The coming months could well be among the most tumultuous in our political history. Passions and emotions over Brexit are running so high that it is not overly dramatic to compare the current situation with two other defining moments in our history – in 1940 and 1653. Both episodes suggest that ultimately the will of the people will prevail, and that a Prime Minister or Parliament which stands in the way of the people will be swept aside.
On 7th May 1940, the Conservative backbench MP Leo Amery rose to his feet in the House of Commons, and fixed his gaze on the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain. What followed, was described by David Lloyd-George – the Father of the House – as the greatest parliamentary speech in 50 years. The speech is most remembered for its climactic finish, aimed directly towards the Prime Minister: “You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and have done with you. In the name of God, go.”
By the time he sat down, the political ground had shifted. Amery’s oratory roused swathes of Conservative MPs to vote against their own Government, unseating Chamberlain and ushering in Churchill as Prime Minister. In her darkest hour, Britain needed a Prime Minister who believed it would not only prevail, but triumph.
Amery, of course, was repeating the words of Oliver Cromwell, three centuries before, when he dismissed the Rump Parliament in 1653. And here again there are striking parallels with today. The Rump Parliament started out with radical intentions. Cromwell’s military victories (read the referendum result) provided all the political capital required to pursue the wishes of the army (read implement Brexit and the will of the people), but instead there was an increasing reversion towards the status quo (read ‘Remainer’ resistance in both Houses of Parliament). For good measure, Cromwell finished his dismissal with the words, “you are no Parliament” (read Remainers be careful).
The division between the establishment and the people was all too apparent in May 1940 as well. Churchill wanted to fight on, but Lord Halifax wanted to sue for peace and essentially accept an agreement dictated in Berlin. We are not at war, our other EU partners are our allies and friends, but the establishment yet again seems ready to accept any deal, albeit this time dictated in Brussels.
It is staggering that more than 2 years after the referendum result, the fundamental pillar of the Prime Minister’s Brexit policy, the customs partnership, has been so utterly discredited by her own (ex) Cabinet Ministers and MPs. Boris Johnson has described it as “crazy” and said that it would make it “very, very difficult to do free-trade agreements”. David Davis has stated that “some of the people proposing it know such an immensely complicated and untried arrangement is guaranteed to end in chaotic failure … at which point they will conclude that we have no choice but to re-join the fully-fledged customs union”. Jacob Rees-Mogg has described the proposed customs partnership as, “completely cretinous” and “a betrayal of sense”.
So even if the EU accepts the terms of the Chequers Agreement (a big if, given their intention to ensure the indivisibility of the 4 freedoms, but there are rumours of a ‘save Mrs May’ operation running out of Brussels) swathes of Conservative MPs are going to vote against it. Rank and file Conservative Party members are livid about the Chequers Agreement and this years’ Conservative Party conference could be the most divisive in its history. The divide over Brexit is deep and raw, for good reason. The Chequers Agreement is rubbish economics and even worse politics. The people who voted for Brexit didn’t vote for pseudo membership of the single market and customs union, but that is what they will get if Chequers goes ahead. And if Chequers is to get through the House of Commons the Government will be dependent on opposition votes, which could split the Conservative Party asunder. Moreover, even if someone did have the courage to rise up in the Commons and say “In the name of God go”, I’m not sure that she would. The Brexit timetable permits no time for a Conservative leadership race, unless Conservative MPs could ensure a coronation of one candidate, and it doesn’t look as though they can. What seems much more certain is that if Brexit turns into Brino (Brexit in name only) the electorate will respond at the next General Election with: “You are no Parliament”.
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