Taking stock: A whirlwind week in Westminster

A road sign reading 'Road Ahead Closed' on Westminster Bridge in London, Britain, 5 December 2018. [Andy Rain/EPA/EFE]

“I guess that’s politics, but it’s not a very nice profession at the moment,” Rory Stewart, Prisons Minister in Theresa May’s government said moments after MPs voted against a ‘no deal’ Brexit on Wednesday (13 March).

Speaking at a discussion organised by the UK in a Changing Europe think-tank that evening, Stewart offered a level of candour and pragmatism that appears to be in short supply.

After a week of confusion that has exposed the paralysis and deep divisions in British politics, it is hard to see where the UK can go from here.

This week MPs have voted to reject a ‘no deal’ Brexit in any circumstances – though, at present, it is still the legal default position to leave without an agreement – and for a delay of indeterminate length to the Article 50 process.

They also voted against a second referendum, albeit after the opposition Labour party, which says it supports another vote, ordered its lawmakers to abstain. That is confusing enough for political reporters, let alone Joe Public.

Paul Goodman, a former MP who edits the influential ConservativeHome website, which supports a ‘no deal’ Brexit, described the vote for a delay as “the day on which Brexit may have died. On which the politicians failed the people – and deliberately defied the referendum result.”

With hard Brexiteers crying ‘betrayal’, and Remain supporters demanding a new referendum, there is a squeezed middle of Britons and lawmakers desperate to get a deal over the line.

Having voted Remain in 2016 but then accepted that “the decision is made, and we should be energetic and optimistic (about leaving the EU)”, Stewart is one of the few pragmatists in his party, and one of the keenest supporters of the Prime Minister’s painfully brokered Withdrawal Agreement.

“Europe was actually quite generous. It wasn’t a deal where Europe was trying to punish Britain…it wasn’t some sort of evil plot,” he says.

“If you wanted a Brexit deal this was about as good as you were going to get. So I went out on the first morning to defend it and found that there was nobody following me”.

Stewart insists that another referendum would not solve anything. A narrow Remain victory on a lower turnout or votes for 16 would mean that the UK would stay in the EU but that the campaign for a third referendum would immediately begin, he says.

“You’d be rejoining the EU like someone who’s just got divorced, spent two years rubbishing your partner and then turning up at the house again saying “it turned out to be more expensive than I thought. Can I get back into the bed.”

Meanwhile, the UK’s “ambivalence” and continued opposition to ‘ever closer Union’ would push member states away.

“At some point, France and Germany are going to say ‘enough already’”, he says.

He added that the week in Westminster has exposed the “structural problem of having a country that is split down the middle – 50-50 Brexit and Remain, and a Parliament without a majority.”

Despite seeing her Brexit deal defeated in January and March by combined majorities of 380 votes, Mrs May has not given up. She plans to put her Withdrawal Agreement deal to a third vote next Tuesday (19 March), hoping that the threat of a lengthy extension to Article 50 – and, potentially, of the UK staying in the EU – and of her Attorney General Geoffrey Cox changing his legal advice, will coerce hard Brexiteers into backing it.

On Friday, ministers held lengthy talks with the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party, which has propped up May’s government since June 2017, to try to persuade them to back the Withdrawal Agreement.

If the third attempt fails, there are already government plans for a fourth ‘meaningful’ vote on the deal after the European Council summit next Thursday.

Stewart says that a form of Single Transferable Vote would be the best way to whittle down the many different options to break the impasse and find the least unpopular Brexit deal.

“Whoever was doing this would be the laughing stock of Britain by now, because it’s a near-impossible job,” he said, adding that “I sometimes fantasise about some UN mediator coming in and trying to sort this thing out.”

“Nobody is prepared to budge an inch…and the continuation of Article 50 gives people the impression that in the end, they will get what they want.”

Such would suggest that delaying Brexit until the end of June will do little apart from move the cliff-edge.

“Logically, if we’re going to do Brexit sensibly then we’re going to have to get a version of this deal through,” said Stewart. Maybe, but logic appears to be quite thin on the ground in Westminster right now.

[Edited by Samuel Stolton]

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