Andrew Vine: Our leaders have failed us on Brexit - now Parliament must act

Theresa May has said she will not yet call another vote on her Brexit deal. Pic: PA.
Theresa May has said she will not yet call another vote on her Brexit deal. Pic: PA.
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IT IS time for the Mother of Parliaments to rally her unruly brood and sort out Brexit if this national humiliation is not to turn into an economic catastrophe. That much became even clearer yesterday as the Prime Minister stood at the dispatch box and, in a nutshell, told MPs that she was devoid of any new ideas.

A deal twice rejected by them is not coming back – yet, at least – because they would only vote it down again. And so we saw the elected leader of one of the most powerful economies in the world effectively admit she didn’t know what to do next.

It now has to fall to MPs to forge cross-party consensus to find a way out of the impasse that this discredited Premier and her divided Government have created because of lack of leadership and factional rivalries. Thank goodness for sensible, grown-up MPs such as Yorkshire’s Yvette Cooper and Hilary Benn, as well as moderate Tories like Oliver Letwin and Dominic Grieve, who have put aside party divisions in an attempt to take Britain forward.

They are the politicians currently working for the national interest, and their quiet determination to do what is best for the country puts many around the Cabinet table to shame.

However unpalatable it will be to Mrs May, the likes of Ms Cooper and Mr Benn are exhibiting a moral authority and clarity of thought in their determination to find a solution acceptable to Parliament – and by extension, the country – that is lacking within the Government.

The country is crying out for this sense of purpose, especially since, for the first time since the 2016 referendum, there are real indications of public unease at the whole notion of Brexit.

A million people on London’s streets at the weekend calling for a rethink on leaving the EU, plus five million more – and counting – signing an online petition for Article 50 to be revoked and the Brexit process halted cannot and must not be ignored. Parliament has to listen to, and consider, these representations alongside the options for what form Brexit might take. It has now passed beyond the Government’s ability to offer meaningful leadership, which is an extraordinary state of affairs.

But given the open speculation about when Mrs May will resign or be forced out – with bookies now offering odds on her successor – and yet another round of arm-twisting and persuasion to get her deal past the Commons, it is impossible to have any faith in the Government to sort the mess out.

There was a nasty whiff of gamesmanship about the Prime Minister yesterday. The stubborn insistence that it is her deal or nothing underpinned what she had to say, particularly the threat not to abide by any of the resolutions that MPs may pass. That looks once again like a cynical attempt to run down the clock towards the new scheduled Brexit date of April 12, instead of allowing Parliament to finally kill a deal that has been deeply flawed from the start and instead debate other options.

If it had not already been painfully apparent that delivering an orderly Brexit was beyond Theresa May, the events of the past few days have underlined it. Her stilted, disastrously ill-judged television address that deepened the divisions of a country confused and weary at the nightmare Brexit has become could hardly have been a worse mistake. To attempt to set people against Parliament was an act of gross irresponsibility. Then to go to an EU summit with nothing to offer and no new ideas was to underline how the Government has so mismanaged the process by placing the welfare of a fractious Tory party above the absolute priority of the national interest.

How that remains uppermost in Mrs May’s mind was further underlined by the spectacle of her courting the leading trouble-causers of the Conservative right at Chequers on Sunday. There they were, this cabal who have held the Government – and the country – to ransom, Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Iain Duncan Smith, being invited to set out their views as if they were heads of state, and not backbenchers who should long ago have been put in their place. The response was predictable – yet another outpouring of tub-thumping rubbish from Mr Johnson yesterday, calling for Britain to crash out of the EU and hang the consequences. It was less an attempt to set out a coherent and realistic political policy than yet another pitch to the Conservative membership for the leadership when Mrs May falls thanks to the plotters around the Cabinet table.

Parliament must rise above this petty factionalism and demonstrate to the country that it is capable of addressing what has become a national crisis and find a solution. That means taking control of the Brexit process and finding a way forward through debate and consensus. And if that leaves the Prime Minister and her Government as onlookers, they have only themselves to blame.