By Charlie Cooper
Politico Online – 31 January 2017
It took a battle in the courts for MPs to get their say on Brexit. But when it finally came, it hardly mattered.
The UK Parliament’s great Brexit debate, the opening scene in the process authorizing Prime Minister Theresa May to begin Britain’s divorce from the EU, began Tuesday and was best summed up by the Conservative MP Julian Lewis. A 20-year veteran of House of Commons debates, Lewis rose to add his words of wisdom to a long catalog of weighty orations by Parliament’s big beasts, from both Europhile and Euroskeptic wings of the House.
He stood, drew breath and proclaimed:
And with that, he sat down.
The debate was the closest thing to a foregone conclusion that British parliamentary democracy can conjure. There was plenty of sound and fury, as the fundamental divisions between those who wanted the U.K. to leave the European Union and those who did not, were played out once again. But, ultimately, as Lewis said, the people have spoken and it is politically unimaginable for either of the two big parties to be seen not to listen – so it signified nothing.
Nevertheless, there was an opportunity for Ken Clarke, the former Tory Chancellor and a veteran of the defeated European cause, to make a powerful speech that served to remind May and her ministers of how different things might have been — and how wrong things still could go … Clarke said he would vote – with his "conscience content" – against Article 50, on the principle that
"every MP should vote on an issue of this importance according to their view of the best national interest".
No doubt recalling that in the referendum an estimated 480 MPs backed staying in the EU versus 159 who backed Leave, Clarke ended darkly:
"I hope that the consciences of other members of parliament will remain equally content".
For the old warriors of the Euroskeptic cause, though, it was a day of triumph. Former cabinet minister John Redwood took Brexit to Arthurian heights as he called on MPs to vote for Article 50 to restore the
"once and future sovereign parliament of the United Kingdom".
As he waxed ever more lyrical, his fellow Tory, Alberto Costa, seated next to him, rose no fewer than five times to interject, narrowly avoiding a swipe from Redwood’s gesticulating right arm.
"Mr. Costa, I say to you gently that you should remember the merits of keeping a safe distance",
Speaker John Bercow advised helpfully. Jacob Rees-Mogg, known for his devotion to all things historic, reckoned that referendum day, 23 June 2016, would rank alongside the battles of Agincourt and Waterloo in
"the annals of British history".
Far more somber in tone was Labour’s Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer. If the debate revealed anything, it was the extraordinary challenge his party has faced in forming a coherent approach to Brexit. The vast majority of its MPs – and two-thirds of its voters nationwide – backed Remain. But most of its constituencies, as the New Statesman pointed out, had majorities for Leave.
"We have before us a short and relatively simple bill, but for the Labour Party, this is a very difficult bill",
Starmer began, prompting hoots of derision from the Tory benches. Difficult indeed. The party has already seen two frontbenchers resign rather than follow the party whip and vote for Article 50 and, on Tuesday evening, another – Clive Lewis, tipped as a future leader – said he would not vote for Article 50 at the bill’s third reading next week if Labour’s amendments are not accepted, a position that could cost him his job if Corbyn decides to impose another three-line whip in favor of Article 50 ahead of next week’s vote.
Labour was not the only party pulled in different directions by the competing claims of principle and the people’s will. Even the staunchly pro-EU Liberal Democrats faced what for them is a significant rebellion, with two of their nine MPs defying leader Tim Farron by indicating they will abstain on Wednesday’s second reading vote, rather than vote against Article 50.
Not that – as Julian Lewis so adroitly made clear in the briefest speech of the day – any of it matters. The Government is rightly confident that Article 50 will pass comfortably. But then, as the former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, a former MEP, grimly foresaw, the real task begins. The forthcoming negotiations, he predicted, will quickly get
"nasty and acrimonious".
"I have a great sense of foreboding",
he said, to harrumphing from Euroskeptics – and thoughtful silence from those less certain of where the unstoppable juggernaut that is Brexit will lead.