If the parliamentary session on the European arrest warrant on Monday evening was anything to go by, the great debate we are promised by David Cameron on Britain’s membership of the European Union will be a thoroughly confused and confusing affair. Rarely have we witnessed such an exhibition of arcanery and chicanery.
Like the so-called rebate on the UK’s additional contributions to the EU budget last week, already complex subjects – and anything related to the EU is liable to be mind-melting – are being made still more opaque by the spin put on events by the main parties and the various contrivances they deploy to deny honest debate and score themselves some pathetic party points. Thus does Westminster democracy suffer erosion in its legitimacy.
In that way, Michael Gove, as Tory Chief Whip, is genius and bungler at the same time. Genius because he came up with all the old-time strategies, and some new ones, that saw his party through a rough time. Bungler because it didn’t quite work. He was, in other words, a bit too clever by half.
The Ruritanian procedures he deployed certainly succeeded in frustrating the Tory rebels and helped the Government win the day, something that was actually never in much doubt. On the other hand, the Tory rebels were denied their opportunity to vote on the warrant itself.
Tiresome as John Redwood, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Bill Cash may be to their seniors, they wanted, and should have had, a clear vote on an important proposal. The Speaker, John Bercow, should have protected their rights (tedious as he too might find the awkward squad). A majority of MPs could agree on one thing on Monday – which is that they simply didn’t understand what was going on. Certainly the voters fall into that category. It was a bad day for the Commons. The substantive upshot to Mr Gove’s little triumph is that the European arrest warrant is now at risk of future judicial challenge precisely on the grounds that what Parliament decided was not clear-cut. So we currently occupy a world where the European warrant may or may not have force in individual cases, depending on what a particular judge – and, after appeals, very possibly a European judge – may make of things. That is a massive bungle.
So Labour cannot entirely be condemned for calling a further debate on the warrant, because the situation does demand clarification. Yet it seems quite as interested in causing mischief and embarrassing Mr Cameron and Theresa May as in sorting out this corner of the justice system. Yvette Cooper saw her chance and grabbed it; but, like virtually everyone else on the respective front benches, she does not emerge from this with her reputation enhanced.
What does the electorate expect from its beleaguered politicians? Co-operation, for a start. They like their leaders to work together in the public interest; it is one reason why the Coalition has survived. Second, they expect their MPs to put country before party. Third, they want their MPs to explain the issues clearly and fairly, and listen to their concerns. They want them to be grown-ups. On each count the political classes – including Ukip, which is just as happy to spin as any other gang on the make – have failed dismally.
If there were an arrest warrant for failure to “do politics” properly it would have quite a few prominent names on it. When MPs wonder why they have fallen into such low esteem, and why Russell Brand is more popular than they are, they need only reflect on their behaviour these past few days.Reuse content