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The Brexiteers have blown it

13 March 2019

11:41 AM

13 March 2019

11:41 AM

If, as Rod Liddle says, Brexit has been killed there is no shortage of suspects. 75 of them, in fact. That’s the number of Conservative MPs who voted against the Government in last night’s second – but not necessarily final – meaningful vote. They wanted Brexit and then, when they were given it, they decided it wasn’t the kind of Brexit they wanted after all. 

Fanaticism invariably devours its adherents and so it is with Brexit. The Brexiteers wanted the ball but once they had it they decided they did not actually want it after all. They had their chance and they blew it. All they had to do was vote for the withdrawal agreement. Now they have rejected that, there is little reason to pay them any further attention. Far from being thwarted, they have been cosseted and indulged by a Prime Minister who must, you would like to think, now regret her disinclination to seek support from other, less monomaniacal, parts of the political community. 

So there are saboteurs in the House of Commons, right enough, and they are the 75 Conservative MPs who voted against the withdrawal agreement last night. In a more just world they would now be crushed. The rest of us have had to put up with them for too long.

There are, after all, many MPs and many voters too who, whether they think Brexit a good or a bad idea, were prepared to concede that as this was what the voters had demanded this is what the voters should receive. The result of the referendum would have to be “honoured”. But if the Moggists are not interested in Brexit it is not obvious why the rest of us should be interested in it either. 

Moggmentum and its adherents think they’re terribly smart, swanking and smirking around the place as though the world owed them a favour. They are utterly sincere in their belief they are the voice of the people. They fail to appreciate many people actually consider them frightful; a desperate band of perfect perishers. 

A second referendum remains fraught with risks that go some way beyond the immediate question of Brexit (if nothing else it opens a door for Nicola Sturgeon) but it’s also an idea that has been rehabilitated by the behaviour of the Brexiteers themselves. It might not be a good idea; it’s no longer obviously the worst. 

Throughout this interminable process, the Brexiteers have done their best to absolve themselves of Colin Powell’s Pottery Barn principle: they broke it but they declined to own it. Every effort made to accommodate them or meet them half-way has been rejected by Brexiteers who first misdiagnosed the wishes of the 52 per cent who voted to Leave and then treated 52 per cent as though it meant the same as 100 per cent. 

Already, of course, fresh myths are being created. Brexit was stabbed in the back by people who never accepted it. They were never going to let it happen. Nonsense, naturally, but the kind of nonsense reconfirming the fact that, for many, Brexit was never actually about Brexit. It was instead just one battle in the culture wars. And the key thing to know about culture wars is that defeat is just as sweet as victory. 

Brexit was fine until Brexit arrived; it worked better in theory than in practice not least because as a theoretical matter it was all about unleashing a greater Britain whereas, in reality, it has become a retreat. And worse than that, a retreat which has emphasised our smallness, not our majesty. Project Fear? No, Project This Is How It Is and no amount of blather about German car companies or Italian prosecco-makers can disguise or make up for that. 

And so the ERG and their followers complain that the withdrawal agreement presented to them for their approval isn’t even Brexit. This will be news to the other 27 members of the European Union. Some Moggists complain that the deal agreed is even worse than Remaining and yet, if this is so, I rather doubt we’ll see any of them suggesting we should just call the whole thing off pretending it was all just a dream. A Bobby Ewing Brexit, if you will. And I doubt they will swing behind Remain if or when – as it may yet still do so – the choice boils down to being between this deal and Remain. 

Hark, too, at how they invent phantoms to compensate for their lack of faith in their own convictions. The backstop – the now notorious backstop – is an insurance policy against an outcome the Brexiteers promised us was impossible: the failure to secure a win-win deal that would settle the future relationship between the UK and the EU while respecting the peculiar sensitivities of the Irish border issue. To void the insurance policy, Brexiteers have decided to set fire to their own house. 

Yesterday’s meaningful vote is followed by today’s meaningless vote. You cannot take No Deal off the table without replacing it with something else. That could be revoking Article 50 or it could be accepting, at last, the Prime Minister’s deal no matter its shortcomings. The third option, a short or even a long extension of the Article 50 process, is not in the gift of the House of Commons. 

But if nothing else, today’s vote will show how many fools there are on the Tory benches; lemmings who like the cliff (though I concede this comparison may be unfair to lemmings). That will be a clarifying moment, of sorts, albeit not an especially cheery one. 


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