These are great days in the House of Commons. The debate about Europe which has divided the country for so long is being fought out in the cockpit of the nation.
The news that the Commons has not yet resolved the problem should not be taken as a sign of failure. In due course a way forward will be found, if necessary after a new Commons has been elected.
And the Commons is not just there to be efficient. It is also there to ask awkward questions, and if MPs are not satisfied, to go on asking them over and over again.
But there is a fashion, after any setback such as the Government suffered yesterday, for saying how ridiculous our Parliament looks. Commentators like to dismiss its proceedings as farcical, and to claim, with a questionable grasp of history, that MPs have never been more despised.
The man in the saloon bar is at all times fond of declaring that politicians are “all the same” and “only in it for the money”.
And as a reporter, one may find oneself under a professional obligation to treat MPs as power-hungry maniacs who sell out their principles at the first hint of office. Such scepticism is no doubt healthier than an attitude of subservience.
Our idea of liberty has long been bound up with the right to be bloody rude to anyone with the slightest trace of self-importance. By dragging these jacks-in-office back down to our own level, we attain, or try to persuade ourselves that we have attained, the equality for which all democracies yearn.
And despite the current confusions, I feel proud of the Commons. It is having the necessary argument about Europe, and is conducting it better than the two sides managed during the EU referendum.
For Members of Parliament are obliged to regard each other as honourable.
When first heard, that word may sound like an obsolete courtesy, an archaic irrelevance. It possesses, however, a severely practical purpose. It means you cannot call your opponent a liar.
The trouble with calling people liars is that you cannot then have an argument with them. You commit yourself to the view that they are beneath contempt.
This may, at first sight, seem most damaging to whoever’s reputation is assailed. But it is in fact even more harmful to anyone who has a good argument to make.
For once you have no one to argue against, your brilliant arguments become pointless, and all you are left with is the hurling of insults, at which your opponent may turn out to be better than you.
It is lazy to hurl insults, and leave it at that. It spares one the trouble of making one’s case, or working out whether one has a case, or what its strengths and weaknesses are. How much easier to shout “traitor” or “liar”, like some twerp on Twitter.
This happened during the EU referendum campaign: each side hurled insults at the other, and the public learned nothing.
It happened also during the last presidential election in the United States. The New York Times set its fact checkers to work, and proved to its entire satisfaction that on a large number of occasions, Donald Trump had lied.
The newspaper demonstrated he was a liar, yet he won. Why was that? In part because it became impossible to admit that some of what he was saying – about the terms of trade with China, say, or the predicament of workers in America, or the state of the country’s infrastructure – contained an element of truth.
Calling him a liar became an excuse for dismissing everything he said, including the truthful bits. And his ability to hurl outrageously hurtful insults at his stuck-up, hypocritical, worker-despising liberal critics was of course greater, a more vivid and authentic performance, than their pompous, puritanical condemnations of him could ever be.
Now it is, of course, quite possible to talk nonsense in the Commons.
But although it is possible to talk nonsense, there is a penalty for doing so.
Other MPs soon notice that you talk nonsense. The House comes to know you as a crank, a spouter of claptrap, a specious evader of issues, a dullard who cannot even see what the issues are, a person of no consequence because you cannot frame a coherent argument.
Or it may come to recognise you as someone worth listening to, and arguing with. You hold the attention of the House because you speak with an authority founded on knowledge, experience and common sense, and have the ability to make complicated matters intelligible.
The editor of ConservativeHome asked me, as someone who has observed the Commons for about 30 years, whether we are learning anything new about what it can do, and about its capacities.
The straight answer to this question is that I do not know. But we are certainly being reminded of what the Commons is already able to do, which is to hold an argument.
“Ah yes,” the man in the saloon bar replies. “A mere talking shop.”
And the official mind, the Whitehall mind, is likewise resistant to the value of having an argument. It considers it an inefficient use of resources.
So too the management consultant, who claims a rational insight into how things should be run, and sees no value in allowing ignorant people to have their say.
But without a Parliament that challenges and corrects the official view, we cease to live in a free country. Here the issues are at length clarified, and we discover who is worth listening to, who is a waste of time.
