Fundamentally nothing has changed – my take on yesterday’s contemptuous shenanigans

Fundamentally nothing has changed – my take on yesterday’s contemptuous shenanigans

Well, well, well. What a 24 hours it has been. On the one hand there’s so much to say, while on the other I am struggling to summon the words to express a whole range of feelings and emotions about yesterday’s events at Westminster: bemusement, anger, disappointment, confusion and, dare I say it, contempt.

Yesterday morning, Michael Gove was on Radio 4’s Today programme vigorously insisting that the meaningful vote on Theresa May’s Brexit deal would go ahead amidst rumours that tonight’s Commons division – following a fourth and fifth day of debate yesterday and today – would be pulled. “The vote is going ahead,” the Environment Secretary said. Even late yesterday morning, Downing Street continued spinning the same line to the media. “The vote is going ahead as planned,” said a No. 10 spokeswoman who, when asked if the Prime Minister was confident of winning the vote, replied: “Yes”.

And yet within minutes reports began to emerge that the vote was indeed being pulled, despite the Commons having already spent 24 hours over three days last week on the debate in which more than 160 MPs had already participated.

And so it was that just after 3.30pm, Theresa May rose to her feet at the Despatch Box to declare that the vote would be postponed, with the following explanation:

“I have listened very carefully to what has been said, in this chamber and out of it, by members from all sides. From listening to those views it is clear that while there is broad support for many of the key aspects of the deal, on one issue – the Northern Ireland backstop – there remains widespread and deep concern. As a result, if we went ahead and held the vote tomorrow the deal would be rejected by a significant margin.”

What struck me as particularly absurd about this statement was that it was clear to me and anyone else paying the slightest attention to current events that there was “widespread and deep concern” about the backstop as soon as the details of it emerged in November and certainly by the time of the debate beginning last Tuesday. Yet she stubbornly concluded:

“I am in absolutely no doubt that this deal is the right one. It honours the result of the referendum… But it also represents the very best deal that is actually negotiable with the EU. I believe in it – as do many Members of this House. And I still believe there is a majority to be won in this House in support of it, if I can secure additional reassurance on the question of the backstop. And that is what my focus will be in the days ahead.”

You can read her full statement here, but there you have it: the aim of the shuttle diplomacy on which she is now embarking and for which the debate and vote were abandoned is to “secure additional reassurance on the question of the backstop”.

As former Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers writes for us on BrexitCentral this morning, “even more disappointing than the cancellation of the vote was the announcement on what the Government plans to do next” since “Mrs May is not going to ask for the major rewrite of the withdrawal deal which is needed”. She explains the numerous aspects of the draft Withdrawal Agreement about which she has concerns – and on which the Prime Minister evidently has no intention of reopening negotiations.

Senior Labour backbencher Yvette Cooper perfectly summed up the feelings of many of us following proceedings in her intervention following the statement yesterday:

“Nothing has changed in the level of parliamentary concern about the Prime Minister’s deal since last week, but she still sent her Ministers and her official spokesperson out at 11 this morning to say that this vote was 100% going ahead, and yet we still, even now, do not know when she wants to bring this vote back, or even what she wants the deal to be. Does she not realise how chaotic and ridiculous this makes our country look? Given the importance of trust and credibility in this entire process, how can she possibly talk about duty and honour, and faith in politicians, when we cannot even trust the most basic things her Ministers are saying?”

May gave no answer to questions about the length of the postponement of the vote and while it was initially thought there might be a week’s delay, there was widespread speculation last night that it might not come until January.

The chamber was also treated to this astute observation from veteran left-winger Dennis Skinner yesterday afternoon:

“Does the Prime Minister realise that she has handed over power not to people in this House, but to the people she is going to negotiate with over there in Europe? She looks very weak, and she is. They want to be able to demonstrate their power to every other country that might be thinking about getting out of the EU, and she has handed them that power by demonstrating what Britain is doing. The British Prime Minister does not know whether she is on this earth or Fuller’s because of the actions she has taken. Mrs Thatcher had a word for what she has done today. F-R-I-T — she’s frit.”

Frit is of course the Lincolnshire dialect word for frightened or scared that the Grantham-born former Prime Minister once let slip out in the Commons in reference to Neil Kinnock. Those interventions from Cooper and Skinner are both included in our video highlights of yesterday afternoon’s proceedings which I would recommend catching up with here.

What many found confusing over the turn of events is that May arguably missed the opportunity that losing a vote in the Commons would have provided in terms of strengthening her negotiating hand. As of today, there has been no formal rejection of the deal from parliamentarians that she could have used as a tangible bargaining chip in Brussels, where the EU is eager to secure a deal.

And it was a non-vote in advance of which we learnt yesterday that the Government had spent near enough £100,000 during the last week alone on Facebook adverts promoting May’s deal. That’s surely a grotesque abuse of hard-earned taxpayers’ money in anyone’s book.

There was also damning criticism of the procedural trick of pulling the debate three-fifths of the way through, with Tory backbencher Mark Francois offering the following scathing assessment:

“What the Government have done today is shameful. It is a complete abuse of this House. Having been found in contempt recently for the first time in living memory, they have now gone for a “buy one, get one free.” The whole House wanted to debate this. We wanted to vote on it. The people expected us to vote on it, and the Government have gone and run away and hidden in the toilets. People watching this on television will be confused and bemused, and very, very angry at the way their own Parliament has let them down. The Government Front Benchers should literally be ashamed of themselves.”

Also irate was the Speaker himself, John Bercow, who observed from the Speaker’s chair:

“Halting the debate, after no fewer than 164 colleagues have taken the trouble to contribute, will be thought by many Members of this House to be deeply discourteous… many colleagues from across the House have registered that view to me in the most forceful terms.”

A little later he agreed to the request for an emergency debate on the Government’s handling of the issue which came from Jeremy Corbyn and that three-hour debate will be the first main business after question time today at around 12.45pm – although there will not be a substantive motion on which MPs can vote.

In the meantime, Theresa May has headed off on her European travels, with a bilateral meeting taking place between her and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte over breakfast in The Hague this morning before she heads to Berlin for face-to-face talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Then will come talks in Brussels with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Council President Donald Tusk later this afternoon. The Cabinet meeting scheduled for this morning has been postponed until later in the week.

But what is she realistically going to achieve from a new round of talks? Tusk announced yesterday that he was calling a meeting of the EU27 leaders as part of the summit already taking place in Brussels this Thursday. But he was also clear that “we will not renegotiate the deal, including the backstop, but we are ready to discuss how to facilitate UK ratification”.

Meanwhile, Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar ruled out reopening negotiations around the Irish backstop and insisted the draft Withdrawal Agreement is “the only agreement on the table”.

So the Prime Minister may have bought herself a little more time, but right now it’s hard to see the House of Commons coming to anything other than the same conclusion as it would have done tonight whenever MPs are finally afforded the opportunity to vote on her deal. As someone once said: nothing has changed. But she has lost a whole heap of a rapidly diminishing supply of goodwill and trust as a result of yesterday’s shenanigans.

The above is the text of Jonathan Isaby’s Editor’s Letter in today’s BrexitCentral daily email briefing. To have it land in your inbox every morning, please click here.