TO many, Brexit is the defining dividing line in Parliament. It is not. The real division is now the mistrust which exists on all sides of the Commons.
That much is clear after the first Saturday sitting since the 1982 Falklands crisis ended in anti-climatic recrimination after MPs backed the so-called Brexit Delay Bill.
I do not blame them for doing so. A Brexit deal that has such profound consequences for the very future of the United Kingdom, and the wider economy, should be scrutinised in full before being signed off and the Government should have foreseen this.
It is also perverse that the same Brexiteers, who championed sovereignty in the 2016 referendum, only want ‘to take back control’ on their own terms. This explains fears that these Brexit tactics were a ruse to bring about a no-deal exit on October 31 if Eurosceptics were to withdraw their support at a later date. Suspicions are that deep.
And while Boris Johnson appears, for now, better placed to get his EU Withdrawal Act passed than his predecessor, his blustering belligerence makes that task even harder. Why? This is a duplicitous premier who says one thing and does the other. He’s totally misled the DUP over Northern Ireland’s fate and the decision of their 10 MPs to back Tory grandee Sir Oliver Letwin’s delay plan was ultimately decisive.
Yet, while Mr Johnson’s tone was more statesmanlike when he opened proceedings, his response to the Government’s defeat by 322-306 votes showed him at his worse. By declaring that “he will not negotiate a delay with the EU” – the default position in law if MPs did not pass his deal by 11pm on Saturday night – the premier was perceived as a lawbreaker rather than a lawmaker, a deeply damaging indictment. Though he did, eventually, write a late-night letter asking the EU for an extension, as required by law, he did not sign it. And separate correspondence made clear his misgivings about Parliament’s decision.
And when Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg rudely walked out – without taking questions – after saying the Brexit plan would be put back to MPs next week, his discourtesy, a recurring theme, merely reaffirmed this Government’s arrogance. As Justine Greening, a respected former Education Secretary, stressed, such behaviour “has to stop” if MPs are to be able to do their duty and scrutinise new legislation properly.
Others concurred with Dr Philippa Whitford, a SNP spokeswoman, complaining: “It is disrespectful that we don’t know what we are doing on Monday.” She’s not alone – no one knows what happens next after 90 minutes of procedural disputes exposed the three years of enmity which exists between rival Remain and Leave factions. All MPs can agree upon is that they can’t agree on anything because there’s so little trust.
Unlike 1982 when Opposition MPs overcame misgivings to place their trust in Margaret Thatcher over the Falklands, such magnanimity is ancient history. Mr Johnson’s motives – namely to get Britain out of the EU by October 31 – are even more mistrusted after the unlawful prorogation of Parliament and time also spent appeasing the hard-line European Research Group, who most MPs mistrust, and the DUP.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn shifts positions with events – he is so weak that he is now at the mercy of John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor, who wants a second referendum while Shadow Brexit Secretary Sir Keir Starmer, and Remainers like Hilary Benn, appear insincere because their attempts to frustrate Parliament are part of a plan to stop Brexit.
And when Don Valley MP Caroline Flint, one of the Labour backbenchers who has been working to get a Brexit deal passed, pointed out that she did not ‘trust’ - that word again - the EU over workers’ rights, some colleagues were heard telling her to “cross the floor” and join the Tories.
In fairness, the former Minister did emerge from this latest shambles with some credit. Her persistence forced the PM to commit “in law if necessary” that workers’ rights in this country will never be inferior to those of the EU. At least she has tried. The question, again, is whether Johnson’s words can be trusted.
And then Theresa May warned MPs that they will be “guilty of the most egregious con trick on the British people” if the referendum result is ignored. The former PM’s withering intervention mattered because the mistrust now so endemic at Westminster only adds to thealready fractured distrust between MPs and voters. As such, the onus is on all MPs to reflect on the reasons why this impasse is impenetrable. For unless all politicians, starting with Boris Johnson leading by example, begin to be honest and humble with each other rather than speaking with two faces, Brexit will be unresolved and all trust lost in a once cherished Parliamentary democracy.
Tom Richmond is the Comment Editor of The Yorkshire Post. Follow @OpinionYP on Twitter.