Jeremy Corbyn has lost ground during the crisis. He was good for several decades as a gadfly, voicing inconvenient views from a far corner of the Chamber.
But once he became Leader of the Opposition it became clear that he cannot think on his feet, master a brief, present himself as a Prime Minister in waiting, or enthuse his backbenchers by making life difficult for the present Prime Minister.
Life has, however, become very difficult for her, in great part because she is such a limited performer at the Despatch Box. Yesterday’s failure is above all her failure. She is not persuasive.
The most important and inescapable function of any Prime Minister is to take the blame when things go wrong. Theresa May has demonstrated that she is not up to the job, which is why after less than three years in Downing Street she is on her way out.
Sir Robert Walpole, conventionally regarded as the first Prime Minister and described here by Lord Chesterfield, could not have remained in office for almost 21 years if he had not been an outstanding parliamentarian:
“He was both the ablest Parliament man, and the ablest manager of a Parliament, that I believe ever lived. An artful rather than an eloquent speaker, he saw as by intuition, the disposition of the House, and pressed or receded accordingly. So clear in stating the most intricate matters, especially in the finances, that while he was speaking the most ignorant thought that they understood what they really did not.”
May has been unable to rise to the challenge, but many parliamentarians have made or enhanced their reputations during this crisis. At the same time as the Commons has failed, it has been renewed.
Few people outside the English Bar or the West Country had heard of Geoffrey Cox before this started. Nor was Sir Keir Starmer’s name much known outside legal circles. Now they are spoken of as possible Prime Ministers.
It was a pleasure to listen to Sir Oliver Letwin (cries of “traitor” from the saloon bar) debating briefly, courteously, learnedly and lucidly with Jacob Rees-Mogg (is he now a traitor too?), Peter Bone, Kenneth Clarke, Hilary Benn, Sir John Redwood, Bob Seely, Pete Wishart, Kate Hoey, Gareth Snell, Margaret Beckett, Helen Goodman, Sir Patrick McLoughlin and many others on Wednesday of this week as he explained his proposal for the House to hold indicative votes.
Such debates are not held in some kind of vacuum. MPs are for the most part acutely aware of public opinion.
“Ah yes, they just want to save their seats,” the man in the saloon bar interjects.
That is indeed a consideration.
“And they just want to save their parties,” he adds, for he never waits to be asked what he thinks. “They couldn’t care less about the national interest.”
It is true that the parties wish to survive this crisis intact. But without parties, how could the country be presented, at the general election, with a choice of leaders? And is it not in the national interest for us to have such a choice?
From 1994, I lived in Germany, and watched Chancellor Helmut Kohl replacing the German Mark with the Euro. The Bundestag voted overwhelmingly for this measure, even though millions of ordinary Germans were strongly opposed to it.
This was a bad way to do things, and now places the German Government in a very awkward position. For it promised German taxpayers they would not have to subsidise the weaker members of the new currency.
For understandable historical reasons, the German political class feared being condemned as nationalist if it defended the national currency, proud symbol of post-war recovery.
It is inconvenient to argue about Britain and Europe for half a century, as our politicians have done. But it is also a sign of strength to be able to conduct this debate. To suppress the national issue would do more harm than good.
All great issues are difficult to settle, but the Commons needs serious – one might say perilous – issues to debate, or it becomes irrelevant.
In 1989, I was lucky enough to be in the Chamber to hear Sir Geoffrey Howe make his resignation statement. I remember coming out of the Press Gallery and looking at a colleague whom I knew to be a supporter of hers.
He said nothing, but there was no need for words. Dismay was written across his features. It was a devastating blow. Her own party was deserting her.
And that too had something to do with Europe. People sometimes make the facile assumption that our relations with the European Union can somehow be settled.
MPs are not immune to this illusion. They held the referendum on the basis that it would settle the matter. David Cameron believed the people in their wisdom would vote to stay in, and that would be that.
But the referendum hasn’t settled the matter, and it is foolish to imagine that anything can. There isn’t some perfect solution awaiting discovery by our inept and blinkered leaders. The argument about how to get on with our closest neighbours, while preserving our nation state, will continue long after we are all dead.