MPs have taken control of the Brexit process, but they don't know what to do with it

The smell of decay is not only coming from Theresa May’s government but from the legislature too. 

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By an unfortunate coincidence, this was the week that the toilets in the Commons voting lobby broke down, which meant that MPs had to endure an unpleasant stink as they queued up to vote on Theresa May’s doomed Brexit withdrawal agreement. One Labour MP joked that it “adds to the ambience”, while one Conservative backbencher quipped that they’d thought the stench was “coming from the government”.

It’s certainly true that however bad the aroma emanating from the blocked loos, it is nothing to the smell of decay coming from the Prime Minister.

Almost everyone believes that Theresa May’s time in office has entered its final phase. Special advisers are openly contemptuous of the Downing Street operation and the feeling is shared by their bosses. One cabinet minister joked that the government was in such a bad state that they would retain their seat at the top table even if they had to call into cabinet meetings from prison. I asked another to name the ministers not at odds with the Prime Minister over some aspect of policy. They thought about it for a while and named just two: the hapless ultra-loyalist Karen Bradley, the Northern Ireland Secretary, and Jeremy Hunt, the emollient Foreign Secretary who several believe is May’s preferred successor.

That May is seen as yesterday’s prime minister means that she has been deprived of that most important of political commodities: the ability to take lasting revenge. Failing to cultivate the favour or avoid the displeasure of a leader who is going to hold your career hopes in their hands for the next decade is a dangerous move – irritating a prime minister who most expect to be replaced before the year is out is risk-free.

May’s weakness is why she was forced to concede a series of free votes on the Brexit process after her latest defeat on 12 March, enabling ministers to disagree over the issue without having to resign their posts.

That bought a degree of relative stability but at the cost of anything approaching cohesion. One philosophically minded Labour MP jokingly cited the work of the sociologist Max Weber to discuss the government’s position: “If you don’t have a legitimate monopoly of violence, you’re not a state any more. They don’t have a monopoly of votes, so are they really a government?”

The grim truth for May is that the answer to that question is open-and-shut: no, not really. The official position of the United Kingdom’s nominal government is that no deal would be an immediate calamity and no Brexit would be a disaster, but it will give both ideas an opportunity to be tested in the House of Commons, because it cannot prevent either being discussed or enacted. That is not a government in any traditional sense. It is MPs of all parties, rather than the prime minister in Downing Street, who will ultimately decide how the Brexit crisis is resolved.

The difficulty is that while MPs are happy to talk in private and indeed in public about the importance of their role, they are in practice reluctant to take control over Brexit. Parliament dislikes May’s deal and has voted to reject it by landslide majorities on two occasions. But MPs are also averse to doing anything that would delay Brexit for a lengthy period, let alone bring it to a halt, or even ask the voters whether they might want it to be stopped.

What drives their reluctance? On the Labour side, a large number of MPs are worried about what their voters will make of it and the repercussions for British democracy if Brexit doesn’t go ahead. That fear is shared on the Conservative side but is topped up by a hefty dose of dread about the reaction of Tory activists to anything that can be portrayed as stopping or frustrating Brexit. Several outspoken pro-European MPs, whether they be supporters of a second referendum such as Sam Gyimah, the former higher education minister, or advocates of a Norway-style close relationship with the EU after we leave, such as Nick Boles, have faced credible threats of deselection, which some Conservative MPs privately admit means that they are wary of breaking the whip to soften, never mind stop, Brexit. Other MPs say that activist pressure is behind Nicky Morgan’s transformation from one of the most articulate advocates for a soft exit to someone who now speaks of the importance of “leaving no deal on the table” as a negotiating tactic. Morgan is one of the most prominent former Remainers to add her name to the list of those supporting the so-called Malthouse compromise, a series of outlandish fantasies about a possible Brexit deal to which the EU is neither willing nor able to agree.

But outlandish fantasies have become the norm and aren’t confined to those who want a harder exit than the one envisaged by Theresa May. Fear on the Labour side of being seen to prevent Brexit means that the path to passing any measure that would actually prevent no deal is strewn with obstacles, with parliamentarians instead preferring to vote for a series of non-binding motions that do nothing to prevent such an outcome.

MPs are fond of saying that there is no majority for no deal. But the legal reality is that by voting to trigger Article 50 MPs began a process that, in the absence of an agreement between the EU and the UK, ends with no deal, just as someone who jumps out of an aeroplane is opting for the default scenario of hitting the ground, hard.

The only way to avoid a hard collision is to open your parachute: in the case of Brexit, that means either revoking Article 50 and cancelling Brexit, or ratifying some form of exit agreement. MPs don’t like May’s deal but they are yet to assert themselves in favour of another. May has blundered her way into crisis, but the smell of failure isn’t only coming from the government, but from the legislature as well.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article appears in the 15 March 2019 issue of the New Statesman, She’s lost control