12 March 2019

Brexit is within reach. Why do so many Leavers refuse to grasp it?


I’m sitting in the Chamber of the House and I can’t help but hum ‘Hotel California’ — it’s the sort of place you can never leave. It reminds me of the Brexit impasse. However hard we try, we can’t seem to work a way through it.

I think it is also beginning to dawn on some of my colleagues, that if we don’t check out tonight – i.e. if we don’t support the Withdrawal Deal – we may never leave the EU. And yet, the vote seems almost certain to be lost thanks to a combination of Remain and Leave MPs determined to bury the Government’s plans.

It could be so different. Tonight, we could actually vote to leave the EU with a withdrawal deal that will ensure stability in our relations with the European Union. We could finally begin to bring an end to this phase of the Brexit saga. We could begin to get on with the next phase of negotiations. More importantly, we could get back to governing and to producing the ideas, teamwork and leadership that Conservative Governments are meant to deliver.

Instead, we are going to take a leap into the unknown and prolong the Brexit purgatory.

I voted Brexit. So did the Isle of Wight, my constituency. I want it to happen, but I fear that we are about to grab defeat from the jaws of victory. This entire episode is becoming a shambles that reflects appallingly on this current House of Commons.

Where to start?

A very small number of hardcore Conservative Remain MPs are doing everything in their power to block Brexit, using arcane tools of Parliamentary procedure to do so. There is no respect for the mandate of the people. There is simply a determination to overrule their constituents. Most Conservative Remain MPs, to their credit, are respecting the result and are supporting the Withdrawal Deal.

Labour have behaved with an opportunism that would be laughable would it not be so shocking. In debate after debate, Labour MPs despair of the impact of a ‘no deal’ Brexit before declaring that they will not vote for the Withdrawal Deal, condemning us to the end result they say they most want to avoid — no deal. It is mendaciousness taken to high art.

And yet, and yet … my Brexiteer colleagues now seem intent on making sure that the Withdrawal Deal will fail to get the necessary support. We have a reasonable deal. It gives us much of want we want. Brexit is within our grasp. But instead, we are opposing it, making the perfect be the enemy of the acceptable. It’s true that the Backstop hasn’t been fully renegotiated, but the Attorney-General has said that additional legal powers have been obtained, making it even more unlikely that they will be needed. In addition, the Attorney-General has reminded MPs that, as a sovereign state, we could withdraw from the treaty, as we can from others.

Yet mention this to some colleagues, and the instant reaction is “betrayal”, What can one say?

There are now no good options. If we fail to vote this through, we could potentially bluff our way to no deal. It is possible but I don’t think the odds are on it. If Cabinet Ministers start to quit Government on a daily basis, the political reality will trump the legal technicalities. The Prime Minister may resign, leading to a leadership race. A General Election is possible. MPs may vote to take powers in relation to Brexit away from Government. Tomorrow we will have a series of votes on what happens next. Remain MPs in the Conservative Party and almost all Labour, SNP and Lib Dem MPs will ensure that the only Brexit voted for will be much watered down. So much for the tactical brilliance of my Brexit colleagues, whose sentiments I admire but whose tactics without strategy are beginning to feel like, in the words of the Chinese philosopher Sun Tsu, “noise before defeat”. I hope I am wrong.

We could opt for a simple outcome tonight, and overall, probably the best outcome: we could vote for the deal. Sadly, we are likely, with Conservative support, to vote it down again, guaranteeing that the wretched soap opera of Brexit continues. I wish Conservative colleagues would swallow their reservations and, echoing the mood of the people we represent, just get on with it.

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Bob Seely is the Conservative MP for the Isle of Wight.