“This House has indulged itself on Europe for too long.” So said Theresa May at Prime Minister’s Questions.
She sounded like Oliver Cromwell dismissing the Rump Parliament: “You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately.”
Is this high-handed attitude towards the Commons the way to induce it to vote for her deal? Or will the Prime Minister just sound demagogic and dictatorial?
Clement Attlee said referendums were “a device of dictators and demagogues”, a view later quoted with approval by Margaret Thatcher.
Yet May now derives her legitimacy from the referendum result. She says the people who voted No in that referendum “deserve better than this House has given them so far”.
But whose task is it to bring the views of the House into harmony with those of the people as expressed in the referendum?
This is the Prime Minister’s task. She called a general election in order to obtain a House of Commons which would strengthen her hand in the negotiations required to bring about Brexit.
She instead managed to lose the slim majority her predecessor had won in 2015. The voters declined her invitation to turn her into an elected dictator. Her task became harder instead of easier.
And the Conservative Eurosceptics did not today accept her claim to be the true voice of the British people. Peter Bone reminded her that she had said 108 times that Britain will leave the EU on 29th March, and went on: “If you continue to apply for an extension of Article 50 you will be betraying the British people.”
On the other side of the argument, Kenneth Clarke, Oliver Letwin, Ed Miliband and Yvette Cooper were among those who demanded that the Commons be allowed to hold a series of indicative votes, in order to show what kind of deal can command a majority.
The Prime Minister looked isolated. Her accusation that the House has “indulged itself” struck a puritanical note. She, like Cromwell, is in the right, and is fed up with MPs who waste their time arguing about things.
It was almost as if she had given up trying to persuade anyone else, and just wanted to demonstrate to her own satisfaction that she is justified.
The House is perturbed and confused, and looked in no mood to follow May’s lead. It might yet come to the view that the Prime Minister has indulged herself on Europe for too long.
Either you do as I say, or I’m off. That was the self-righteous implication of her remarks, and of her letter today to Donald Tusk. And one wondered how many MPs will treat this as an incentive to do as she says.