When the official history of the interminable Brexit saga comes to be written — not a book I personally look forward very much to reading — last night’s votes in the Commons may be judged seismic.
Nearly three-and-a-half years after the referendum, MPs finally voted in favour of Britain leaving the EU in accordance with the outcome of that historic decision.
Theresa May tried three times. Boris Johnson was thwarted last Saturday and again on Monday, first by the sinuous Tory Remainer Sir Oliver Letwin, and then by the shamelessly pro-Remain Speaker, John Bercow.
At last has Boris Johnson has won a longed-for victory, and by a surprisingly comfortable margin — only to have the prize immediately snatched from his hands by a familiar combination of a self-serving Labour front bench and irreconcilable Remainer MPs
Although Mr Johnson threatened yesterday in the Commons to pull the bill rather than ‘allow more months of this’, last night he spoke only of ‘pausing’ it
There have been hundreds of hours of Commons deliberation, repeated EU summits, millions of words in newspapers and on TV, countless journeys to and from Brussels by officials and politicians. Brexit has driven the country and much of Europe half mad.
Yet at last the Prime Minister has won a longed-for victory, and by a surprisingly comfortable margin — only to have the prize immediately snatched from his hands by a familiar combination of a self-serving Labour front bench and irreconcilable Remainer MPs.
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- VIEW FULL ARCHIVE
Just when it seemed we might be on the road to some sort of resolution, hopes have been dashed by members demanding more time to scrutinise the Government’s Withdrawal Agreement Bill.
The consequence might well be more chaos in the short-term. Although Mr Johnson threatened yesterday in the Commons to pull the bill rather than ‘allow more months of this’, last night he spoke only of ‘pausing’ it.
Millions of people will be bemused, depressed, exasperated or infuriated. In normal times, MPs would have been justified in asking for more time to look at a bill of such complexity, though there is much in it that is familiar from Mrs May’s deal. But these are far from normal times.
Before we sink into despair, though, let’s recognise that the PM has won a great symbolic victory, if not yet one nailed down in law. One way and another, I believe he will be able to build on yesterday’s considerable achievement.
Many reasonable voters, including Remainers, will acknowledge that he finally got a Brexit vote through the Commons, and did so less than three months after becoming Prime Minister.
And this was accomplished despite many in Parliament and the media accusing him of engaging in a sham negotiation whose only purpose was to provide bogus cover for what was allegedly his real intention of finagling a No Deal.
Such scepticism was not confined to opposition parties. Many supposedly on his side doubted his ability to close a deal with Brussels. One of them was Rory Stewart, a candidate in the recent Tory leadership contest won by Boris.
This is what Mr Stewart said almost exactly a month ago: ‘If he does get a deal through, I would not stand again. I would be the first to apologise. I would get down on bended knees in front of Boris and admit I’d been wrong.’
It’s true he acknowledged a few days ago that his pessimism had been misplaced, but he has certainly not yet gone down ‘on bended knee’. Nor has he given us any clue that he will give up his political career by not standing to be the next Mayor of London.
I’m not particularly gunning at Mr Stewart. The point is that, despite been surrounded by naysayers, Mr Johnson has triumphantly delivered a deal which many people had declared impossible — before being tripped up by an obdurate House of Commons.
Whatever happens, as a result of events last night, it now seems inconceivable that Britain can leave the EU on October 31, as the PM has endlessly promised that we would
Only last week, after being deserted by the Democratic Unionist Party — and I fear the PM did betray them over his new customs proposals for Northern Ireland — many sages forecast that he could never win a pro-Brexit vote. Last night he did, by a whopping 30 votes.
However maddening the subsequent vote to drag out the progress of the bill, it is surely highly likely that Boris’s single-mindedness and determination will have put him on the high ground of British politics in many voters’ minds.
Whatever happens, as a result of events last night, it now seems inconceivable that Britain can leave the EU on October 31, as the PM has endlessly promised that we would.
But it’s not implausible, though perhaps unlikely, that he could come to an agreement with opposition parties to limit the process of scrutinising the bill to two or three weeks, after which time we might be able to leave the EU if the bill were approved in anything like its existing form.
Nor is it beyond the realms of possibility that Brussels will only offer a short extension of a few weeks. In that case, there would be pressure on Remainer MPs (who are terrified of No Deal) to limit whatever delaying or wrecking tactics they may be self-indulgently dreaming up.
If Mr Johnson were able to deliver Brexit in, say, late November, I don’t believe the electorate would accuse him of having inexcusably prolonged the agony. Fair-minded people can see he had done his utmost to fulfil his promise, only to be frustrated by scheming MPs.
So notwithstanding his warning yesterday that he would not countenance ‘months’ of delay, I can imagine him putting up with a few more weeks if there seemed a reasonable chance of ‘getting Brexit done’.
But I’m not at all sure that he needs to achieve such an outcome this side of an election. In the past few days, Remainer MPs have been defining themselves in exactly the way Mr Johnson wants to present them — as incorrigible opponents of almost any version of Brexit.
The stage is now set — from the Prime Minister’s point of view more favourably than ever before — for a Parliament versus the People election in which he can portray himself as the democratic defender of the 2016 referendum result, as well as a decisive and indomitable leader.
It’s perfectly true, of course, that due to the ill-conceived and idiotic Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, Boris can’t call an election at a time of his choosing.
That said, there are various ways by which he could precipitate one. The Scots Nats might be encouraged to call a vote of No Confidence in the Government in which the Tories abstained.
If Jeremy Corbyn cowers in the shadows, producing increasingly implausible reasons for refusing to engage, he and his party will inevitably suffer
Or the PM could present a short bill, which might be supported by opposition parties other than Labour, negating the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act and enabling an immediate election.
Even if these or other ruses failed, is it really conceivable that Labour could continue to resist an election day after day, week after week, having so frequently and so vehemently demanded one?
Quite possibly Labour might attempt to worm its way out of its existing commitment to embrace an election once No Deal is off the table. But if it did so, it would risk damaging its electoral prospects.
Political parties exist to fight elections and win power. If Jeremy Corbyn cowers in the shadows, producing increasingly implausible reasons for refusing to engage, he and his party will inevitably suffer.
After last night’s debacle, some will say that things have gone from bad to worse. I don’t believe they have. Even if it’s not possible to predict every step by which Boris Johnson will deliver Brexit and vanquish Labour, I’m increasingly confident that he will.