“It’s the fucking Taliban. Again.”
As it emerged that a ‘soft’ Brexit had once more been thwarted in parliament on Monday night, one Labour MP backing the plan couldn’t hide their contempt for their party colleagues.
The ‘Taliban’ is the nickname used by critics to describe the backbenchers who favour a second referendum, or ‘People’s Vote’, as a way out of the parliamentary deadlock.
And in the bars and corridors of the Commons on Monday night, the bitterness was more intense than ever as backers of a cross-party Norway plan – proposed by Tory Nick Boles and dubbed ‘Common Market 2.0’ – and supporters of a public vote blamed each other for their failure to get a majority.
Plans for a ‘soft Brexit’, with a permanent customs union with the EU, were defeated by just three votes. The second referendum option lost by just 12 votes and the Norway plan by 21 votes. The Commons looked like it couldn’t make its mind up, and maybe never could.
Recriminations were sharp among and between all parties, from the SNP to the Independent Group, and even the Lib Dems. Yet it was within Labour ranks that the acrimony and distrust was most evident.
Under the novel process devised for ‘indicative votes’ on Brexit, MPs get a paper ballot and tick which proposals they will support. In the voting lobbies, some of them deployed a ‘show-me-yours-and-i’ll-show-you-mine’ approach.
The hustling and horse-trading continued even through the voting process, and Jeremy Corbyn’s earlier decision to whip his MPs had raised hopes among some Common Market backers that things were finally coming their way.
The early intelligence was encouraging. The left-wing ‘Love Socialism, Hate Brexit’ group of MPs – with members like Lloyd Russell Moyle, Rachael Maskell and Marsha de Cordova – loaned their support.
Neil Coyle, seen as one of the most passionate People’s Vote supporters, showed his ballot paper to a Norway backer as proof of his bona fides. Another Labour MP did a ‘vote swap’ with a Tory.
But it soon emerged that large numbers of second referendum MPs were not playing ball. Owen Smith, the former Labour leadership contender, was among the ‘ultras’ who were not prepared to back any kind of Brexit that wasn’t confirmed by a public vote. Others like Jo Stevens and Paul Williams joined Smith in voting against the Norway plan.
Just as crucial were the many Labour MPs who decided to abstain, with David Lammy, Liz Kendall, Wes Streeting, Mary Creagh and Stephen Doughty all shunning the Boles motion.
Even some Leave voters say tear it up and start again
Mistrust between both groups had grown during months of in-fighting. The Norway backers dismissed the second referendum as incapable of ever getting a majority.
The People’s Vote campaign pumped out detailed dossiers about the flaws in the Common Market plan. While the referendum campaigners are dubbed ‘the Taliban’, those backing Norway have been dubbed ‘Tory enablers’ out of step with Labour’s membership.
Some MPs on Monday night felt that the real fear factor in local Labour parties had been ramped up by the huge anti-Brexit march and by the Commons e-petition signed by six million people. “Revocation [of the Article 50 process that governs the UK’s exit] is more popular than ever in people’s constituencies,” one MP admitted. “Even some Leave voters say tear it up and start again.”
Yet what swung some People’s Vote MPs was the suggestion during Boles’ speech that he did not want to delay Brexit beyond May 22. “Saying Brexit would be all over by the summer was not a strategy I was prepared to back,” one MP told HuffPost UK. “He lost the room at that point,” another said.
There was also resentment about which camp was helping which, and the numbers involved. “Lots of our people came across to them but only a handful of them to us,” one pro-referendum MP said. “Some colleagues ‘sold’ their votes too cheaply, in exchange for [Stephen] Kinnock, Boles and just a few others moving to us,” another said.
Stephen Kinnock, who had pushed hard for the Norway plan, said: “I am deeply, deeply disappointed by the fact that 33 Labour MPs campaigning for a second referendum abstained on Common Market 2.0. Many of us have deep reservations about a second referendum, but we put those reservations aside and voted for it. Unfortunately that wasn’t reciprocated.”
The damage done may take a long time to heal, although there are still moves to find a ‘grand compromise’ where a Norway plan or customs union would be put to a referendum.
I sometimes think that this particular parliament in which I find myself sitting is not very political at the moment, and it is confounding the general public
The SNP, Lib Dems and 11-strong The Independent Group (TIG) have opted to use their leverage created by the hung Parliament. One TIG MP was proud that its votes had ensured Clarke’s soft Brexit plan didn’t pass.
