Brexit: twists and turns have led to one of the bloodiest weeks in British politics
The House of Commons has become a battleground worthy of depiction by an Old Master
By common consensus, the British parliament has been very good at deciding what it doesn’t want when it comes to Brexit – but is terrible at making choices about a way forward.
Prime minister Boris Johnson embarked on the endgame, having made a simple but brutal calculation: that he could bulldoze his way through to the Brexit deadline of October 31 by forcing an election to break the deadlock.
The forces consolidating against him were stronger than he wagered. That miscalculation has cost him the government’s majority and even the loyalty of his younger brother. Jo Johnson stepped down as a business minister, suggesting support for the prime minister clashed with his own misgivings about what was in the national interest.
It is now unlikely Mr Johnson will get the snap general election he demanded. The cost of his miscalculation is high and the consequences will be long-lasting.
In a week that saw one of the bloodiest political purges in British history, the fate of Nick Hurd was a bellwether.
Mr Hurd is hardly a household name but he is the type of politician who has been a linchpin of Conservative party rule. His decision late on Thursday to stand down as MP for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner is as significant as any other names lost to his party.
The middle-ranking minister is the son of Douglas Hurd, a former foreign and home secretary, and son-in-law of a former deputy leader of the party, Michael Ancram. He was the minister for policing under Theresa May and was appointed Northern Ireland minister by the current prime minister in July.
At a key juncture in the week, I observed Mr Hurd in the background as MPs were voting on the bill to outlaw a no-deal Brexit. It was a critical point at which members had proposed amendments that could radically change the shape of Brexit.
The Labour MP Stephen Kinnock had revived Mrs May’s thrice-rejected withdrawal agreement with the European Union by proposing a clause that stipulated another vote on the dead deal. Supporters cried “yes” – but there was silence when the deputy speaker asked for those voting “no”. The measure won by default.
At that point, Mr Hurd stood at ease with a shoulder resting on the speaker’s chair at the heart of the action. He was in lively conversation with Esther McVey, one of the most ardent Brexiteers among the Conservatives. There was nothing outwardly to suggest disenchantment on Tuesday. Two days later, Mr Hurd announced he was walking away from politics. His statement stressed the decision was personal not political.
The toll of the recent turmoil in British politics is looking irreversible after the events last week. It is little wonder that some of the toughest Westminster warriors are putting away their swords.
The House of Commons is a battleground subsumed by a roiling, feverish fight that has observers reaching for comparisons not just in recent memory but across centuries. The ancient procedures of the British parliament mean that it is a physical contest as well as a power struggle.
The scenes of chaos last week could easily be comparable to a dramatic moment captured in an oil painting by one of the Old Masters, such as when 21 Conservative rebels gathered on the government benches to back the no-deal bill in defiance of the party whip. That act of standing in unison with the opposition dearly cost the group, which collectively has more than 300 years’ experience in the chamber, with their expulsion from the Conservative party.
A caricaturist would have relished the rebel MPs using their right of audience to sit on the steps of the royal throne to watch the House of Lords beginning its deliberations on the bill.
There was a scene worthy of the pre-Raphaelite era of Jacob Rees-Mogg, the new Boris Johnson-allied leader of the house, languorously draped along the front bench. Mr Rees-Mogg hoped to convey a sense that the leadership was impervious to the plotting and scheming throughout the houses of parliament but instead managed to inspire a thousand memes mocking his nonchalance in the face of disaster.
Parliament was certainly a hive of conspiracy last week. Rounding one corner, I nearly collided with an elderly former cabinet minister and a (younger) ex-Conservative defector to the Liberal Democrats. The pair were locked in a discussion about campaigning tactics in a possible general election.
Surveys show a high level of interest among European audiences for news reports on the twists and turns of the ongoing Brexit drama in Westminster. The cliff-edge votes, resignations and set-piece speeches are making headlines around the world, although not always for the right reasons.
Britain is often described as a global soft-power superpower. Its football clubs, musicians and artists boast worldwide followings. It would be fanciful to suggest that its politicians have been elevated to the same league, not least because of the rate of career attrition.
Intractable wrangling is hardly unique to British politics. What is conspicuous is Mr Johnson smashing through so many rules and conventions in the political sphere in such a short time.
Damien McElroy is the London bureau chief for The National
Updated: September 7, 2019 08:25 PM