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Crossing the Rubicon

February 10th, 2019

For reasons I need not go into now, a few years ago I had occasion to go on a stag weekend to Barmouth in west Wales. What happens in Merionethshire stays in Merionethshire, but one dramatic incident is worth recounting.

A fair amount of liquor had been consumed on the Saturday night, and some offence had inadvertently been caused to a young member of a different group of young men. Voices were raised, chests were puffed out. The young man, no doubt under the influence of a heady cocktail of alcohol and testosterone, whipped out a knife and shouted: “I’m going to stab you through the heart”.

He’d chosen the wrong man to try to daunt. The threatenee was a police sergeant and calmly replied: “You’re not going to stab me through the heart. You’re not going to stab me at all.  If you were going to, you’d have done it.” He was right too.

As the deadline of 29 March 2019 for Brexit approaches, we have heard similar outwardly-threatening noises from two groups of self-esteeming politicians. Greg Clark and Richard Harrington are both threatening to resign from the government if no-deal Brexit is not ruled out. Owen Smith, when asked if he intended to quit the Labour party over its prevarications on Brexit, said: “I think that’s a very good question”.

Neither group is emerging from self-imposed silence. Their concerns have trickled out through the media for a year or so. None of them have actually done anything about those concerns though.

There has always been a reason to delay. Conservatives opposed to no-deal waited to see whether the negotiated deal would pass. When Theresa May delayed the vote by a month, they bided their time. When it was eventually defeated in January, with no changes from the version previously put forward, they waited to see whether Theresa May would be able to secure further concessions.  

Though she did not, they deferred breaking with the government when she promised that there would be a further opportunity to vote against no deal, and waited to see whether her meaningless fudge could result in further concessions from the EU. It did not, though the EU has promised to continue discussions for another three weeks.  

Next week Parliament will vote again on the exit terms. Theresa May will again play for time, arguing that the negotiations must be allowed to be seen through. As can be seen from the tweet above, however, there is not the slightest sign of movement from the EU that will allow the majority that Theresa May wishes to construct to be built.

Hopping across to the red side of the fence, ardent Remainers have been similarly procrastinating.  Jeremy Corbyn has not committed to support a fresh referendum. At every stage he has found reasons to oppose the government’s proposals without meeting the wishes of the 90% or so of members who want to revisit the original decision to leave the EU.

His latest gambit this week was to write to the Prime Minister setting out the terms on which he could support a deal to leave the EU, terms which as he well knew were impossible for her to accept. Next week offers another opportunity for those who want to turn back to seek to change the course of events.

For both of these groups, time is running very short indeed. They will no doubt both be assured by their respective leaders that there will be further opportunities.  Yet neither leader has the track record for their assurances to reassure convincingly. Sooner or later both of these groups are going to have to decide whether there is a hill that they are going to stand and fight on. Now is the time. Otherwise, they will find that the decision has been taken out of their hands.

Both groups may well feel that the odds are against them and they may well both be right. Prudence will always dictate caution. Here, however, there is – unless an active decision is taken – a fixed timetable. Later will eventually become too late.

Theresa May understands the game. She is doing everything she can, in the face of the clearest evidence, to lull and gull her MPs into biding their time. It has worked amazingly well.

Her partner in the conspiracy of silence, Jeremy Corbyn, has been less adroit, being forced to use his acolytes on social media to face down a slowly building wave of discontent. His personal ratings have plumbed new depths. He has kept both Brexit wings of his party on board but at the expense of ruining his own reputation.

He has a different problem too. The MPs who don’t trust him on Brexit don’t trust him on a whole load of other fronts either. Many of them are also at loggerheads with their local constituency party members too. If these MPs think that they are going to be deselected, they will feel that they have nothing to lose.  

It is barely remembered now but a large part of the impetus for the founding of the SDP was exactly this: MPs jumping before they were pushed. Is history about to repeat itself? Perhaps. Don’t count on it. To date, they’ve been all talk and no action. If not now, when?

Alastair Meeks