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It’s a ‘Brambles’ – how did we arrive in such chaos?

It’s a ‘Brambles’ – how did we arrive in such chaos?

🕔12.Dec 2018

It’s difficult to argue that we are living through anything other than ‘Brambles’: the Shambles of Brexit, writes Kevin Johnson. 

It is not an editorial exaggeration to say that the Government is in chaos.

Yesterday, we were meant to witness a Meaningful Vote. From 6.00pm this evening, we will see a vote with a different meaning.

The end was meant to be in sight.

Whether the vote had taken place or not yesterday and whatever happens this evening we are, my friends, far from any kind of end.

This nightmare feels like it has been going on for years and years.

It has many more to run.

The harsh reality is that nobody wins from all this.

The whole oxygen of Government and our national discourse has been taken up by a marginal political pursuit that is sucking the body politic dry.

Inequalities, working poor, increasing food bank usage, rising congestion, low productivity, broken social care, a massive skills gap, hospital waiting times, housing and homelessness…. the list of what is not being addressed by the full weight of Government and given adequate attention by the media is considerable.

The annual finance settlement for local government – that part of the public sector which is at the sharpest end of austerity and desperate in every sense of the word – was due last week, but has been postponed because of this madness.

Meanwhile, the Government expects MPs to vote on withdrawing from the EU before they have seen the proposed new immigration policy.

The country voted to leave the European Union, but the Prime Minister of the time had deemed it unnecessary to have any kind of plan in the event of the Referendum going the other way.

It seems the current PM has not learned the lesson with no apparent Plan B in the event of the House of Commons voting against her EU Withdrawal Agreement.

Theresa May has made several strategic mistakes in her two years at No 10.

From attempting to trigger Article 50 without the backing of Parliament; submitting her letter to Donald Tusk (with much fanfare) without a clear Government position; laying out a collection of almost impossible ‘red lines;’ calling an election to give her a ‘strong and stable mandate’ which resulted in a lost majority; refusing to share impact analysis and agreeing to a ‘backstop’ 12 months ago to secure a Joint Declaration before Christmas without appreciating the political consequences which are now plain to see.

The PM has made errors and lost ministers at a remarkable rate.

As has become a cliche to express, there can be no doubting her sense of duty, commitment and resilience. It is quite something to behold.

Last week, HM Government was found to be in contempt of Parliament.

That’s worth repeating. Contempt of Parliament.

You might say it was just parliamentary shenanigans. At the root of that was the disastrous decision to instruct Conservatives not to divide on the ‘humble address’ which demanded the Attorney General’s full advice should be presented to Parliament.

When the full advice was eventually published, no harm was done to the national interest. Only to the Government’s credibility.

This week the Speaker condemned the Government, only for the Leader of the House to call his impartiality into question. In the era of Brexit and Trump, extraordinary events like this just seem run of the mill.

So, this week the PM’s well of goodwill is draining. Her decision to defer the vote and a pointless round of shuttle diplomacy has lost the confidence of the House, regardless of whether a formal vote on that question ever takes place.

Why dispatch your outriders on Monday morning with a statement of 100% confidence in a vote taking place when you decided to pull it at the weekend? It almost makes you feel sorry for Michael Gove. (I said almost). But this was the PM who was never going to call a snap General Election.

One of the PM’s problems is that she never built a coalition – in her own party or beyond. She has constantly bounced her party, including with the Chequers “Deal” and then the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration. Her chief whip has lost the relationship with the DUP, the party that keeps her in power.

On too many occasions, the PM and her various Brexit Secretaries thought they could divide and rule. But politicians from 27 countries have held it together, whilst the British Conservative Party clearly cannot.

Many Conservatives – and other Leavers – continue to fail to understand the strength of the EU is its common mission and the benefits of shared sovereignty. Its members were never going to allow a country moving outside the club to reap the same rewards as enjoyed inside. Why on earth would they?

The truth is that Mrs May took on one of the biggest challenges that can be imagined. The complexities of Brexit – technical, legal, economic and political – are enormous.

With no golden civil service plan in Number 10 awaiting her arrival, a 52/48% vote split, flaky (at best) promises in the referendum campaign and a challenging media environment, this is a project you would not wish on your biggest rival.

It is frankly impossible to deliver a Brexit which will provide a greater level of prosperity than can be achieved within the EU.

To depart the EU is not just leaving a club, but removing the country from an economic ecosystem that enables us to eat, treat illness, travel and trade with relative efficiency and affordability.

If I hear ‘Believe in Britain’ or ‘Global Britain’ again I might cry.

But I have the same reaction when I hear it said: “people did not vote to make themselves poorer.”

Some did. Or at least they consented to making themselves relatively poorer in times to come, compared to anticipated growth levels in the EU.

At both ends of wealth and income scales, plenty of people in my experience were aware voting Leave might have a negative economic impact on the country and possibly in their own pockets.

They were voting for reasons above and beyond economics. Sovereignty, money, identity, community, borders and immigration to name just a few factors.

