The final say on the terms of Britain’s departure from the European Union will soon end up where this whole complex process began, in Parliament. This is as it should be. Parliament approved the calling of a referendum and it approved the terms. It voted to support the triggering of Article 50, formally beginning the departure process, and now it will vote on the terms of that departure.
Brexit has constitutional legitimacy and political integrity not because a majority of people voted for it in a referendum which saw an historically high turn out of voters, but because Parliament, our sovereign Parliament, authorised and then enacted the legislation to make it happen. This is not an arcane or eccentric point to make. It is fundamental to the way we are governed.
The last two years have involved an remarkable procession of events. We, the voters, having started this whole process off have had ringside seats at the most extraordinary show being staged outside the West End. We have seen our political leaders plunge themselves chaotically from one drama to another, involving resignation after resignation, policy pivots and pirouettes and attempted leadership coups. Nor has this drama affected only one party. Both main political parties have been riven from top to bottom on the question of Brexit and how to respond it.
Even within the various factions there is no coherence or consistency. It has been fascinating, for example, to watch the rifts between the Conservative Brexiteers, which roughly breaks into three groupings. There are the elders of Brexiteerism, the silver smoothies of Brexiteerism – Sir Bill Cash, John Redwood, Sir Bernard Jenkin would all be good examples. They’ve been at this a long time. They are experienced at causing ongoing crisis for whoever happens to be Conservative leader but never actually bring things to a head. They know their potency rests in the threat, not the event, of party revolution.
Then there are the hard nuts, those who are clear eyed, focused, remorseless and unremitting. They are Brexiteers first and foremost. The leading ERGers. Led by Jacob Rees-Mogg and Steve Baker they will never stop and never give in. The Silver Smoothies have become weary of the Hard Nuts, and more than a little resentful of all the media coverage they receive. After all, John Redwood has toiled in the mines of Euroscepticism longer nearly than Steve Baker has been alive. The Hard Nuts have suffered a recent reversal because it has been publicly shown that they cannot add up to forty-eight. It may be this is too small a column of figures for Mr Rees Mogg to be able to manage because as a City financier he is used to larger columns of figures with multiple noughts on the end. Or it may be just incompetence. One way or another they have lost credibility.
The third group, being the majority, are mainly the newer Conservative MPs - the sensitive youngsters. They secured their seats by promising to support a strong theme of Euroscepticism and now that has turned into Brexit. They would like the whole issue to be sorted out and for debate to move back to reform and how much more spending can be promised to the NHS. They do not like the nasty things people say to them on Twitter, they think the Silver Smoothies are an exhibition the Conservative History Group forgot to take down at the end of a run, and that the Hard Nuts are both damaging and embarrassing to the cool, metropolitan, ideology lite, eco-friendly Conservatism they think the country warms to given a chance.
As the smoke clears slowly over the battlefield that has been Brexit these last two years, however, several things are beginning to emerge out of the murk.
First, and most importantly, Theresa May has delivered an agreement with the European Union that can deliver enough of what business needs to provide economic confidence. And the famed backstop is politically uncomfortable enough to both Britain and to Brussels for it not to be a sustainable proposition over the longer term. It is for this reason, and in the absence of any other workable alternative, that MPs of all parties should come together and support the Prime Minister in passing the Brexit Agreement vote.
Every member of the Cabinet, by virtue of being a member of the Cabinet, is stating clearly they support the proposed Brexit Agreement. Only in some extraordinary political fantasy land can anyone think that you can be a member of the Cabinet and somehow signal you do not support the Agreement. The Brexit Agreement is the policy of the Government, not of the Prime Minister alone. Very little personal respect can be paid to any Cabinet Minister who wants to retain the responsibilities of office but is spending their time signaling their disagreement with the policy. Such people will not be considered to have the necessary quality or integrity when the time eventually comes for the party to turn its attention to a leadership contest.
The sequence of events now is reasonably clear. Shortly the Prime Minister will bring the Brexit Agreement to Parliament to be voted on. It will either pass, in which case the Prime Minister will have succeeded, or it will fail. If it fails the Prime Minister should call a vote of confidence in the Government and its policies. This would allow Conservative MPs and DUP MPs to say they had voted against something they do not like but when push comes to absolute shove they did not want to usher in a Labour government. If the Government loses a vote of confidence – and it is the government not simply the Prime Minister who will have been defeated – then there should be a General Election.
All sorts of sub-Bagehotian arguments will be advanced about the requirements of the Fixed Term Parliament Act, a constitutional abomination brought in during the darkest days of the Coalition Government. The legislation gives the largest party 14 days to try again, under its existing leader or a new person. But that faffing around will not stand the test and pace of political events.
Mr Corbyn would like a General Election and Mrs May would be perfectly entitled to recommend one – on this they would both be able to agree. My view is that what will not happen is that the government loses a confidence vote and Theresa May steps aside to allow someone else to have a go. On this issue at this time there is no other Conservative MP who could make any material difference or change to the Brexit Agreement or the ability, or not, to pass it through Parliament.
Whatever happens, soon we will, finally, have a resolution, one way or another, to the issue of the terms of Britain’s departure from the European Union.