Exactly twelve months ago today, on 8 June, 2017, Britain lost a government. It has been without one ever since. The motley shower who gather around the Cabinet table at the behest of Theresa May don’t qualify: they don’t know what they want, and even if they did, they wouldn’t know how to get it.
In a piece I wrote last November, I said: ‘Theresa May’s government is finished. It is no more, it has ceased to be. It has expired and gone to meet its maker ... Cabinet discipline has broken down, ministers make up policy as they go along, and Mrs May, described by George Osborne after her election debâcle as “a dead woman walking”, is now barely even walking.’
Was I right, or was I right? It would be bad enough at the best of times; this, however, is the worst of times, as the UK faces its biggest challenge since the end of the Second World War. The Brexit referendum ― imposed by a feckless prime minister in a fit of absent-mindedness (‘Oh all right, then, have your stupid referendum ― what do I care? Tum-de-dum-de-dum ...’) ― has paralysed the body politic.
We are up the creek with no paddle, no captain, in a leaking boat, heading for the rapids. If you don’t have a lifebelt handy, I suggest you find one pronto.
As you may have noticed, although I wouldn’t blame you if you try to avert your gaze whenever you glimpse the word Brexit, all the talk over the past few days has been of a ‘backstop’, or even of a ‘time-limited’ backstop. This has acquired such seminal importance that the man supposedly in charge of the Brexit negotiations, David Davis, was reportedly on the brink of handing in his cards.
Whenever I find that my head is starting to hurt as I try to make sense of the verbiage emanating from the Westminster village, I reach for the dictionary. ‘Backstop ― a thing placed at the rear of something as a barrier or support.’
Fine. So if we haven’t come up with a miracle way to square the post-Brexit circle of a frictionless border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland ― one being outside the EU’s customs union while the other remains inside it ― we’ll have a ‘barrier or support’ in place to stop the whole trade edifice from crashing down. (The nature of the backstop, by the way, is that we’ll carry on as if nothing has happened. Brexit? What Brexit?)
But a ‘time-limited’ backstop? Here’s what the government says: ‘The exact period for which [the backstop] would be in force would depend on the nature of the delay [in agreeing new customs arrangements], but as a Government we are committed to making sure that the future arrangements are in place by the end of December 2021 at the very latest.’
Stop press: UK government decides it now takes only one to tango. Given that the UK government can’t even agree with itself on what it wants, the chances of it being able to agree anything sensible with Brussels must be, I would suggest, somewhere far below zero. To say we are in cloud cuckoo land is to insult both clouds and cuckoos.
Next week, MPs will be voting on a whole raft of Brexit amendments that have arrived in their laps from the House of Lords. If they were to vote in accordance with their convictions, many of those amendments ― most of which are designed, one way or another, to smooth the path towards a so-called ‘soft’ Brexit ― would sail through.
But because Theresa May lives in constant fear of her arch-Brexiteers, and because Jeremy Corbyn cannot shake off his instinctive and longheld anti-EU views, MPs from both major parties will be herded into the division lobbies to vote against nearly all the Lords amendments.
Some MPs will rebel against their own party leaders. Perhaps there will even be enough of them to defeat the government on some of the votes. Most of them, however, will toe the party line. Some because they are cowards, others because they believe that they need to respect the pro-Brexit majority in their own constituencies.
Whatever the reason, they will be failing the nation. In both the Commons and the Lords, there is a clear majority in favour of the softest Brexit negotiable. But the narrowly pro-Brexit referendum result has emasculated them: by imposing the blunt instrument of a plebiscite on top of a representative parliamentary democracy, it has poisoned our political system and risks doing immense damage to Britain’s future prospects.
Both May and Corbyn bear a heavy responsibility for the disaster that threatens us. Next week, however, MPs have a chance to do what we pay them for: to use their judgement in the best interests of their constituents and the nation, and to vote accordingly. It will be to their everlasting shame if they duck the opportunity.
By the way, if you missed the third programme in my documentary series The Future of English, you can hear or download it, as well as the two previous programmes, by clicking here. The final programme will be broadcast next Wednesday.