Prospect: Why Remainer MPs’ approach to the Johnson deal fundamentally misunderstands parliament

This article was first published in Prospect Magazine.

The House of Commons contains two division lobbies: one for the ‘Ayes’, and one for the ‘Noes’. As has become agonisingly clear in recent months, our Parliamentary system is essentially incapable of constructively dealing with issues where rather than MPs being presented with a binary policy choice, a menu of complex paths forward is on offer. There is no division lobby for “alternative customs arrangements.”

There is a majority in the House of Commons for the avoidance of a No Deal exit but, as all have come to realise, there are no constructive means by which MPs can vote not to do something. However strongly we might agree that it is a bad idea to stay rooted to the ground while a meteor hurtles towards us, there must be at least some consensus on which way we should run. Or else, we find ourselves standing still and repeatedly requesting extensions to the meteor’s impact date.

Compromise, therefore, is a necessity. Remain-leaning MPs would have done well to stick to the singular common principle of preventing No Deal above all others. However, against the backdrop of the Benn Act (and now the Letwin amendment) MPs have come to believe that stopping No Deal is already in the bag, and that other tailored Brexit outcomes are now within reach.

That has resulted in the Remain coalition tearing itself apart limb by limb as some—including Oliver Letwin himself—backed the government on both key votes last night, while many others opt instead to call for an entirely different way forward, often involving undoing months of progress and starting again from scratch. This rampant diversity of Brexit conviction has caused the Parliamentary Remain presence to descend into unfathomable chaos.

When the Letwin amendment passed on Saturday, despite it simply altering the parameters of the Benn Act and inviting the government to present the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, it was hailed by some as a significant step towards stopping Brexit altogether. Meanwhile, the People’s Vote campaign is more buoyant than ever in its efforts to coax MPs on side.

Even then, there is a divergence in viewpoints, resulting in yet more confusion. Some Final Say-supporting MPs would consent to the government’s Brexit deal, so long as it was put to a public vote, as per the Kyle-Wilson amendment. Others on the Opposition benches demand a referendum between a whole new Labour deal and Remain (despite being staunchly opposed to an election).

As if that were not complicated enough, some MPs have sought, for reasons known only to themselves, to revive calls for a Customs Union deal. How or when this entirely new approach could possibly be negotiated remains unaddressed.

At the root of this confusion is that Remainers have got rather too big for their boots. Had they held their simple anti-No Deal coalition together, they would have been seen to be victorious and we could all have awoken from our Brexit coma. Their chronic indecision, baffling lack of pragmatism and terminal unwillingness to even entertain the notion of compromise have resulted in their compelling the government to request a further delay—which even the Prime Minister now appears to have conceded as inevitable—for no apparent purpose.

Commons Remainers have made the same mistake as Theresa May did in reneging on the red lines she laid out in her January 2017 Lancaster House speech. As her position softened over time, she saw the Conservative coalition she had built up behind her negotiating approach crumble, ultimately resulting in her downfall. MPs today would do well to learn the lessons of recent history on the dangers of mobile goalposts.

Indecision is endemic to Remain. After weeks of continuous government defeats without even a whiff of a Conservative majority, they have made precisely no progress in uniting behind a viable National Unity Prime Minister. They could kick the Tories out and take the Brexit wheel if only they could agree to back someone. Anyone. A mammal with a head.

The natural leader of the Remain coalition would be the Leader of the Opposition. That is, of course, if Jeremy Corbyn had not spent the build-up to the referendum tending his allotment rather than campaigning. As a result, the Remain forces in Parliament are splintered, leaderless and directionless, resulting in uninhibited obstructionism and not much else.

If a general election were not an inevitability before yesterday’s Programme Motion was voted down, it is now. If the election takes place during yet another Brexit delay which Parliament has forced on the government—which, judging by the Prime Minister’s statement last night, appears likely—it is only going to go one way. Remainers will no longer be able to bash Boris by accusing him of deal dishonesty or No Deal recklessness, nor can they accuse him of backing a “bankers’ Brexit.” An election campaign will expose the vacillation at the heart of the Remain coalition, and its members will pay a hefty electoral price.

The Commons Remainers’ position is fundamentally muddled, and the clock is ticking with an unprecedented vigour (the countdown to an election now being more noteworthy than the countdown to exit day). Unless Remain-leaning MPs can coalesce behind a coherent plan and clearly explaining why they are preventing the UK from leaving the EU with a deal this month, they will find themselves giving Boris Johnson the best Christmas present he could ever ask for: a stonking majority.

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