By Steven Paterson
rson former MP for Stirling
With just one more day to go before the Government finally submits the fruits of its Brexit negotiation labours to the judgement of Parliament, the question on every commentator’s lips isn’t whether or not the government will suffer a catastrophic defeat, but on the magnitude of the defeat it faces and where this leaves us. It’s not an easy thing to predict, and I wouldn’t bet money on any scenario at this juncture.
By former MP for Stirling, Steven Paterson
The Meaningful Vote on the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal should have been the defining moment of her premiership, but after three days of the scheduled five days of debate in the House of Commons, and speeches from no less than 164 members of parliament, the government used a technical device to postpone the remainder of the debate. It was an act of political cowardice necessitated by a desperate misjudgement over the Prime Minister’s deal.
Given this Government’s record on keeping its promises, it remains to be seen if the debate is ever concluded, but for what it’s worth, the Government has guaranteed the debate and the vote on it will be revived before its own deadline of 21 January 2019. We’ll see.
The whole episode was an absolute shambles, and the most compelling evidence yet that this government has lost all authority and credibility. But for as long as it stumbles on, it will be assailed and harangued from all sides, including its own, and will lurch from one crisis headlong into the next.
That’s not to say there wasn’t logic to the Prime Minister’s decision to pull the vote on its penultimate day. She was facing a certain and catastrophic defeat, which would likely have been too much for her tenuous grip on the title of Prime Minister to bear, and the calculation that a shameful retreat was better than a career-ending defeat wasn’t difficult. The real puzzle is how she ever thought her deal had a snowball’s chance of passing given the implacable opposition on her own backbenches.
By Steven Paterson, former MP for Stirling
“It’s a political crisis but not yet a constitutional crisis” was one of the comments from the talking heads on the wall to wall 24 hour news coverage in recent days, and maybe it was the inclusion of the word ‘yet’ signifying that there’s still much worse to come that made the comment stick with me.
Call this moment in our politics what you will but this is unprecedented and things cannot go on much longer as they have. Something has to give.
The opening day of the Meaningful Vote debate was remarkable, not least for the fact that Theresa May’s Government was knocked reeling before the debate even started as it earned the historic ignominy of being the first government in Westminster’s long history to earn the collective Contempt of Parliament, and be forced kicking and screaming to publish legal advice and comply with a vote some weeks ago which compelled it to do exactly this.
Then in a programme motion, an amendment from the erudite Tory remainer Dominic Grieve, wrested powers over how parliament proceeds in the aftermath of the expected defeat of the Government next week. This was a technical process issue, but it matters: if the Prime Minister’s deal is rejected by Parliament next week, the Government will not be able to decide exclusively what comes next, and any number of amendments can be made by MPs from across the parties represented. Parliament has taken back control – but from the Executive, not Brussels.
It was as if a few rounds of a boxing match had already taken place before the pugilists made it to the ring. The weary-looking Prime Minister who appeared at the despatch box immediately after the humbling of her government spoke for over an hour proposing her deal as the only way forward, in what was the first of forty hours of debate on the matter. Many speculated that the speech might be one of her last as Prime Minister, given how much rides on the upcoming votes and the huge hurdles that would need to be overcome for the Government to get past this.
Comment by Steven Paterson, Former MP for Stirling
The cheers that accompanied the successful landing by the NASA InSight Mission on the surface of Mars must have seemed a long way from the sombre House of Commons yesterday, but perhaps there are parallels that can be drawn.
After all, both the NASA InSight spacecraft and the Prime Minister’s Brexit plan have been hurtling through the void for months, subject to dangers unknown and an end uncertain. One tiny miscalculation and the successful touchdown in a world of opportunity is instantly transformed into a mangled trail of scorched wreckage.
Which brings me neatly to where we have reached with Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit proposals, which have more chance of being successfully delivered safely to another planet than they do of being endorsed by the House of Commons in two weeks’ time when the Meaningful Vote is held in Parliament.
So, what on earth is going on? I mean, there can be no way the Prime Minister does not recognise what dozens and dozens of MPs told her during yesterday’s statement: that there is no chance whatsoever of this deal passing the current House of Commons. Yet the Prime Minister has set off touring the country for support for her deal wherever she can find it, which can only mean that she sees pressure from outwith Parliament as her best chance of success.
After months of claim and counterclaim, deadlines coming and going and Cabinet resignations, it’s hard to keep track of exactly where the Government is in its attempts to achieve a Brexit transition deal.
And as I write, there are just 139 days on the countdown clock until the Article 50 notification is activated, whether a transition deal is signed or not.
The unavoidable trouble for the Prime Minister is that she must somehow satisfy two opposing demands simultaneously, and with the clock ticking down she has still shown precious little evidence that she can. Of course, we are being told repeatedly by the Government that the transition deal is 95 percent done, even when this is flatly contradicted by the EU negotiators, the Irish Government and, erm, the Prime Minister herself, who has stated repeatedly nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.
