It was only ever meant to be a straightforward, plain vanilla farce, of the kind we’re all so very used to.
Theresa May has spent the last three years saying “no deal is better than a bad deal”. She’s allocated £4bn of public money to preparing for no deal. And then, on Wednesday evening, she was expected to walk through the division lobbies and vote to rule out no deal.
Mad, obviously. Stark raving mad. But it’s at least within the realm of madness that we’re used to. But what happened was a madness to echo down the ages. Not so much another order of magnitude as another dimension.
The House of Commons was a Benny Hill chase on acid, running through a Salvador Dali painting in a spaceship on its way to infinity.
It was a kind of death-defying, window-shattering, epoch-shaping, never-to-be-surpassed lunacy.
The details are extravagantly complex, and if you can’t face them all, the key bit to remember is that Theresa May planned to defeat herself, then decided not to defeat herself by defeating herself, then lost. To herself.
Oh, and as she did so, the prime minister of the United Kingdom that is, she remained entirely mute throughout. Didn't open the debate. Didn't close it. Didn't say a word, save for a brief point of order at the end, because at this time of acute national emergency, she is unable to speak.
Let’s start with the entry level madness. Theresa May’s deal has now been defeated twice, so she did what she said she would, and brought a motion before the House of Commons to allow them vote on ruling out no deal.
No-deal Brexit would be an unprecedented act of economic self-harm (the current precedent being Brexit itself). During the referendum campaign, nobody campaigned for no-deal Brexit; no-deal Brexit would be impossible. German carmakers... easiest deal in human history... prosecco... you know the lies by now.
Nevertheless, here we were, two weeks short of Brexit day, and the prime minister was unable to tell her government how to vote on this vote to rule out no deal. So it was to be a “free vote”, which means, here in the UK in 2019, the government does not have a position on self-inflicted economic ruin.
It’s worth pointing out at this point, just for fun more than anything else, that the House of Commons can’t actually rule out no-deal Brexit. And that’s because, without wishing to get too technical, a deal is something that’s done between two people. In this case, the UK and the EU, and one party ruling out a deal not happening? And the other party having no say at all in it? Well, you’ll understand that’s mad. But not quite as mad as what came next.
The Conservative MP Caroline Spelman introduced an amendment to the ruling out no-deal motion, which meant that, if passed, it would involve ruling out no deal permanently. In other words, it couldn’t just be ruled out for a couple of months, for a bit more negotiating time. It would be ruled out for good. Which would mean, in all likelihood, Theresa May having to go back to Brussels to seek not a short but a long extension to Article 50, the UK taking part in the EU elections at the end of May, and various other things that, we as a country can no longer do – because we’ve gone mad.
This was quite the problem. Now, government ministers, and Theresa May herself, having been free to vote against the motion they themselves had introduced, would have to vote against it. Which put dozens of government ministers, and indeed the prime minister, in the rather tricky spot of having to vote in favour of economic ruin.
Caroline Spelman did the decent thing and tried to withdraw her amendment, as it rather compelled lots of her colleagues to have to vote to get themselves sacked. But she was told by the speaker that she couldn’t.
So Labour’s Yvette Cooper moved the amendment for her, and the government whipped its MPs into voting against ruling out no deal. Theresa May voted against her own motion and more than a dozen members of her government abstained, a course of action that ordinarily leads instantly to being told to resign.
The Spelman amendment passed, the government “lost” the vote but actually won it. The abstainers went AWOL, the chief whip went running about looking for them, and the latest we know is that they can all keep their jobs, apart from a couple of them that didn’t abstain but actually voted against, or more accurately with, and so that’s that for them.
Oh, yes, and there was the chancellor’s Spring Statement earlier in the day but who cares about that any more? And the “Malthouse Compromise” which has already been rejected by Brussels around a dozen times, was voted down. It split the Tory party almost exactly down the middle – 164 voted for it, and there’s only about 330 of them, which is probably what counts for a compromise these days – refusing to compromise but in exactly equal numbers.
On Thursday, they’ll be back again to vote on whether to extend Article 50, but nobody quite knows for how long. Indeed, nobody knows anything at all. Everyone and everything has gone quite, quite mad.
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