There are moments that cut through the din of braggadocio, vindictive utopianism and arrant stupidity surrounding Brexit. Anna Soubry has provided one in an impertinence during yesterday’s debate on the cross-border trade bill. She let into Jacob Rees-Mogg and his European Research Group (ERG) for coercing ministers to abandon much of the substance of the Chequers Brexit blueprint. Then, standing mere metres from the Treasury benches, she enquired:
‘Who is in charge? Who is running Britain? Is it the Prime Minister or is it the Honourable Member for North East Somerset? I know where my money’s sitting at the moment.’
Before the crazy set in, an MP taunting the Prime Minister as a feckless weakling would bring the full nuclear hellfire of Number 10 raining down upon their head. That Anna Soubry won’t proves her thesis. The PM is too feeble to insist that her MPs at least pretend to respect her in public. Theresa May is not in power without authority — she’s without power too.
The Prime Minister’s Chequers blueprint involved much wishful thinking and some outright self-deception but it was an even accommodation of soft and hard Brexit. It is something Tory supporters should have been able to settle for, albeit not cheerfully. They did not in large part because Theresa May failed to sell her own plan to her own people, allowing the hard-right to frame it as a sell-out. Consultation is an alien concept to May and another hangover from her Home Office days. You don’t have to worry about stakeholder buy-in when your stakeholders are banged up.
Now May is a hostage of the Brexit fundamentalists who have hijacked her government. In public appearances she looks like she should be holding up a copy of this morning’s New York Times while blinking her coordinates in Morse code.
Where is the Opposition at this hinge moment in Britain’s history? The Labour Party is busy staging its unironic revival of Springtime for Hitler and Vince Cable didn’t even show up to vote last night. He predicted the financial crash but didn’t foresee the Lib Dems’ collapse into irrelevance under his leadership.
That vacuum has been filled by a cross-party alliance of hard Brexiteers who, although a minority in Parliament, have succeeded in cowing their recreant and complacent colleagues. The Prime Minister of the UK is not Theresa May but Jacob Rees-Corbyn, a hybrid creature one part Powellite fop, one part Gerry Adams fanboy. The country is being run by a coalition of the Corbynistas and the European Research Group — Momentum and Moggmentum.
Their common enemies are liberalism and internationalism and the European Union symbolises both. May could see off the ERG if Corbyn Labour backed her Chequers plan and that is why they haven’t. Their vote yesterday was not against Moggite Brexit but against the government. Given the choice of a no-deal Brexit that eventually led to a Corbyn government and a compromise Brexit that did not, most in the ERG would not hesitate to pick the first option. These people are nationalists, not conservatives.
We have two factions in Parliament working to avert a moderate course in Brexit and maximise extremism in the terms under which we leave. The ERG — better-dressed football hooligans — are chucking bottles and Corbyn Labour are holding their jackets for them. At least, they are for now. Corbyn has compromised so many of his principles in pursuit of power. If he thought it could get him into Downing Street, there’s not much that would stop him reversing ferret on Europe. Brexiteers might want to learn the Yiddish for ‘People’s Vote’ and start using it.
Until then, the hard-right will continue to stifle parliamentary sovereignty in the name of the same doctrine and the hard-left will continue enabling them to do so, while peddling its own myth that there is such a thing as a ‘jobs-first Brexit’, except for a Brexit in which jobs are the first thing to go. Back when mainstream parties navigated the centre ground, they were called indistinct despite being demonstrably different. Now they are more distinct than they have been in generations and you can’t put a Brexit blueprint between them.