We will all be de­fined as Re­main­ers or Leavers for decades to come. This is not a pass­ing ar­gu­ment. It re­ally is close to civil war.”

Nor­mal al­liances have bro­ken down, and par­ties have split many ways, rais­ing ques­tions about whether Brexit will de­liver a new po­lit­i­cal align­ment, in the form of new party in the cen­tre and at the ex­tremes. “The real legacy of Brexit could be a com­pletely dif­fer­ent Bri­tish pol­i­tics and party sys­tem,” says a Labour front­bencher.

Cameron’s ref­er­en­dum has left the Con­ser­va­tive party split be­tween hard Brex­iters, soft Brex­iters, and Re­main­ers, while Labour, al­though its mem­ber­ship and sup­port­ers are over­whelm­ingly pro-Re­main, has its own deep divides.

Its leader Jeremy Cor­byn seems un­will­ing to com­mit to what most of his party wants – a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum – be­cause he is a life­long Euroscep­tic. Labour has stag­gered through the last two and half years with a pol­icy of de­lib­er­ate am­bi­gu­ity in or­der to of­fend the fewest pos­si­ble of its sup­port­ers.

Out­side the party sys­tem, there are two broad camps, fairly evenly split, if the polls are to be be­lieved. On the one side are those who believe that be­cause the coun­try voted for Brexit it must go ahead with it – ei­ther be­cause they think it is a good thing in­strin­si­cally or that not to do so would be dan­ger­ous for democ­racy, or both. In the other camp are those who believe that we should find a way out of ac­ti­vat­ing Ar­ti­cle 50 and stay in, per­haps by hold­ing a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum with Re­main on the bal­lot paper or by sim­ply can­celling the whole project.

Prom­i­nent sup­port­ers of both sides have been turn­ing up the rhetoric be­fore next week’s vote in the hope of win­ning the day. Yes­ter­day the pro-Brexit cab­i­net min­is­ter Chris Grayling said block­ing Brexit could end the 350 years of “mod­er­ate” pol­i­tics that Bri­tain has en­joyed since the English civil war. Last week lead­ing busi­nesses, in­clud­ing Jaguar, Land Rover and Ford, warned of job losses, while Greg Clark, the busi­ness sec­re­tary, said a no-deal Brexit would be eco­nom­i­cally

‘It’s a mess. God only knows what’s next’

‘We’ll all be de­fined as Re­main­ers or Leavers for decades to come. It is close to civil war’

Se­nior Tory MP

“dis­as­trous”. This week, the Brexit saga and uncer­tainty will en­ter an­other phase.

What will hap­pen if May’s deal is voted down – as it al­most cer­tainly will be – no­body knows. Down­ing Street is de­ter­mined to press ahead with the vote, al­though it is aware that the prime min­is­ter is fac­ing a mas­sive de­feat – an­other in­di­ca­tion of how im­pos­si­ble her po­si­tion has be­come. What then?

“We could head for a nodeal Brexit, but Par­lia­ment voted last week to block that op­tion off as it would be cat­a­strophic,” says a se­nior Tory MP. “We could have a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum to sort out the mess, but there is no sign of a par­lia­men­tary ma­jor­ity for that ei­ther. So God only knows.”

Out­side the Com­mons the protests go on. “This is civil war with­out the mus­kets,” says He­len Slater, who has come from Bris­tol to cam­paign.

“It is ap­palling.”


John Ber­cow cap­tured in the cen­tre of a Com­mons storm last Wed­nes­day af­ter he de­cided to al­low a vote on an amend­ment to a gov­ern­ment mo­tion.


Anna Soubry, with pro-EU ac­tivist Femi Olu­wole, were sur­rounded by Brex­iters out­side par­lia­ment on Mon­day who called her a ‘traitor’.

David Cameron’s 2016 ref­er­en­dum gam­ble didn’t pay off – and ended up di­vid­ing the na­tion.

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