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Brexit backsliding fears are stronger than ever

In February, Matthew Parris wrote that Brexiteers seemed very anxious, despite having won. He thought this was because they were ‘secretly, usually unconsciously, terrified that they’ve done the wrong thing’. The following week, I suggested that our undoubted anxiety was more likely attributable to fear that ‘having come so far, we might be cheated of what we thought we had achieved’. Exactly a year after the referendum, this fear of being cheated is even stronger. Last week, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, came within an ace of saying in public that Britain must not leave the customs union, thereby undermining the negotiating position of the government in which he serves. Even when restrained by cabinet colleagues at the last moment, he still said that leaving without a deal would be ‘a very, very bad outcome for Britain’. The people who lost a year ago now tend to say that, while respecting the result, they wish to find some ‘middle’, ‘incremental’ solution, ideally presided over by some cross-party commission thingy. This is an ancient Establishment skill, which is not explicitly to prevent something, but to find a way of quietly making it impossible. As Enoch Powell liked imagining himself saying to the people who usually run this country, ‘I admire your gift for humbug. I worship it. But I reserve the right to point it out.’

Mr Hammond’s customs union bombshell was to have been detonated at his annual speech at the Mansion House. The horror of Grenfell Tower provided a reason for him to withdraw from the dinner at the last minute. The banquet shrivelled to a breakfast. This summer is proving a thin time for stately occasions. Having called her snap election, Mrs May decreed that the Queen’s Speech should take place on the day of the Garter ceremony at Windsor. Then, finding herself struggling to stay in government, she postponed the date of the Queen’s Speech (her people pleading some piffle about ink having to dry on parchment), but by that time the Garter do had been cancelled. Now the new date for the State Opening of Parliament has interfered with one of the Queen’s days at Ascot and the occasion has skimped on ceremony. No complaint has been heard from Buckingham Palace, of course, but if you have reigned for 65 years, it must be quite irritating when the person who runs your government cannot sort out her diary. Now it is announced that there will be no Queen’s Speech at all in 2018. Her Majesty herself could be forgiven if she felt not displeased at avoiding the ordeal, but is it a good thing that the government is excusing itself from the usual debate on its record next year? The stated reason is that more time is needed to get through Brexit. But one of the virtues of Brexit is the return of parliamentary sovereignty. That traditionally involves the chance for Parliament to arraign the government.

This is an extract from Charles Moore’s Notes, which appears in this week’s Spectator

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