Tom Richmond: Why Brexit has broken politics as mistrust, bitterness, suspicion and rancour spiral out of control

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POLITICS IS broken. That much – and little else – is clear after MPs voted down Theresa May’s rehashed Brexit deal last night by a damaging 149 votes and plunged the country into even more uncertainty a fortnight before Britain is supposed to leave the European Union.

Even though the margin of defeat was less than the unprecedented 230-vote defeat inflicted in January, the fallout is a damning indictment of Parliament’s failure, and inability, to implement the outcome of the June 2016 referendum.

Theresa May as she left Downing Street for yesterday's Parliamentary statements and debates on Brexit.

Theresa May as she left Downing Street for yesterday's Parliamentary statements and debates on Brexit.

After all, it is nearly 1,000 days since Britain voted to leave the EU – and the country is none the wiser about what will happen next. If a manufacturer or company was run so badly, it would not deserve to stay in business.

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The UK’s trading future is at stake, and Parliament deadlocked, after refinements failed to convince Attorney General, Geoffrey Cox, to radically alter his legal advice over the so-called Northern Irish backstop.

What happens next? Realistically, Mrs May will have to seek an extension of Article 50 beyond March 29 when the country was due to take back control of its sovereignty and future. Britain is not in a position to leave in 16 days time.

Theresa May, pictured returning to 10 Downing Street in the early hours of Tuesday mornings after brexit talks in Strasbourg.

Theresa May, pictured returning to 10 Downing Street in the early hours of Tuesday mornings after brexit talks in Strasbourg.

Yet, while this will provoke outcry from Leave voters who will scream ‘betrayal’, an extension is – in all probability – only feasible until the end of June when the European Parliament is due to reconvene after elections. If not, the UK will have the ignominy of electing a new set of MEPs.

The problem is that it is very difficult to see what can be achieved in the next three months which could not have done in the preceding two and a half years – politicians keep obfuscating as Mrs May enjoys nearly as many reprieves as Transport Secretary Chris Grayling.

Such a ‘pause’ might, conceivably, provide sufficient time for the PM to call a snap election to seek a mandate from the people, or for the Tories to change leader, but Britain is so divided that any successor to Mrs May would, in all probability, struggle to command the Commons.

It might also be welcomed by those who favour a second referendum, and their reasons for this are sincerely-held, but the political paralysis is such that there would be little agreement on the framing of the question – or the rules of engagement.

Theresa May - pictured as she delivered a statement at Strasbourg on Monday night.

Theresa May - pictured as she delivered a statement at Strasbourg on Monday night.

And this brings me back to my original observation – the cumulative levels of mistrust, bitterness, suspicion and rancour between all parties, and all sides in the Brexit debate, are so toxic that the divisions will remain, and become even more polarised, until any leader, or leaders, recognises this reality.

For a generation, Parliament – and politics – was shaped by MPs whose outlook had been shaped by their experiences of the Second World War 
and the horrors that they endured. They were also statesmen and conducted themselves as such.

More recently, the House of Commons became more adversarial as, first, Margaret Thatcher, and, then, Tony Blair enjoyed landslide majorities that, perversely, brought about complacency – and an intolerance of opposition – 
because sufficient MPs could always be whipped into line.

As the news agenda became a 24/7 occupation, before social media fuelled the discord that is now self-evident in every sphere of public life, the soundbite replaced the substantial speech of old.

The consequence? A lack of nuance culminating in poor Mrs May getting elected on the back of glib phrases like ‘strong and stable’ and ‘Brexit means Brexit’, a proposition made even more fatuous when the definition of ‘Brexit’ was so opaque before she embarked upon the most complex negotiation in post-war history. No wonder the public become exasperated when politicians over-promise, under-deliver and overlook Commons defeats when it suits.

And then this week’s un-Parliamentary exchanges from Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn complaining about the PM’s absence on Monday – a cynical cheap shot when he knew she was participating in a Westminster Abbey service to mark Commonwealth Day – to senior MPs effectively accusing David Lidington, Mrs May’s de facto deputy, and others, of deliberately keeping them in the dark about the status of this week’s votes.

When an unfailingly courteous and conscientious Parliamentarian like Mr Lidington, a former Commons leader, is effectively accused of lacking integrity and trustworthiness when he was updating MPs on Monday night, literally in the 11th hour, about the PM’s talks in Strasbourg with EU supremo Jean-Claude Juncker, politics is in deep, deep trouble – irrespective of the fate of Mrs May, her Withdrawal Agreement or Brexit.

In some respects, it is miraculous that the PM has survived this long. Some of her more esteemed and illustrious predecessors might not have done so. But she – and the country – are paying a heavy price for her failure, in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum and national soul-searching after the murder of Batley & Spen MP Jo Cox, to be more conciliatory, consensual and collaborative. Going back on a word, and calling a cynically opportunist election that so backfired in 2017, only compounded her error.

Unless Theresa May – or, presumably, her successor – can reach out across the political divide in the Commons, and start to rebuild lost trust, the Brexit stalemate, and inaction on all other issues, will persist. And no one voted for that.

tom.richmond@jpimedia.co.uk