Taking Back Control

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

I’m not a great man for football statistics but there’s one I have remembered since I was a boy. The biggest margin of victory in a professional game was when Celtic saw off Bon Accord with a score of 36:0 in 1885. There are some records you don’t want to hold and some defeats so colossal that they beggar belief. I don’t care how great a team Celtic are, you have to question the competence of the Bon Accord goalie.

As you have to question the competence of a Prime Minister whose government goes down to the most crushing Parliamentary defeat in history. 432:202 is a gob-stopping scoreline by any standard. That it is on a matter of such vital national interest as Brexit means that we are deep in uncharted territory. The only possible interpretation history will be able to place on these events is that Theresa May bollocksed things up big-time. 

How did it get to this? Partly it has to do with May’s character and partly it has to do with her making some catastrophically bad choices. Among the latter was her decision to invoke Article 50 thereby setting - wholly unnecessarily - a deadline by which the UK would leave the EU. I can accept that she may have done this to placate the swivel-eyed nutcase wing of her party but this disastrously mitigated our bargaining clout with the remaining 27 EU nations by, effectively, firing the starting pistol while our country was still in the changing room rummaging through its gym bag. We had no plan and the clock was ticking. Worse, because the reality of a No-Deal Brexit would be, for the UK, more disastrous than the Titanic colliding with the Hindenberg off Krakatoa, our negotiators had nothing more to work with than bluster and empty threats.

Another colossal error was calling a wholly unnecessary general election in 2017. That she turned a working majority in the House of Commons into a minority administration in hock to the Democratic Unionists was bad enough. Worse, it was clear that, throughout the election campaign, May was uncomfortable with the whole business of campaigning. She came across as unwilling to debate or to interact with members of the public. Her appearances were stage-managed to an embarrassing degree; nothing was to be left outwith her control.

And there, in that word, lies the problem. May is an instinctive control-freak and that has stood this country in very poor stead when it came to negotiating a deal with the EU. From the very outset May was far too ready to set down red lines that would not, under any circumstances, be crossed. She took pride in being a ‘bloody difficult woman’. It became clear, however, that she was merely bloody-minded and obstinate. She is inflexible and that is never a useful trait in a negotiator. Even now, as the deal she brokered lies in 432 shards and fragments on the rust-coloured shagpile of the floor of the House of Commons she still seems to be insisting that it can somehow be salvaged through a process of ‘clarification’.

In recent days May has spoken of ‘unity’ and of ‘moving forward together’. This rings pretty hollow when she has refused, over the last two years, to allow any other agency beyond the Cabinet to have any degree of control over the Brexit process. Even there, the number of resignations suggests that her approach has been inflexible and autocratic. She sought to deny Parliament a meaningful vote on the deal. She excluded the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales from involvement in ‘moving forward’ policy on Brexit, along with the other parties in Parliament, lest she should lose control. Tonight that came back and bit her arse.

What has been happening over the last few weeks is that Parliament has been taking back control. MPs are no longer content, on a matter of such national importance, to be no more than lobby-fodder for a government that has seemed unwilling to involve them or persuade them; choosing, instead, to threaten them with a choice between a rock and a hard place. The perception is that May deliberately left the vote on her deal perilously until close to the date on which, without a deal, the UK would crash chaotically out of the EU. “It’s my way” she seemed to say, “Or the road to Hell”. 

It was self-evidently a manoeuvre to maintain control. Unfortunately, Theresa May, however, manoeuvres with all the fleet-footedness of a beached whale. Centuries of protocols and precedents have transferred ever more power from MPs to Cabinet but tonight the House of Commons put Theresa May on notice that it would no longer be side-lined or brow-beaten  on a decision of this magnitude. Tonight our Parliament took back control. I hope Brexiters are celebrating.