About a year ago, I described the passage of Brexit through parliament as being like that regularly reappearing photograph of a Burmese python that tried to swallow a six-foot alligator whole and accidentally exploded.
The alligator suffocated, the python’s head got blown off. That much is not contested. But apart from that, no one knows quite what happened in the hours before an amateur photographer chanced upon it.
We must presume the alligator struggled til the last, and that is the stage of Brexit at which we have now arrived.
Parliament embraced Brexit of its own free will, but now it cannot handle the monster coming down its oesophagus. And the monster itself does not want to die.
More than a year on from triggering Article 50, the point at which the teeth of the two beasts’ teeth first touched, Theresa May had hoped she had found a way of easing its passage that might keep both alive. The so-called “Chequers deal”, which is not a deal at all but an agreed position among the cabinet, detonated the cabinet within moments of it being agreed to. None of which engages with the fact that the European Union was highly likely to reject the agreement anyway.
David Davis has quit. Boris Johnson has quit. Justine Greening, the former education secretary who quit in January, has said the only way forward is a second referendum with three choices on the ballot paper (hard Brexit, no Brexit, or the least damaging Brexit the government can manage to get).
Last week, the “European Research Group”, the well organised clique of 60 hardline Tory Eurosceptic MPs led by Jacob Rees-Mogg, tabled four amendments to various Brexit related bills that were designed to kill off the Chequers agreement, which is an extremely complex proposal that the prime minister thinks would allow the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, to leave the EU’s customs union and be free to strike its own trade deals around the world, but without a hard border returning to the island of Ireland.
Now, Theresa May has indicated she may accept the amendments, yet she maintains that to do so would not kill off the Chequers agreement – the precise thing the amendments were designed to do.
A succession of Tory MPs the public have never heard of are quitting jobs the public never knew existed, in the hope it will put pressure on Theresa May to seek to deliver a version of Brexit that leaves the UK more politically distant from the European Union (and, as an inevitably consequence, more economically distant too.) One, Chris Green, a parliamentary private secretary, did just this, and was told publicly over Twitter, by a Tory MP colleague, that “no one knows who the f*ck you are, Chris.”
These people are toying with ousting Theresa May as prime minister, if not now then after the summer recess, which would trigger a leadership contest that would take a minimum of six weeks of precious negotiating time and, ultimately, not alter the arithmetic of the House of Commons one iota.
If parliament cannot solve its deadlock – if the python cannot save itself – it is suggested only a general election can find a way. But there has already been one after Brexit and it made the problem worse not better. How a general election, which would pit the most left wing iteration of the Labour Party there has ever been against a Conservative Party that remains frightened of Ukip, and expect the voters to express, through this crude and complex choice, a clear view on how to settle Brexit, is truly baffling. The result would be as politically indecipherable as the last.
The alligator is not coming up with a plan for its own survival. It is deep in the python’s belly and it can’t get out. It is fighting and writhing because what else can it do? It knows that, maybe, it could kill the python. And what comes after that?
Don’t ask the alligator. It’s already dead.
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