Uncoupled from reality

Tomorrow will see the latest in the ever-lengthening series of “decisive” parliamentary votes on Brexit. Having apparently given up all hope of winning a majority for her plan, Theresa May is now inviting MPs to simply approve withdrawal in principle, with the details of the final political settlement to be worked out at some unspecified time in the future.

May evidently hopes that, presented with a blank screen, people will project their own ideal outcome, in much the same way as they did in the original referendum. Perhaps unsurprisingly, exactly the opposite is happening, as leavers anticipate betrayal of their fantasy departure, while remainers fear the prospect of a deal negotiated by May’s successor as Tory leader, who will undoubtedly be a europhobic head-banger.

It all seems certain to be in vain though, since the DUP are not on board, the ERG are unconvinced, and there is no sign that Labour Party discipline is about to break down.

Predictions that the final act in this tragedy is at hand have been wrong before, but time is desperately short now, and May cannot continue to simultaneously threaten remainers with no-deal and leavers with no-exit; both groups have called her bluff and she will have to choose which trigger to pull.

She could request a long extension of article 50, and persuade the EU to grant it by promising a general election. That would mean agreeing to participate in the European elections too, but that bitter pill could be sweetened by holding both polls on the same day. Whatever government emerged from the process would have an unquestionable mandate to sort out the mess, and we could all move on.

That solution seems reasonable. Which is why it will probably never happen.

Tactical resignation

As the Commons debated several more or less fantastic solutions to the Brexit conundrum this evening, without coming to any conclusion, Theresa May decided on a last roll of the dice, and promised that she would vacate the office of Prime Minister if her party would only support her deal, at the third time of asking.

Will this gamble succeed? As I write, it is still unclear. Boris Johnson, never one to allow principle to stand in the way of his ambition, has declared he will now back May’s plan; Jacob Rees-Mogg and other relatively sensible members of the ERG are wavering; more fanatical leavers like Steve Baker are standing firm in their opposition. Crucially, the DUP seem unconvinced, so the numbers aren’t really adding up in May’s favour.

In any case it is not certain that the Speaker will allow another vote, though I guess that John Bercow might shy away from precipitating an even greater constitutional crisis if it looked like the deal had a chance of getting through.

So it appears that the nation’s agony will continue for another week at least. I still think we’re heading for a general election, but there will be plenty twists to come before then.

Indicative indecision

So, after much agitation, tomorrow will see the Commons finally arrive at the indicative vote stage, where, allegedly, our representatives will come up with a plan for Brexit that pleases everybody.

Or not; there are apparently going to be around sixteen schemes to choose from, on a spectrum between no-deal and no-exit, so it seems unlikely that any consensus will be reached. In any case, the government has made no commitment to accept the plan that emerges, which is actually understandable, since who knows what madness MPs will come up with, and the whole thing still has to be sold to the EU, who have repeatedly said that they are not interested in any more negotiations.

Theresa May did say today that she would choose a long article 50 extension over no-deal, though she has been changing her mind on this on a daily basis, so it’s difficult to take her seriously. There are some signs that sections of the ERG may cave in and finally back her deal out of fear that Brexit is slipping away, but the contingent determined to never surrender seems to be large enough to continue to frustrate any repeated vote.

There doesn’t look to be any way that the current parliament can agree on a route out of this mess; logically the solution would appear to be a general election, but logic left this process a long time ago. Even at this late stage it’s impossible to predict what is going to happen, but if I had to make a guess, I’d go for: continuing stalemate into next week; another failed attempt to get May’s deal through; the EU granting a longer delay to allow time for an election; Labour winning on a platform of soft Brexit subject to confirmation in a second referendum; the electorate deciding to stay in the EU after all; everyone wondering why we wasted years debating all this nonsense.

Teflon Trump

Political events on this side of the Atlantic have been consuming all my attention lately, so I missed the build-up to the big excitement in the US this weekend, the much-anticipated release of the Mueller report.

Alas, the Special Counsel’s dossier, or at least the brief summary of it released by the Attorney General, has turned out to be somewhat of an anticlimax. Despite the rather fevered expectations of his many critics, Donald Trump has emerged essentially spotless. Mueller found nothing to support the central charge of collusion with Russia, and declined to make a judgment on the question of obstruction of justice.

It’s difficult to see this as anything other than a victory for Trump, and it will certainly take the wind out of the sails of the Democrats, just as they were limbering up for the start of the presidential election campaign. More legal problems will undoubtedly arise for Trump before polling day, particularly around campaign finance issues, but the lack of dirt in the Mueller report provides enough support for Trump’s witch-hunt narrative to allow his supporters to convince themselves that any fresh accusations are fake news. His re-election prospects, which were probably always better than conventional wisdom decreed, are looking a good bit brighter.

Temporary reprieve

I may have been in my happy place yesterday, but it was back to horrific reality today. After a day of suspense in Brussels, the country is still teetering on the brink of disaster.

I guess that I shouldn’t be surprised by the Prime Minister acting in a way that completely contradicts what she said a week, or a day, or an hour previously, but it has been particularly difficult to follow her intentions since events in the commons last week. Having said that a vote ruling out no-deal would prompt her to request a long extension to Article 50, she proceeded to ask for a brief delay, until the end of June. The EU responded with a heavily conditional offer, putting the exit off until May 22nd, if a deal is agreed, or April 12th, if May’s plan is rejected by Parliament again. They did leave open the possibility of a longer pause, if the UK identifies a concrete plan to break the impasse, probably a general election.

