Oh, the perils of trying to summarise Brexit. Since the Prime Minister’s Chequers plan furore last week, Brexiting has gone through so many twists and turns that it felt like every day involved tearing up the paper and starting again. It’s been like herding kittens, but at the same time, trying to track down the source of that horrible smell, when you’re sure that one of the kittens has hidden a decapitated mouse somewhere and you know it will smell worse until you find it, but you really don’t want to find it because it will be gross. Yeah, that pretty much covers it.
But I’ve temporarily corralled the metaphorical kittens, so here’s a summary of where we are up to so far.
After David Davis and Boris Johnson resigned over the Chequers plan, the rest of the Tories seemed on board with May’s plan. But all was not as rosy as it had appeared. Plots were afoot. One was spearheaded by the European Research Group (ERG), a committee run by Jacob Rees-Mogg. A quick explainer on Rees-Mogg: Imagine that a 19th Century aristocratic vampire and a pencil somehow managed to produce a child. That child grew up to become a Tory who suddenly, inexplicably, became popular in certain circles. Leading theorists suggest it’s because he seems reliably snobby, in that ‘ooh he’s wearing a funny hat’ way, someone you could imagine doffing your cap to in a country house. That’s Jacob Rees-Mogg.
Rees-Mogg’s committee wanted a harder Brexit in terms of customs and trade. This led to an uprising on the Remain side of the Tories. Tory Remainers wanted to amend the plan to include a safeguard on trade, namely that the UK would stay in the Customs union if no alternative agreement was reached by the deadline. Among those pushing for this amendment was Tory MP Anna Soubry. Rees-Mogg gets a mention in this passionate speech…
Here’s what it looks like when a political party explodes. pic.twitter.com/k1kkysboT4— Alan White (@aljwhite) July 16, 2018
The safeguard amendment needed to be voted on in the Commons, and was one of two big votes on Monday. On the matter of trade, Tories were whipped (not literally — it means instructed in this context!) to vote for May’s plan rather than the amendment, but 12 Tory Remainers broke ranks, voting with Corbyn’s Labour party. 5 Labour MPs favoured a hard Brexit and voted with the Tories. The final score was 307 to 301; notably absent were Vince Cable and Tim Farron, party leader and former party leader of the Liberal Democrats, the most Euro-friendly of the parties. Another Liberal Democrat — Jo Swinson, the deputy party leader — was on maternity leave; in cases like this, absent MPs are paired with another from the opposite side of the house, who is excused from the vote so that one person’s absence does not influence the outcome. Swinson’s pair, Tory MP Brandon Lewis, broke the agreement and voted anyway.
The other big vote on Monday was a proposal from Remainers to keep the UK tied to the European Medicines Agency, which they won by 305 to 301.
All in all, it’s pretty damn close. Every slight movement to a harder or softer Brexit creates new ‘rebels’ and new mutinies. Sensing blood in the water, Boris Johnson returned on Wednesday to deliver a speech damning Theresa May’s strategies. There are so many sharks circling May now that she can’t move an inch without bumping into something with dead eyes and sharp teeth, ready to tear off a limb. At the moment, the Tory Chief Whip (don’t snigger, that really is a job here) is threatening potential rebels that he will set a no confidence vote in motion against May unless they comply, in which case there will be another General Election and they could lose their seat. For some of those sharks, that may seem more of a promise than a threat.
But that’s not the only Brexit news there has been this week.
Amidst all this, there are calls for an inquiry into the actions of the Vote Leave campaign, which was fined £61,000 by the Electoral Commission for breaking the rules on campaign financing. Here’s Chuka Umunna, slating Michael Gove in a particularly enjoyable moment from the Commons:
Members of the Cabinet sat on the Campaign Committee of Vote Leave, which has been found to have flouted the rules of our democracy. We now need a full public inquiry into the Leave campaign, whose cheating calls into question the legitimacy of the entire Brexit process. pic.twitter.com/NVCUTynI99— Chuka Umunna (@ChukaUmunna) July 17, 2018
There are others who claim that an inquiry doesn’t go far enough — that breaking the rules in the campaign annuls the result and that there should be a do-over with the referendum itself. Infuriated Leavers are insisting that campaign financing had no impact on the public’s ideas about the issue, but this is naïve. Part of the Vote Leave irregularity issue comes from its (undeclared) partnership with BeLeave, which targeted younger votes using AggregateIQ — a data firm linked to Cambridge Analytica. Seeing a terrible conspiracy yet? Even if we look the other way on allegations of psychological profiling and use of stolen data, our views are shaped by the media; we are what we read and what we see. When campaign finances are used in order to shape what we read and what we see, then they have had an impact on the result. When outright lies are embedded in this, then the issue is compounded further.
There are further defences for Vote Leave, but rather than excusing the campaign’s crooked behaviour, these seem to argue that there was widespread crooked behaviour on both sides, which isn’t as much of a defence as they might think. Firstly, Vote Leave wasn’t the only campaign group on that side. Leave.EU (the one that Nigel Farage was fronting), however, has also been fined (£70,000 in this case) for breaches of electoral law. The Remain campaign isn’t innocent in all this; the main Remain group was fined £1000, and the Liberal Democrats were fined £18,000. The government was also criticised by Leavers for a leaflet sent to every home in the UK, which extolled the benefits of remaining. This went out technically before the start of the official campaign. But only just. Why is it important? There was a cap on spending for Leave and Remain, of £7million. The leaflets cost £9million. By going out before the campaign, the leaflets ‘didn’t count’ as official campaign materials and so were seen as a massive unfair advantage for Remain. We are what we read and what we see, after all.
None of these arguments fill one with confidence about the legality of the referendum itself. It is not a wild stretch to suggest that this referendum was rotten to the core and that decisions based on it could be considered essentially undemocratic. Would I be saying the same thing if Remain had won? It’s a tough question, and one I’ve asked myself a few times over the last few months. But the two outcomes are so different that complaining about a Remain result would be different to complaining about a Leave result. Very little would have changed with a Remain result. There would be calls to run another referendum as the years went on, and at some point, it would probably happen. (We can use the Scottish independence referendum as an example here; Leave would have survived to fight another day, but would have reorganised and evolved in the meantime.) We wouldn’t have the current chaos if Remain had won; the mess we are facing stems from trying to make Brexit happen. I know that it will seem a case of sour grapes, but would it be so terrible to say, “hey, the last referendum was flawed, let’s run it again and do it properly”? It’s a big, important decision, and it deserves to be examined properly. It wouldn’t be ignoring the will of the people; it would be double-checking the will of the people.
With all the furious arguments in Parliament, the shambolic planning and the empty definitions, might we all be better off if we tore this one up and started again from the beginning?
(Image via Getty)