Tom Richmond: Theresa May humiliated as Brexit spirals out of control and alienates the public
Despite her delaying tactics, the defeat of her Brexit Withdrawal Agreement by 432 to 202 votes is a political and personal humiliation that makes Mrs May’s perilous position even more invidious.
It is more than comparable to David Cameron’s predicament on the morning after the referendum. And, in any other circumstances, the PM’s resignation would be a formality after losing such a fundamental vote – namely the terms of Britain’s departure from the European Union – by such an overwhelming margin.
Once again, it calls her judgement into question after Downing Street refused to heed warnings about the scale of the rebellion – a failing that points to naivety on the part of those advising Mrs May rather than arrogance or complacency.
She’s been wrong-footed at every turn from the miscalculation in 2017 when Mrs May called a snap election in order to secure a large Commons majority intended to avoid the damaging defeats inflicted last night.
However these are not normal times. Despite the Parliamentary impasse, there is no obvious replacement – and no clear plan B for Brexit – as MPs search for the least worst option when the electorate expects leaders to strive for the best.
And just as Mrs May survived last month’s putsch by Tory MPs, she will almost certainly win any vote of no confidence tabled by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
The fact that Mrs May can attempt to cling on to the last vestiges of power like this says as much about the PM’s personal durability – her party is still ahead in the opinion polls – as it does about public misgivings over Mr Corbyn’s ability to do a more effective job.
But politicians on all sides ignore the fact that blocking Brexit, and effectively declaring the 2016 referendum null and void, will make matters worse, not better, because the public will believe that they were duped all along and will be again until Westminster gets the result it wants.
And, most fundamentally of all, this deadlock fails to recognise that Brexit was a symptom of the country’s exasperation with its political elite rather than a cure.
This was self-evident at my local polling station on June 23, 2016. I’m normally the only person waiting for it to open at some point after 7am once returning officers have made their morning coffee.
Yet, on this day, people were queuing round the block to exercise their right to vote. And, listening to the conversations, they were blaming the EU for everything from the fact that they didn’t like David Cameron and politicians per se to the flatlining of living standards since the 2008 financial crash and dissatisfaction with a council house.
Quite why the latter was attributable to Brussels will be beyond many, but it did sufficiently exercise the individual in question – one of many who felt disenfranchised by the forces of globalisation – to fulfil their democratic right to register a protest vote of dorts.
It was the same when Mrs May called an early election. She wanted a Brexit mandate but an elongated campaign – the self-evident consequence of a need to circumvent the Fixed Term Parliament Act – played into the hands of Labour and those who pointed out the importance of domestic policies.
And it is the same now – the public are incredulous that the cost of living, public service and social justice agendas, issues that matter most to families, have been marginalised because their Parliamentarians are incapable of working together in the national interest.
As Sir John Major, a former Tory premier, noted: “There are many people who feel unsettled: uncertain and worried about their jobs, about debt, about how they will house their families – and how they will feed them. They are fearful of what the future holds. The dominance of Brexit in our political debate has done nothing to alleviate that fear, and much to fuel it.”
He is not alone. Lord Jim O’Neill, a Tory peer, former Treasury minister and architect of the Northern Powerhouse, believes political inattention is holding back productivity – and therefore prosperity – in the English regions to such an extent that it is potentially more damaging than a no-deal Brexit.
And this damaging trend will continue, further fuelling the divisions between North and South, Remain and Leave, young and old, until MPs on all sides of Parliament – and the Brexit debate – start to recognise why the public voted as it did in June 2016.
Only then will they be able to start picking up the pieces and form a Brexit strategy that has the potential to satisfy the electorate’s instruction.
For the record, I write as a reluctant Remainer who accepted the result of the referendum and hoped that all MPs, including Theresa May, would, in fact, work together to bridge this national divide by devising a responsible and reasonable Brexit befitting one of the world’s most respected and influential nations. If only. Instead Britain is left a government which, to coin a phrase, is in office but not in power – and a well-meaning Prime Minister whose days in office are even more numbered.