“If that had gone through, the People’s Vote would be dead today,” the MP said. “Those in the main parties angry with what we did are themselves facilitating Brexit. We were clear from our formation we want to stop it.”
The real problem with Brexit compromises is that for every vote gained, there is a risk of another lost. As Ken Clarke pointed out on Monday: “If we added the people’s vote to a motion such as mine, we would lose votes from all over the place. We would lose more than we would gain.
“Those Members should accept that they do not have a majority yet for the people’s vote and vote for something that they have no objection to as a fall-back position. That is politics. I sometimes think that this particular parliament in which I find myself sitting is not very political at the moment, and it is confounding the general public.”
The yawning gap between the warring sides has led many MPs to explore other ways to hammer things out.
If Yvette Cooper’s bill to delay Brexit, possibly by between nine and 12 months, gets a Commons majority, the EU may acquiesce simply to avoid being blamed for no-deal chaos.
Cooper, along with Hilary Benn, spotted last week that there would be a real difficulty in narrowing down the rival Brexit plans that were meant be alternatives to May’s deal.
Crucially, the idea of an ‘X-factor’ style run-off system or system of preferential votes was seen as too risky to get approval from parliament, one senior source said.
The only option left was to bind May’s hands with a substantial Brexit delay, and buy some invaluable months to hammer out talks that should have started years ago.
Instead, the idea of just requesting a long extension – a plan that was originally rejected by MPs earlier this year – emerged as the real option left to avoid the ‘cliff-edge’ of leaving the EU without a deal on April 12.
Cooper and Benn have long been wary of a second referendum, seeing it as a last resort and making their priority instead the halting of a no-deal exit.
In a bid to give MPs in various camps a final hope of reaching a compromise, Benn is pushing for next Monday for one more round of ‘indicative votes’.
Despite rumours that the Labour pair have occasionally fallen out over tactics with Sir Oliver Letwin, Dominic Grieve and other Tories in the cross-party ‘grandee tag-team’, those at the heart of the group say the contacts have been cordial throughout the past few months.
Whenever the ‘grandees’ looked like they were being too conciliatory to May, it was Labour’s front bench that pushed them into not relying on No.10 promises.
Most important of all, the senior Labour and Tory MPs knew that while MPs may not be good at agreeing on policy, they are good at agreeing on procedure to stop no-deal.
Overnight, the decision was taken to push a one-line bill that could press the Parliamentary ‘pause button’ one more time.
The grandees aren’t activating the UK’s ejector seat on the Brexit plane, but they are determined to stop it crashing into the ground.
Although there are fears that Tory peers could try and filibuster the bill in the Lords, one senior Brexiteer source confessed: “The Lords stuff is total crap. They’ll simply change their procedures to prevent it. They are the heart of Remain.”
The idea of a Brexiteer no-deal ambush in the Lords is dismissed by Labour sources too. “We may not even need to change our procedures. We don’t have a guillotine [a procedure to cut short debate], and they can try to play silly buggers.
“But the House will call it out if anyone tries to filibuster. Most important of all, how can Tory peers possibly defy the will of the Commons?”
I don’t think there is a Brexit compromise that will heal the country because in the end there are quite binary choices around Brexit
Labour’s leader in the Lords has already said that “given the primacy of the Commons, it would be extraordinary if unelected peers sought to derail” any Brexit legislation sent to them by MPs.
With the EU’s emergency summit next Wednesday, the race against time is on. The Cooper bill could pass through the Commons on Thursday and the latest estimate is it could be pushed through the Lords on Monday.
With the Commons not due to finalise all the Cooper bills stages until late Thursday, and the peers are not due to sit on Friday.
Former Brexit secretary David Davis warned that any extension would lead to instant repercussions for May, with a possible leadership contest ’You’d almost certainly have a Tory leadership contest and a new leader and then all bets are off,” he told the Today programme.
Davis added: “Tony Blair, the master tactician, has said the way to do this is to first get a delay, then a second referendum and then we stop the whole thing.”
Such an idea certainly fills hope in the hearts of the Labour People’s Vote ‘Taliban’, who agree with Blair’s assessment that delay is the only way forward.
In an interview with HuffPost UK, the former PM said: “I don’t think there is a Brexit compromise that will heal the country because in the end there are quite binary choices around Brexit. I think there is a process that can heal the country.”
That process may be a referendum or it may be a general election. But thanks to Cooper and Letwin, and all those party splits, it may start in earnest next week.