MPs are united by two things: the desire to keep their seats after Brexit, and exhaustion

Fatigue has eroded party discipline. Some MPs have taken matters into their own hands and taken holidays without informing the whips until their planes were in the air. 

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“Inadvertent parenting” is what happens when you are so ground down by the demands of looking after children that you make small mistakes that force you to do yet more work. For instance, forgetting to move a tin of paint out of arm’s reach, meaning that you have to spend an hour cleaning up the carpet.

The United Kingdom is well on its way to becoming a pioneer in the field of inadvertent politicking: when mistakes made by exhausted and fractious members of parliament mean that they must spend yet more time in parliament, trying to undo the consequences of their own fatigue.

MPs haven’t had a proper break this side of the new year. Theresa May cancelled the February recess in the hope of generating approving headlines about her commitment to passing a Brexit deal, even though the period from 14-25 February contained no major legislation and yielded nothing resembling a serious development. That irritated all MPs, but particularly those with small children. One recently ended a call by wishing me “goodnight sweetie” and apologised that it had become habit to sign off a call that way “as it is the only way I talk to my kids before bedtime at the moment”.

Sheer exhaustion has eroded party discipline. Some MPs have taken matters into their own hands: at least three have, to my knowledge, unilaterally taken holidays this week and only informed their whips that arrangements will have to be made to accommodate their absence once their planes were already in the air.

Even among those parliamentarians who still fear the whips, fatigue has led to frayed nerves. On the Conservative side, that fractiousness manifests itself as a tendency to overreact to mundane and predictable developments. Theresa May’s decision to invite Jeremy Corbyn to discuss a way forward on Brexit on 2 April prompted even usually loyal Tories to talk freely and angrily about the Prime Minister letting a “Marxist” shape Brexit. But as one minister pointed out, the Labour leader had already been invited to discuss and shape Brexit in January. “He didn’t become a Marxist in the past month. All that’s changed is that everyone is tired and unhappy.”

Conservatives believe that exhaustion has manifested differently on the Labour side. One Tory MP compared their Labour counterparts to toddlers: “It’s all: do you want to stop Brexit? No! Do you want this Brexit? No! Do you want a soft Brexit? No! What do these people actually want?” A Tory aide complained that most Labour MPs are voting against May’s proposed withdrawal agreement while demanding things – a guarantee on workers’ rights and a continuing customs union – that are entirely compatible with passing it.

These complaints miss the mark, however. Labour MPs know what they want from Brexit, but they also know that it’s something Theresa May has no inclination, and perhaps no power, to give them: a second referendum.

There is now a large group of Labour MPs – perhaps even a majority – who want to stop Brexit and whose preferred instrument is a public vote between whatever deal parliament proposes and remaining in the EU. The sad irony is that there are enough members of this group for May to have passed her deal with their support, plus the Tory payroll vote. But she has consistently refused to ally with them, fearing a backlash from the European Research Group and other Brexit ultras – and it is extremely unlikely that any of her successors would do so either.

So what about the members of the Labour Party who want Brexit to happen but who ultimately envisage a closer relationship with the European Union than May has been willing to consider? Unfortunately for the Prime Minister’s hopes of passing a deal, this group want Britain to end up outside the political institutions of the EU, but inside the economic ones. That means staying in the single market and customs union, and that is anathema to Theresa May, who wants more than anything to control immigration by ending the free movement of people. (It would also provoke a backlash from those Conservative MPs who want to use Brexit to reorient the British economic model away from a European-style welfare state and towards an unrestrained American capitalist approach.)

The good news for the Prime Minister is that there is a third group of Labour MPs. This faction doesn’t want to stop Brexit. They believe, like her, that the vote to leave in 2016 was a vote to reject the free movement of people. They accept that the closeness of any future economic relationship will be limited by that.

The logical conclusion of this school of thought is an arm’s length relationship with the EU, yet inside its regulatory and customs orbit: an arrangement that is functionally identical to the one negotiated and envisaged by May. While this is a minority opinion within the Parliamentary Labour Party, it is one held by enough Labour MPs to pass May’s deal if they all voted for it alongside the loyalists on her own side.

But the problem is they never will. Around half the Labour MPs in this group are not even willing to make themselves unpopular with Labour members by opposing a second referendum, even though they privately believe it is a bad idea (and will congratulate their braver refusenik colleagues). It would take something extraordinary to convince them to alienate their Europhile constituency parties by signing up to a Tory-led deal.

And that’s the one thing that unites MPs of all parties, other than exhaustion: a desire to make sure that the political price of resolving the Brexit deadlock is borne by someone else. The consequences of the latest outbreak of inadvertent politicking are likely to be worse than spilled paint.

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 12 April 2019 issue of the New Statesman, System failure