Richard North, 30/03/2019  

So, at the third vote, by 344 votes to 286 – a margin of 58 votes - the MP collective yesterday refused to ratify the Withdrawal Agreement. And, without at all realising it, they handed over control of the Brexit process to the EU.

So ended the highlight of a day when we were supposed to have left the EU, but didn't. Since 23 June 2016, our political establishment have had one thing to do, and even that it couldn't manage. Our politicians have ended up as ignorant and confused as the day we voted, having failed on what was supposed to be the last day of our EU membership to decide even on whether we're leaving, much less when.

Whatever else, the Brexit process represents a loss of political and moral authority of that political establishment which has consistently and repeatedly failed to measure up. Most marked has been its intellectual bankruptcy, where so few politicians have grasped the basic issues.

But this failure has not been wholly political. The nation's "intelligentsia" has been equally lacking. From the self-important, pompous academics to the self-serving, vacuous think-tanks, there has been no intellectual leadership, or clarity of thought.

This has been compounded by a venal legacy media (print, online and broadcast) which has shown itself unable effectively to record the debate. Trivial, obsessed with gossip and personality politics, and driven by "prestige", it has consistently misled and misinformed the public.

As such, Brexit has turned out to be the touchstone of a decadent nation, bringing into sharp profile the deterioration of key systems and institutions. But, in illustrating how far the rot has gone, it has at least done the necessary job of exposing, in all its horror, the level to which we have sunk.

The question now is what do we do about it? Clearly, things can't continue as they are, but one has to ask whether this divided nation is capable of healing and rebirth, especially given the lack of political and moral leadership. It looks as if "we the people" are on our own and will have to forge our own solutions.

For the moment, the best that can possibly happen is that the European Council will take pity on Mrs May and give the UK a time extension after 12 April, keeping us in the EU until we have sorted out where we are going. And it is here that the transfer of control becomes so apparent. The length of time is the Council's choice, on terms and conditions entirely at its discretion.

Despite that, an extension looks unlikely. Tucked into the prime minister's response to the vote was a powerful little landmine. The European Union, Mrs May said, has been clear that any further extension will need to have a clear purpose and will need to be agreed unanimously by the Heads of State of the other 27 Member States ahead of 12 April.

This will almost certainly involve the United Kingdom holding European parliamentary elections, she added, then placing the explosive device. "On Monday this House will continue the process to see whether there is a stable majority for a particular alternative version of our future relationship with the EU", she said, noting that: "Of course, all the options will require the Withdrawal Agreement".

And there it is. The House can debate and vote on as many motions as takes its fancy on Monday, but anything which sets out the terms for our future relationship will have to be accompanied by a proposal for delivering the Withdrawal Agreement. And that is something parliament has thrice refused to do.

On that basis, it is very hard to see how Mrs May can communicate to the Council that essential "way forward" that it requires before it will commit to any lengthy time extension that the UK might want.

From the look of it, the "colleagues" are already prepared to cast us adrift. In a statement issued shortly after the vote, the Commission reminded us of the extension to 12 April and that, "It will be for the UK to indicate the way forward before that date, for consideration by the European Council".

But, it continued, "a no-deal scenario on 12 April is now a likely scenario", adding that it was fully prepared for midnight on 12 April. Reiterating its previous position, it then showed that there was no softening of its stance: "The benefits of the Withdrawal Agreement, including a transition period, will in no circumstances be replicated in a no-deal scenario. Sectoral mini-deals are not an option", it said.

That is as uncompromising a statement as you will get and, as Pete writes, it brings us to the end of the line. At midnight on 12 April, the most likely scenario is that we exit the EU without a deal.

In the 14 days left to us, Mrs May says there is not enough time to agree, legislate for and ratify a deal. Nor is there enough time for the UK to put in place the domestic legislation that will implement a no-deal exit. On that basis, the EU might give us a couple of weeks to get the necessary laws through parliament, preparing the way for our existence outside the EU.

This, presumably, we will know on 10 April, on which Mr Tusk has called a special European Council. Then, Member State leaders will formally consider any request Mrs May put to them but, if we get no extension at all, we would be out with a mere two days' notice. This could not get us off to a more inauspicious start.

The worst of it is that it need not have been like this. Back in 1996, when Booker and I wrote The Castle of Lies, we declared that we must leave the EU. But, we said, "the vital thing is that this must be done in the right spirit and in the right way". We added: "It must not be done in any demeaning spirit of petulance … it must not be done on a tide of silly nationalism or 'xenophobia'".

"When Britain leaves the European Union", we continued, "she must do so in an entirely dignified, self-possessed fashion and she must explain to her former 'partners' precisely why she feels impelled to do so. She must explain that she does this in no spirit of reproach. Despite our constant nagging reservations, we have been just as much a party to the evolution of this system in the past 20 years as anyone else.

And then, in what now seems a prescient paragraph, we wrote:
We must not underestimate the immense scale of the task which will confront us as we embark on the process of disengagement from the European Union. It will require two things above all: first, a real understanding of what needs to be done and how; and secondly, a titanic act of political will, requiring leadership of the highest order, to ensure that the whole operation is properly, effectively and thoroughly carried out.
That, of course, was written more that ten years before the Lisbon Treaty came into force, with its Article 50 text, and 20 years before the referendum when Brexit appeared to become a reality. But, since neither of those conditions have been fulfilled, I suppose it was inevitable that we were going to have problems.

For an illustration of just how little our politicians actually understand, we see the Irish prime minister remark that it is "not clear" that the UK (i.e., the MP collective) has fully understood a no-deal Brexit is [not] off the agenda. As to the leadership deficit, all we have to do is look at Jeremy Corbyn's response to yesterday's vote, bearing in mind that the opposition is an important and necessary part of the political system.

Declaring that an alternative to the Withdrawal Agreement had to be found, Corbyn went on to say that, "if the prime minister cannot accept that, she must go - not at an indeterminate date in the future, but now - so that we can decide the future of this country through a general election".

Thus, just at the time when we need MPs in place, in the vain hope that they might break the habits of a lifetime and actually come up with something sensible, and then approve all the necessary legislation to deal with Brexit, the leader of the opposition would have parliament dissolved and the country immersed in an election campaign for a minimum of five weeks, during which period we will most likely leave the EU.

It is all very well pointing at Mrs May – who does indeed bear a huge responsibility for the failure of the Brexit process – not least as she is also talking of a general election if parliament rejects her deal for a fourth time, with it to be presented again some time next week.

But, as I argue in my opening, this has been a failure of the entire political system, with individual and collective failures by politicians – augmented by a more general system failure involving the whole of the establishment.

We now have to wait until Monday for the next instalment of drivel from parliament, in what is most probably going to be another pointless voting session. Afterwards, we will have plenty of time to work out new and inventive ways of conveying our displeasure to those who have so egregiously failed us. There will be a lot to convey, and the exercise will probably end up being the only entertainment we can afford.

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