Theresa May’s default instinct is procrastination. Her entire conduct of the Brexit negotiations has been characterised by deferral and delay, rather than decision. Today, however, comes the confrontation she can duck no longer. The House of Lords’ wrecking amendments to the EU Withdrawal Bill come back to the House of Commons.
We can totally dismiss the arguments of Unreconciled Remainers such as Chuka Umunna and Gina Miller that for the Government to require all 15 Lords’ amendments to be debated and voted on in just 12 hours or so over the next two days is somehow an affront to democracy.
It takes a breathtaking degree of chutzpah, or a staggering lack of self-awareness, for Umunna and Miller to believe (presumably) that their own blatant attempt to overturn the democratic decision of 17.4million voters and stop Brexit somehow isn’t a far greater affront to democracy, but leave that to one side.
In 1999, the Blair Government, of which Umunna was, and Miller I suspect would have been, an enthusiastic supporter, made the Commons consider no fewer than 820 Lords’ amendments to the Greater London Authority Bill in five hours. The Remainers’ faux-outrage over the Brexit amendments timetable is risible, as well as being nauseatingly hypocritical.
Before her misguided decision to call last year’s election, May probably had the numbers, including the DUP and Labour Leavers quite properly more committed to respecting the democratic outcome of the EU Referendum than Corbynite game-playing, to defeat the Lords’ amendments and send the Bill back to the Lords defiantly unamended.
Now, however, with May’s majority vanished, the picture looks very different, even with the votes of the DUP and those principled Labour Leavers. The rebellion by unrepentantly pro-EU and anti-Brexit Tory backbenchers – notwithstanding that, under a year ago, every single one stood for Parliament on a party manifesto pledging to implement Brexit and leave both the Customs Union and Single Market – is well into double figures.
It was boosted by Justine Greening’s refusal to accept a (justified) demotion in May’s Cabinet reshuffle, and by the (also justified) resignation of Amber Rudd as Home Secretary, because both have promptly joined the Soubry and Morgan claque in what is known as Remoaner Corner. In the past few days, former Environment Minister Caroline Spelman has thrown in her lot with them.
So attention has now reportedly turned to differentiating the 15 Lords’ amendments into Green, Amber and Red categories, in order of acceptability. Fine in theory, but most of the Red amendments on which the Government might actually be inclined to dig in its heels, such as continuing Customs Union and/or Single Market membership, or continued ECJ judicial supremacy, are precisely those on which the pro-EU Left in Parliament and the Tory anti-Brexit rebels intend to inflict a defeat on the Government, because they amount to their aim of a soft-as-mush Brexit-In-Name-Only.
As if that wasn’t enough, as a prelude the past few days have been dominated by David Davis’s (latest) implied threat to resign over the Northern Ireland backstop. At the time of writing, opinion is divided, depending on whom one chooses to believe, on whether Davis has once again backed down on a fudge, or May has capitulated by agreeing to time-limit the backstop, however nebulously.
It’s only a few days ago that comment and analysis was predicated on the forthcoming EU summit on 28-29 June making the Parliamentary and Cabinet arithmetic difficult afterwards. Intriguingly, and as a reflection of how fast-changing this whole situation is, it’s now at least arguable that this judgment needs to be reversed.
Firstly, if May really has conceded a time-limited Northern Ireland backstop, (and even if she doesn’t resile from her concession in the face of unrelenting pressure from the viscerally pro-Remain mandarins in the FCO and Cabinet Office), it’s almost certain that Barnier and his Brussels colleagues will reject it out of hand at the EU summit. Their aim is to exploit the UK/EU border in Ireland to stop Brexit.
Secondly, if she goes to the summit on the back of several Parliamentary defeats brought about essentially by her own disloyal backbenchers, her position will be severely weakened. It’s surely the Parliamentary arithmetic that will make the EU summit difficult, not the other way round.
Paradoxically, May’s, and Brexit’s, lifeline could be to refer back to that unnecessary 2017 General Election. It did at least have one advantage, of making the vast majority of her Remain-voting MPs face their constituents and promise to implement the Referendum result. She should have no qualms about reminding the rebels of that, and then make every amendment vote a vote of confidence, in effect threatening them with another election.
But if she won’t, then she must go. For some time the political blogosphere hasn’t been reticent in calling for May to be ousted, not necessarily to save Brexit, but because of her manifest inadequacies both as a Prime Minister and party leader – I myself called for her to go at TCW on 29 January this year – and now the heavyweight commentators are joining in, economist and Conservative Andrew Lilico’s devastating indictment of her at Reaction last week being but one example.
But her potential Brexiteer ousters, it appears, lack the courage to back their words with deeds. Like so many of their predecessors, it will be their fate to be remembered not as Tory statesmen who upheld democracy but party hacks who, when it came to the crunch, put party before country. Anti-climax seems far more likely than Armageddon to be today’s outcome.