What shocked me this year in politics? That ardent Brexiteers would rather remain than leave on Theresa May’s terms

I thought there was a majority in parliament for a soft Brexit. But both Labour and Tory MPs proved me wrong

John Rentoul
Wednesday 26 December 2018 11:30
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Brexit: What will happen in 2019?

I learned a lot this year. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is a more middle-class party than Tony Blair’s ever was. The year began with Phil Wilson, Blair’s successor as MP for Sedgefield in County Durham, explaining the working-class roots of New Labour to our frankly disbelieving students at King’s College, London.

Later, Andrew Adonis, the energetically anti-Brexit Labour peer, told our class he had decided, after a lifetime’s advocacy, that proportional representation was a bad idea. He said that, had his hero Roy Jenkins’s plan for an added member system for the House of Commons been enacted, it would have been an “utter, utter disaster”.

I realised that Adonis had been converted by his overpowering desire to stay in the EU – he blames the proportional system for electing MEPs for giving Ukip a platform since 1999. But as an opponent of proportional representation since the early 1980s – who was reinforced in his views by an article in the New Statesman by a Labour junior frontbencher by the name of Tony Blair – I was delighted to welcome a sinner to the fold.

Another fashionable panacea for political reformers ended up looking silly this year when Ian Paisley Jr, the DUP MP for North Antrim, defeated a petition to “recall” him from parliament. I am no defender of him and his lobbying on behalf of the Sri Lankan government, which paid for an expensive family holiday, but the recall power is pointless and ineffective. Even if it had succeeded, it would only have meant a by-election in the constituency, which he would have won.

The article I most enjoyed writing this year was an alternative history of the past eight years, if Nick Clegg had decided to throw his lot in with Labour – once Gordon Brown had announced his resignation – after the 2010 election. While writing it I came across the fact that Clegg is two years younger than David Miliband, who I assumed would have become prime minister of a Labour and Liberal Democrat coalition government.

How differently things might have turned out! In my parallel universe, Emily Thornberry has just become the UK’s second woman prime minister after a one-term Boris Johnson government that ran a referendum in which the people voted to stay in the EU.

But the editor asked for a look back at 2018 and “the one thing you learned this year”. And that would have to be that, despite writing about Brexit all year, it has always been hard to predict how MPs would behave.

All year, I have pointed out that there is a majority in parliament for a soft Brexit – that is, one that keeps us in a close economic relationship with the EU. But when Theresa May, against all the odds, managed to negotiate something that does that while allowing the UK to control immigration, Labour MPs have remained resolutely opposed to it.

Nor did I foresee how May reaching an agreement with the EU would split the Leave movement and her own party so deeply. It had simply not occurred to me that people such as Boris Johnson would regard a soft Brexit as worse than staying in the EU. I do not know if he really means it, but the sentiment is widespread among grassroots Conservative members and it rather complicates things.

It means that there are large numbers of Tory MPs who will vote against the prime minister’s deal regardless of the consequences. If it means leaving without a withdrawal agreement, they would be pleased. But if it means the House of Commons forcing the government to delay Brexit, hold a referendum and possibly stay in the EU, they are fine with that too.

If Andrew Adonis, long-time campaigner for electoral reform, can change his mind and decide that first past the post is the best system after all, I shouldn’t be surprised when ardent Better Off Outers decide they would rather stay in the EU than leave on Theresa May’s terms.

I shouldn’t be surprised, but I am.

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