Speaker Bercow’s ruling against MPs being forced to vote endlessly on the same proposition is rule-book sensible and politically confusing. Both hardcore Remainers and no-deal Brexiteers greeted it with delight. The first group believe it opens the way to a long delay, and even revocation of Article 50, leading to a further referendum or a general election. The second group think that by taking the only deal off the table as time runs out he is leading us straight to no deal. I guess we’ll find out before long who’s been fooled.
But Bercow has done everybody a favour by highlighting Britain’s biggest constitutional confusion. We are a parliamentary democracy and Brexit was supposed to recover full parliamentary sovereignty. So everyone should be delighted that parliament is reasserting itself. Except that, since 2016, we have also apparently been a plebiscite democracy in which that un-British phrase “the will of the people” overrides the views of elected MPs. Like the relatively short republican interregnum following the last civil war, it is a hiatus in our history. For how long? The Speaker is looking for an answer. So are many of us. After all, the last interregnum ended in military dictatorship.
May the fighter
Meanwhile, the general view is that Theresa May has become an enfeebled figure, now out of road. But she’s a fighter and as I write at least, she’s still here. She still has formidable powers of patronage and I bet she’s itching to use them. Philip Hammond gave me a fairly icy smile when I suggested on Sunday that she was planning to sack him.
Yet I believe she has already been speaking to Brexiteers about reshaping the government as soon as – with their help – she gets her deal through. She might bring back, for instance, David Davis and Dominic Raab, while saying ta-ta to Remainers who abstained in the vote over no deal. The Chancellor wasn’t one of them, but it’s his head that the ERG hardliners are asking for.
I have no idea whether her third-time-lucky approach will work, but even now it might. “Vote for my deal, shmucks, or Brexit gets it” isn’t the most sophisticated approach but it has pulled over quite a few. Ingenuity can probably find some way around the Bercow ruling. And if she delivers any form of Brexit, Theresa May will call it a day. Half the cabinet are running hard. Grids of announcements, speeches and interviews for a spring contest have been meticulously prepared. The cops are ready. The press is squared. And everything will depend on which pair Tory MPs allow through to the final contest. If that includes Boris Johnson, he will become the next prime minister. Good luck, Brussels! It’s been a busy spring. It’s going to be a busy summer…
Jeremy under the bo tree
Meanwhile, what of Comrade Jeremy? For somebody often painted as a dangerously impulsive radical, Corbyn’s greatest political skill may turn out to be his talent for delay. He lets events come to him. Under his bo tree, he quietly sits, and sits, and takes the hits – as, for instance, on the referendum issue – waiting for his moment. Unblinking, he watches as Tom Watson launches his party-within-a-party. He knows that this will stop more centrist Labour MPs defecting to the Independent Group… and so he does nothing rash or angry. He is a radical socialist in his beliefs, no doubt, but he is a milky-mild Fabian in his tactics. Is this surprising? I think it is the result of all those long hours waiting in his allotment for plants to sprout, buds to uncurl, fruit to ripen. He is a watcher. He thinks a long time before acting. This is a new and largely misunderstood politics: gardeners’ socialism.
Running away with the circus
Politics aside, the biggest thing going on in my life at the moment is my painting. Since my stroke, making pictures has become more and more important to me. I’ve had a series of shows, in Liverpool, Cambridge and London, and the latest one opens in Edinburgh in the first week of April. It is hosted by Richard Demarco, who has been a volcanic, unstoppable force in the visual arts in Scotland throughout the second half of the 20th century. He introduced Scotland (and Britain) to the great German artist Joseph Beuys, and a wide range of Continental and eastern European artists. He remains a formidable troublemaker. We are planning to have a kind of symposium about the state of the art market, and the role of traditional painting in a world of conceptual art.
I’m excited but also nervous. Politics and political interviewing is a thin and easy business compared to this. And if the show goes well, we may even take some pictures to Venice. I’ve always said that making pictures is a spiritual release and escape from the world of politics. My latest ones are of acrobats and clowns, vainly struggling to keep their balance, something that a stroke makes you more conscious of. But as the pictures have developed, they seem to be also about politics in general and Brexit in particular. Even in the depths of the studio, and thinking about nothing more than oil paint, the blare of the world intrudes.
My days as a Maoist schoolboy
I’ve been reading a wonderful new history of Maoism by Julia Lovell for Radio 4’s Start the Week and was amused to see that I featured, more or less accurately. When I was about ten, at a fairly tough boarding school, I read that Chairman Mao believed in sending intellectuals, including teachers, to work as peasants in the fields. Reflecting on my teachers, I thought this was an absolutely top idea, and wrote to the Chinese Embassy in London to say that I wanted to set up the cell of the Chinese Communist Party in my school. I was sent a large box full of copies of the Little Red Book, and a subscription to a magazine called China Reconstructs, which featured photographs of Chinese peasants shooting down American spy planes.
By the age of 11 or 12, I had lost ideological enthusiasm. Reading Lovell on the man who killed more people than anybody else in the 20th century – and apparently never once brushed his teeth – I’m rather glad.
This article appears in the 20 Mar 2019 issue of the New Statesman, State of emergency