The latest exchanges on the deferral of Article 50, a fortnight before the country is due to leave the EU, were no exception as Theresa May found herself powerless to assert any authority on her splintering Cabinet.
If MPs can’t agree on the validity of the motions up for debate, there is little hope for Brexit. Yet this is precisely what happened before another debate – the third of the week – ended with a series of outcomes open to myriad interpretations. All that was achieved, to paraphrase Tory grandee Ken Clarke, was MPs expressing an opinion rather than getting around to setting policy.
As a Remain supporter who, ironically opposed the triggering of Article 50 because Britain was not ready, Mr Clarke’s views might be out of sync with mainstream opinion – but he does have experience of high office and knows how this political crisis is playing out in the country.
And despite Mr Clarke’s attempt to interject some urgency, many MPs were on their mobile devices when David Lidington, Mrs May’s de facto deputy, warned that the only viable extension to Article 50 “is a long one” if a deal is not in place by the time of next Thursday’s EU summit.
No wonder the public – and the increasingly incredulous 17.4 million people who voted to leave the EU nearly 1,000 days ago – view these developments as an affront to democracy.
For, while many do resent the EU’s inflexibility, Brexit – in case people have forgotten – is a negotiation and it is, in fairness, difficult for European leaders to respond when the House of Commons appears unable to agree on anything.
And, as a new debate now begins about whether Article 50 should – with no clear plan – be deferred for weeks, months or years, MPs need to consider this key question – what can they agree to? – now rather than waiting for a set of indicative votes at some point. It is also what the public expects. For, until MPs answer this question after they stripped Mrs May of her authority, Parliament will remain deadlocked at one of the most crucial moments in the country’s post-war history.