Tom Richmond: It’s no laughing matter in Brexit’s comedy of errors

IF you missed your local pantomime over the festive season, there is a new show back in town. It is called Brexit, it is being performed at the House of Commons and there is a cast of 650 under the command of a master of ceremonies – John Bercow - who likes the sound of his own voice.

Pantomime politics was on show during this week's Brexit votes in Parliament.

Yet, while there is plenty of yah-booing, the script is a confusing and contradictory one that provides the audience – long-suffering families and businesses whose futures depend on the outcome – with a dispiriting conclusion.

And the final curtain cannot be called on this long-running farce after MPs ordered the central character, Theresa May, to return to Brussels to seek further concessions to her EU Withdrawal Agreement while, at the same time, ruling out a no-deal Brexit.

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Two and a half years after Britain voted to leave the European Union, it now appears Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg – archetypal pantomime villains – are centre-stage, and pulling the strings, in the latest twist to a perplexing plot.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was accused of ignoring Yorkshire MP Angela Smith.

However, while no script-writer could ever have devised a narrative like Brexit, the latest events are no laughing matter amid deeply troubling amid warnings of food shortages – and the like – if the EU and UK don’t come to their collective senses by March 29.

Here’s why. Two weeks after her Brexit bill suffered the biggest reverse in Parliamentary history, Mrs May returned to the despatch box to say, in a new twist, that she would reopen negotiations with the EU over the Northern Irish backstop having previously ruled out such a move.

Either this is brilliant brinkmanship – or a great deception – and the coming days will reveal whether the PM is now guilty of fantasy politics or if she is simply hoping, in a game of chicken, to keep her fractious party together long enough until the choice becomes her deal – or no-deal – after no-Brexit appeared to be ruled out.

Yet, amid the latest pantomime politics, it is the sub-plot – and, specifically, the role of Jeremy Corbyn – that was very troubling. As Leader of the Opposition at a time of national crisis, tradition dictates that he is cast as an elder statesman who rises to the occasion.

Theresa May addresses MPs.

However he did not. Totally unsure of his own position, he then declined – at least seven times – to accept interventions from his own backbencher Angela Smith, the respected Penistone and Stocksbridge MP, who wanted, quite reasonably, to know if her leader would back a second referendum.

Discourteous? Dictatorial? Disrespectful? You can make up your mind – but such conduct would be ruled out of order in a sixth form debating society and MPs were far from impressed as Mr Corbyn failed yet another audition to become Prime Minister.

Mrs Smith, a staunch Remainer in a Leave-supporting area, wondered out loud if the acoustics, or sight lines, were to blame? They weren’t – Mr Corbyn clearly had tin ear syndrome – as Tory MPs, I kid you not, cried “she’s behind you” at him.

On social media, Mrs Smith’s colleague Stella Creasy was in despair. “This is a farce. Been going now for two hours and there’s nothing here to find any way forward... we have to find a better way to do this not just on Brexit but generally!” she tweeted.

She then posted an unflattering picture of Skipton and Ripon MP Julian Smith, Mrs May’s chief whip, with this commentary: “‏And now the actual chief whip is holding up a sign - none of us can read it - but what’s next? Bunny ears?! That’s why suggesting this needs a citizen’s assembly... not a school one.”

Environment Secretary Michael Gove even mocked the Opposition leader and asked why he was snubbing “a member of the Labour party for 37 years?” Mr Corbyn’s unamused reply? “I thank the Minister for his intervention and his brief statement of his leadership intentions.”

And still the carry-on continued. Veteran Labour MP Frank Field then called for proceedings to be brought to a premature close, and every amendment put to an early vote, “given the damage that this debate is already doing to our standing with the nation”. He added: “The country will understand that, whereas they do not understand this behaviour.”

Yet, while Mr Corbyn ended his oration by urging, to derision, the Commons to do its job and “lead where this Government have failed”, it was the Tories, rather than Labour, who kept their discipline when the crucial votes came.

In doing so, it gave a lifeline to Theresa May in her quest to get her Brexit deal – with or without the backstop – as the show moves to Brussels for the latest act in this political drama before returning to Westminster in a fortnight’s time.

But MPs on all sides need to remember this before they become even more of a laughing stock. Not only would such bad behaviour be unacceptable in school, university or council debates but any private firm run like this would deserve to go out of business. And yet these antics are still deemed to be acceptable at the House of Commons which appears – erroneously – to regard itself as a house of comedy, rather than the home of democracy, at a time of crisis when Brexit demands statecraft rather than satire.