Richard North, 15/03/2019  

There are limits. And they've been reached. With fifteen days to go to what was once supposed to be Brexit day, the MPs collective have totally bottled it. Having rejected the Withdrawal Agreement for the second time, having then voted for unicorns in abolishing the no-deal, they have now voted by 412 to 202 to seek delay to EU departure.

This is the government's motion so we still don't know what the odds are – whether the government will be aiming for a short or long extension. That will depend on next week when the next round of this soap opera is played out, and the MP collective is asked to vote for a third time on the Withdrawal Agreement.

If they give the go ahead then, we get to leave the EU at the end of June, assuming the European Council agrees. If not, Mrs May prostrates herself before the "colleagues" and asks for more time, whence we could be looking at anything from 21 months to two years before Brexit – or sometime never.

There's not a lot of point rehearsing the events of the last 24 hours. The legacy media have been crawling all over them, and loving every minute of the mess for which they have been partially responsible. And there's more coming, as they cover in loving detail the European Council next week, and the ongoing soap opera.

Of yesterday's debate, the record also includes a point of order from Luke Graham, Tory MP for Ochil and South Perthshire. He dressed it up as a request for guidance on a security matter, recounting that the previous night two individuals had approached his constituency office. They had banged on the windows and shouted at the one member of staff who had been in there. 
She had been on her own and approached the individuals, whence she had been told: "In an independent Scotland, all of you will be hanging and we will be there at the front cheering on". They had also said: "I can't wait to come and drag you from this office and get you to the noose".

This provoked the speaker to declare that the behaviour "was despicable and should be condemned unreservedly". It ought to be possible and the norm, he said, to express a robust view and to play the ball rather than the man or woman. He continued: "People who think that because they disapprove of somebody's views they have a right to subject them to bile, calumny, vituperation and threat, not to mention actual violence, need to be shown that that is not acceptable and that where they are breaking the law, its full force will be applied to them".

The speaker is, of course, right in what he says – in principle. But there is more to this than the simple disapproval of other people's views. Politics has changed, and not for the better. Progressively, it has become the domain of careerists, who have grown into a class apart, separate from the people they supposedly serve.

With that separation has come a remoteness, where MPs are less likely to be regarded as "one of us". With fewer people joining political parties and with politics increasingly centralised, there are fewer opportunities for social mixing with this political "class", when then become even more distant. Increasingly one gets the impression they are permanently on "broadcast mode", uninterested in what ordinary mortals have to say.

When one also sees tangible and continuous evidence of incompetence – with so many MPs displaying a worrying lack of grasp of even simple issues – the distance has transmuted into something else, and on this side at least a lack of respect that has hardened into contempt.

The days, weeks, months and now years of Brexit have done nothing at all to improve matters while the last few weeks have accelerated the decline. The standing of MPs has never been lower and the institution of parliament is at its lowest ebb. It could hardly get lower.

Where we go from here is anyone's guess. But the failure of the MP collective to resolve Brexit won't go away. This is now becomes a running sore on the body politic and the experience of Luke Graham's staff member might become more frequent, spreading to the MPs themselves.

Pete has written much on this, and in particular the loss of trust in a system which seems actively to despise us and seeks to exclude us from the debate.

That said, we are where we are – as we have observed before. The politicians have made such a mess of Brexit that we are not ready to cope with the next phase. Certainly, a no-deal would be a disaster, even worse than the uncertainty which is doing so much damage. Given a choice between the inevitability of a no-deal and an Article 50 extension, the extension is the better choice.

Whether the MP collective can bring itself on Tuesday next week to back the Withdrawal Agreement is anybody's guess, but on past form this does not seem likely. That puts us in the long extension territory, with the unlikely support of Donald Tusk.

Earlier in the day yesterday, he tweeted that, during his consultations ahead of the European Council, he would appeal to the EU-27 to be open to that proposition, "if the UK finds it necessary to rethink its #Brexit strategy and build consensus around it".

Apart from the obvious problem of having to hold European Parliament elections, with the risk that they could end up with Farage back in harness, this gives everyone some breathing space. The heated atmosphere at the moment is not conducive to calm, logical thought in a community to which calm, logical thought does not come naturally at the best of times.

However, there we have the issue of an introspective political class which is not looking for solutions outside its own ranks and which is unlikely to benefit from any amount of time. Arguably, if they have taken nearly three years to make a pig's ear of Brexit, then another 21 months is unlikely to make much of a difference.

The greater danger is that the breathing space is used to engineer a consensus not for a Brexit strategy, but for the Article 50 notice revocation, with or without a second referendum.

That might be seen as a solution to the Brexit problem, but the political impact would be less predictable. Possibly, it would so damage relations between the political classes and the public that what Mrs May called the "fragile bonds of trust" might be irreparably shattered.

Nevertheless, there is a more predicable outcome from abandoning Brexit – the almost certain destruction of the Conservative Party as an electoral force. A divided party usually fares badly in elections and rarely has a party been so divided as the Tories over Brexit.

Then, since Brexit has largely been "owned" by the Tories, a failure would be seen as Tory property. Trust would then become a serious issue, even amongst staunch remainers. At the next general election, the initials ABC might become the dominant voting guide – Anyone But Conservatives.

Yet, clowns though they may be, if there is one thing the Tory MPs are good at it is self-preservation. And after that, they will rally to the party in a classic example of tribal loyalty, especially if threatened by electoral defeat. Thus, we can expect the party to rally round and, if supporting Mrs May's deal is the price of keeping Corbyn out of office, we may see concessions made over the next week.

What MPs will have to come to terms with though is that the weeks of strife have not opened up any more Brexit options. There are still those prattling about Common Market 2.0 and pushing for a Norway-style deal, but these are not available. Until the Withdrawal Agreement has been ratified, there is no scope for further talks. This is the turnkey on which everything else depends.

Next week, whether or not the MPs do their stuff, the "colleagues" will listen politely to Mrs May – as they always do – but they will act in their interests, not the interests of the UK. If they agree an extension, it will be because it is in their interests to do so, and they won't be doing the UK any favours.

Thus, we are left in the grip of the clowns, with the uncertainties piling up over time rather than diminishing. Never have so many been so badly served by so few.

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