Mrs May and Cabinet colleagues have sought to dilute the forecasts and scenarios produced by their own Government, the Bank of England and respected think tanks.

This was no time for sugar coating. Leaving will cost economically – those in favour of remaining or a softer form of Brexit understand that already. But so too do many advocating a departure from the continental bloc.

The arguments for the “Prime Minister’s Deal” (and note it is always the “PM’s Deal”, never the “Government’s” or the “Cabinet’s”) have become increasingly desperate.

We’re BOB – Bored of Brexit – and it’s time to move on (but not to hold the Meaningful Vote).

True, but being exasperated by exiting the EU should not be the reason to avoid thoroughly examining this Deal/Declaration and, if necessary, rejecting it.

Even if the Withdrawal Agreement is eventually backed by Parliament, the negotiations over the UK’s future trading relationship will drag on for years.

It is clear that Parliament would do everything possible to avoid the disastrous outcome of ‘No Deal.’ No one really believes the PM would herself ever allow such an eventuality.

No Brexit (or delayed Brexit) may displease many who voted Leave in June 2016, but there is evidence of a small but growing shift in the view of the country whilst the majority of Parliament would hardly weep at such a result.

The CBI and other business organisations have given the Deal their backing, with varying degrees of enthusiasm. But as the Select Committee on Exiting the European Union declared at the weekend, the Political Declaration offers insufficient clarity over the UK’s future trading relationship with the EU.

The Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce has developed a useful Brexit Health Check, although it might have been more helpful to create an antidote to Government chaos.

When the Meaningful Vote comes, there will be “nays” for reasons beyond just the backstop.

To many Leavers, Brexit is not question of rationality, but of blind faith. For Nigel Farage and others, they want a PM who “believes in Brexit.” It is not an issue for understanding evidence or coherent policy making, but of sheer belief.

Brexit may be ripping the Conservatives apart and have all but destroyed Ukip, but our entire political class has been left wanting.

The frontbenches – Conservatives and Labour – represent the least impressive set of leading politicians in my lifetime.

For two weeks running, Jeremy Corbyn has faced an open goal and failed to so much as find his foot on the ball, let alone hit the back of the net. Last week’s contempt vote and today’s vote of no confidence have seen a hugely damaged PM standing at the dispatch box with hardly a mark.

Personally, my heart sinks whenever the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg, Jeremy Corbyn, Boris Johnson, Andrea Jenkyns, Barry Gardiner or Nadine Dorris appear on the airwaves. I have all but given up watching Question Time, other than from behind the sofa.

Meanwhile, Cabinet ministers including Karen Bradley, Dominic Rabb, Theresa Villiers, Esther McVey and Priti Patel stand in a long line of politicians with a feeble grip on facts or the ability to express a coherent argument.

Thankfully, big moments bring out the best of some parliamentarians. Dominic Grieve and Hilary Benn are among those that just about manage to keep my faith in politics alive.

There is a gaping hole in politics right now. Failing politicians and divided parties.

The real lessons of the referendum on 23 June 2016 have not been learned.

Many voters, particularly outside the London bubble, feel marginalised, left behind and disenfranchised.

The economy, public services and national infrastructure are not working for them.

They don’t feel they have a voice and our system of politics is not serving them well.

The referendum was not just about the economy, so neither should be the response to it.

It is incumbent on ‘Soft Brexiteers’, ‘People’s Voters’ and ‘Remainers’ – as well as those on the other side – to understand this is about more than GVA or frictionless trade.

Readers of these pages will not be surprised if we say that part of the solution to Brambles is devolution. Devolving real power – including fiscal – to city regions and placing local government on a more sustainable footing must become a priority when Government starts functioning again.

Andy Street, the West Midlands Mayor, had been relatively quiet on Twitter and the media generally this week. Nothing on Brexit and no words of support for Theresa May – that was until we nearly finished this post. Until then, his public utterances had mainly focused on the Local Industrial Strategy and Housing First pilot.

He has used his access to Theresa May to the advantage of the region. It might be said they share many traits and values, not least in their admirable sense of duty, loyalty and work ethic.

But, given the importance of manufacturing, financial and professional services and exports to this region, the next Mayoral election may reflect on where the current Mayor stood when crucial moments came in this Brambles period.

Forecasting in politics really is a mug’s game at present. But, it seems likely that Mrs May will survive tonight’s vote. The question will be how much damage is done and whether she could continue with more than 100 votes against her.

It is likely that a commitment to stand down after leaving the EU (and before a General Election) will feature in her pitch to colleagues this afternoon.

At some point, she will have to face the other Meaningful Vote. With no more than some reassuring words from the EU on the backstop, she is likely to lose that vote unless she has convinced enough MPs that we are too close to 29 March and that only No Deal or No Brexit are left on the table.

A People’s Vote – and a delay to Article 50 – begins to look more likely in those circumstances, but a second referendum is beset with difficulties.

Brambles is here for a good while yet.

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