Everyone knows that the Chequers Deal is as dead as a dodo, but the Prime Minister continues to talk about it as if there is the slightest possibility of it living and flying. Her impossible task is to move one way from this position to satisfy the EU – and this is apparently to be through having the entire UK remain in a customs union with the EU, whilst moving some distance in the opposite direction to satisfy her own extreme Brexit backbenchers – and, of course, the implacable DUP whose support she needs to govern.
By former MP for Stirling, Steven Paterson
No-one was in the least bit surprised that the result of the long-anticipated October European summit, which should have been the moment the Prime Minister unveiled a Brexit deal two years in the making, was the dampest of damp squibs.
The writing had been on the wall for some time, after all. The EU side required fresh thinking on Northern Ireland’s future border with the Republic of Ireland, and the Prime Minister was simply unable to come up with any due to the clamps put on her by her DUP partners on whom her government’s survival depends.
Where does all this leave the tortured Brexit negotiations now? The DUP’s position is characteristically absolute, so the chances of persuading them to move even an inch towards a position the EU could accept over the border are nil. They always were.
Remember that the DUP have long been sceptical of the Good Friday Agreement, having campaigned against it when it was endorsed by the people of Northern Ireland in a referendum in 1998. And DUP Leader Arlene Foster’s recent comments questioning that international agreement’s sacrosanctity – and those from Sinn Fein Leader stating that Brexit is incompatible with the Good Friday Agreement – should be extremely concerning to everyone involved in the Brexit negotiations.
By Steven Paterson, former Stirling MP
The viciousness of the Tory factional infighting intensified this week, as the cooker was turned up in the Brexit kitchen.
First in to ratchet up the heat was the Tory’s confidence and supply partners, the DUP, keen to ensure their threats to either bring down the Prime Minister or her entire government were taken seriously.
They have now proved what some naïve Tories don’t seem to have understood: that the spending of £1 billion of taxpayers’ money in order to purchase confidence and supply from the ten DUP MPs doesn’t necessarily mean that they will provide the Tory Government with either confidence or supply. Anyone who harbours any remaining doubt that the DUP always had the whip hand in this one-sided deal should simply consider that they have already had almost half the £1 billion bung of our money paid out, and yet can still effectively and believably threaten to collapse this parliament. And, of course, collapsing political institutions is something of a speciality of theirs.
By Steven Paterson, former Stirling MP
Last week’s Tory conference in Birmingham did not quite explode into open warfare over the succession to the Tory leadership, but only just.
That’s not to say some didn’t stray perilously close to the line of course. Bombastic Boris Johnson is so obsessed with being seen to be the heir apparent to the Tory crown, and is so utterly lacking in the self-awareness that is characteristic of most human beings that he just could not help himself. His careful manipulation of an ever-willing media ensured that when he showed up at the conference to a celebrity welcome, it was in the guise of the champion of the one true Brexit, and his exuberant and well-rehearsed speech ensured that he dominated the airwaves for the 24 hours before it was the Prime Minister’s turn in the spotlight. Pressure successfully cranked up to maximum.
It is probably incumbent on Boris to keep himself in the headlines though, since his unpopularity amongst the parliamentary Tory party may prove a fatal weakness to his leadership ambitions. Conservative Party rules mean that in any forthcoming leadership contest, the 316 Tory MPs would have the power to select the final two candidates in any leadership selection process. By eliminating the candidate with fewest votes round by round until only two remain, aspiring Prime Ministers can be whittled down, and Boris may find it hard to escape the cull unless he can somehow broaden his appeal in the parliamentary party.
By Former Stirling MP, Steven Paterson The Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham this week presents yet another critical test for a Prime Minister whose entire premiership seems to have involved crisis management. Now I’m the first to admit that her durability in the face of the constant onslaught, most viciously […]
By Former Stirling MP, Steven Paterson
The reality of the UK’s bargaining position was made abundantly clear this week when the Prime Minister faced abject humiliation at the EU Summit at Salzburg.
In no uncertain terms, the EU27 demonstrated both their unity of purpose and complete rejection of Theresa May’s Chequers Agreement. Dismissed by her extreme hard Brexit opponents at home and now explicitly rejected by the EU27 she is attempting to negotiate with on the continent, the Chequers Agreement is officially dead and buried.
So where does this leave us? Well, perhaps hurtling towards a ‘no deal’ that only the hard right Brexit brigade on the Tory backbenches yearn for. Make no mistake that this is the worst outcome possible, but with the Prime Minister having gambled the last of her credibility on Chequers or bust, she’s bust.
Indeed, on Friday lunchtime when it was announced she would be making a statement from Downing Street, I thought Mrs May had finally realised the impossible position she was in and was going to bow to the inevitable, but instead we were treated to yet more unconvincing fighting talk from a Prime Minister hanging on for dear life in Number 10.