Far be it from me to suggest that a cunning plan by Oliver Letwin might be missing its goal while producing harmful unintended consequences. But given the radical constitutional innovation involved, and the high stakes of the issue at hand, it’s worth taking a look at how it’s going so far.
We were told that this seizure of governmental powers by the Prime Minister In All But Name was carried out in order to pursue a specific objective: to find consensus in Parliament on a way forward. Either it would do so positively, by getting people behind a proposal, or negatively, by startling people into backing the Prime Minister’s proposed deal.
You might buy that, or you might wonder if at least some of those supporting it were actually out to obstruct Brexit entirely, but let’s take it on its own merits. How is that consensus going?
Well, evidently it hasn’t thus far produced agreement on any of the 17 (or more) alternatives considered under this regime, because all those which have been put to a vote have been defeated.
Worse, there are some signs that actually positions are hardening, on all sides of the House. On the Leave side, while some MPs have swung behind the Government’s position – however resentfully – we saw Richard Drax withdraw his support for the Withdrawal Agreement yesterday, and Steve Baker publicly confessed and renounced his own wobble towards the deal. Consensus drifts further away, not closer.
Nick Boles would describe himself as a soft Brexit advocate (though his critics argue his plan would amount to Remaining, intentionally or not). Nonetheless, two defeats for his “Common Market 2.0” proposal in the Letwin process have driven him first to threaten to start opposing May’s deal, and to quit his party outright. Another gust catches the sails and propels consensus out to sea.
On the Remain side of things, consensus is falling apart even within their position, never mind across the gaps between them and the Leave side of the House. Advocates of a second referendum – including TIG MPs, the Lib Dems and a chunk of the Labour Party – opted to vote against Ken Clarke’s customs union motion last night, and 33 pro-second referendum MPs abstained on Boles’s proposal. Recriminations have broken out; Stephen Kinnock lamented that while he had lent his support to a second referendum, the advocates of that approach had failed to reciprocate when it came to Common Market 2.0. The second referendum enthusiasts insisted that Boles and Clarke should add a second referendum onto their plans – an idea Clarke rejected on the grounds it would lose the support of other MPs.
In other words, all the demands for people to compromise seem to translate as everyone else compromising what they want to fulfil the wishes of whomsoever happens to be speaking at the time. The crusade for consensus enjoys extraordinary new processes, the arbitrary backing of a Remain Speaker, and an evidently quite anti-Brexit Commons overall, and yet the mood is becoming more fractious, not less. Remain MPs appear to be balkanising into angry subdivisions.
Might there be any other sources of agreement? Well, there’s a notable uptick in mentions of the only plan, aside from Article 50 itself, to have secured a majority in this whole process: the Brady amendment…