Attention will now shift back to Westminster, where May seems determined to try to get her deal through at the third attempt, though such an outcome seems extremely unlikely. Again it’s hard to fathom her tactics; she seems to be threatening MPs with the spectre of no-deal, but the people she has to win over, the hard-core Tory Brexiteers, are in favour of crashing out, so she is just strengthening their resolve. Then she undermined her chances of bringing more moderate Tories, or wavering Labour MPs, on board by addressing the nation with a shamelessly populist broadcast blaming them for the whole mess, a message she’s been desperately trying to dial back today.

So we are no further forward, though at least the day of reckoning has been put off for a couple of weeks, and hope of a non-disastrous outcome hasn’t been entirely extinguished. We should be grateful for small mercies I guess.

Don’t worry, be happy

Today is International Day of Happiness, so I’ve been trying to think positive thoughts all day, and mostly succeeding. In times of national crisis like this there is definitely something to be said for forgetting about the big picture and just living in the moment. Despite all my angst over the political situation, my life is mostly very agreeable, and will probably continue to be so in all the ways that really matter, whatever happens. I’ll try to hold on to that thought over the next week…

No third chance

Over the weekend the notion that Theresa May’s Brexit deal would rise from the dead began to move from completely unthinkable to just about imaginable, as the DUP started to hint that they could perhaps live with the Irish backstop, and Tory hold-outs suggested they would follow suit. The excuse for this volte-face was the proposition that article 62 of the Vienna Convention would allow the UK to unilaterally extricate itself from the backstop; actual experts in international law dismissed this as a fairytale, but it looked like it would be enough of a convenient fiction to provide cover for the Brexiteers’ retreat from their supposedly unshakable principles.

However this glimmer of hope for our beleaguered premier was extinguished today, with the news that Commons Speaker John Bercow was minded to rule out a third vote on the plan, on the grounds that repeatedly presenting the same defeated motion contravenes long-established parliamentary convention. This should have been blindingly obvious to the government, but they seem to have assumed that, since all other precedents were being torn up, this one could be ignored too.

This seems to leave May with no choice but to request a long extension of article 50, which presumably the EU will only grant if she promises that the time will be used for a general election, or another referendum. Alternatively she could just ignore last week’s vote against no-deal and plough on with it regardless, but that seems bloody-minded, even for her. We may yet look back on today as the point at which the tide definitively turned against Brexit.

Web of reaction

I’m sure I wasn’t alone last week in struggling to believe the news from New Zealand; no matter how many atrocities one hears about there is always shock at the latest one, especially when it occurs in just about the last place one might expect. I guess there have been a lot of stories in recent years extolling NZ as a haven from the turmoil of the world, which might attract the demographic that is anticipating an apocalyptic race war, but still, it is unsettling to learn that even a seemingly peaceful backwater like Christchurch apparently has a thriving white-supremacist scene.

It doesn’t seem so long ago that the internet, and social media in particular, was being hailed as an unstoppable force for progress, but now, as nazis live-stream massacres and shadowy corporations undermine liberal democracy, the consensus has shifted to view online culture as a menace to civilisation. As ever with these things, the truth will be somewhere in between, though the alt-right do seem to be weaponising the web more effectively than we leftists at the moment.

Departure delayed

A relatively straightforward day, by recent standards, with what appears to be a clear result; the UK will not, after all, be leaving the EU on the 29th of March, assuming that Brussels is good enough to let us stay for a bit longer.

How long depends on whether the ERG hold their nerve and vote down May’s deal when she brings it back for a third time next week. If they do we could stay in for another 2 years, or perhaps indefinitely. If they crumble, then we could be gone by the summer.

It seems counterintuitive that Brexit may end up being frustrated by its most ardent supporters, but I guess the die-hard leavers are calculating that they can still cause enough chaos to frustrate any sort of sensible deal, however long the delay, and they might be right. A lot depends on how many of them are willing to risk losing the prize altogether in pursuit of their hard departure.

It does seem like a big gamble; any pause the EU is minded to grant will surely be conditional on the existence of a realistic plan to end the deadlock, which means either a general election or another referendum. The former would be odds-on to return a Labour government, while polls suggest that the latter would deliver victory to the remain cause.

So I’m beginning to think that, against all expectations, May’s deal might just sneak through. Perhaps she is a political genius after all.

The deal that will not die

Not for the first time in this saga, what seemed settled 24 hours ago is now up in the air again. After a series of parliamentary votes chaotic even by recent standards, we seem to be in a position where it looks like Theresa May could yet salvage her deal.

The day started with the government tabling a motion supposedly ruling out a no-deal exit. Closer examination revealed that it did nothing of the sort. A backbench amendment which expressed unequivocal opposition to no-deal then narrowly passed, prompting May to abandon her promise of a free vote, and to attempt to whip her party against the now-amended motion. This failed, as numerous Tories, including cabinet ministers, defied her orders.

In response to this defeat May announced that, given that parliament had thrown out her deal, which is clearly the only deal on offer, the alternative was a lengthy postponement of the leaving date, with all that entails, including participation in the European elections, and perhaps the loss of Brexit altogether. She suggested that she would give those in her party who wished to avoid such an outcome one more chance to back the agreement they overwhelmingly rejected only yesterday.

Will this work? The early indications are that the hard-core of the ERG will maintain their opposition come what may, but some of the less fanatical Brexiters may be wavering.

Anything could happen though, since there are so many unknowns. Will the EU agree to any length of delay? Would the ERG be willing to bring down the government if there was another no-confidence vote? Might the government collapse of its own accord? Will May be deposed by a party rebellion? Would any new leader fare any better in solving what is, ultimately, an insoluble problem? Could May decide to just ignore the non-binding resolutions of parliament and press on with a no-deal exit regardless?

I’d say things might be clearer by tomorrow, but it’s likely the opposite will be the case. My money is still on a disorderly exit on the 29th, but I’m a little more hopeful that I might be wrong.

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