Everybody, calm down – Brexit still means Brexit

Image credit: UK Parliament
Image credit: UK Parliament

The Prime Minister suffered a defeat in the Commons last night, with eleven Tory MPs rebelling against the government and one abstaining in a key division giving Parliament the legal right to a “meaningful vote” at the end of the Brexit negotiations.

Some in the Conservative Party were sent into hysteria at this. Nadine Dorries transformed herself into something resembling a Momentum activist, tweeting: “They [Tory rebels] should be deselected and never allowed to stand as a Tory MP, ever again.” Stephan Hammond, one of the rebels, was sacked as vice chairman, which he used to paint himself as some type of noble martyr: “Tonight I put country and constituency before party and voted with my principles to give Parliament a meaningful vote.” Twitter was sent into meltdown, with some Brexiteers proclaiming the vote as a cynical attempt to overturn the result of a democratic referendum, and with Remainers delusionally sensing an opportunity to halt a process which 17.4 million Brits voted for only 18 months ago (Lord Adonis, for example, farcically commented: “First step towards defeat of Brexit”). Frenzy and overreaction prevailed over common-sense.

Such is the immense intensity, and emotionally charged nature, of current political discourse, that it is difficult for either side to retain any sense of perspective. Brexiteers are hypersensitive to minor parliamentary procedures and what they see as attempts to block Brexit from happening, whilst Remainers see, in any minor defeat or concession, signs that leaving the European Union will be apocalyptic, or can in fact be halted – ignoring the fact that more people voted to leave the EU than have ever voted for anything else in British history, with opinion polls indicating no change of opinion since June 2016.

The simple fact is, in practical terms, last night’s vote for ‘Amendment Seven’ changes absolutely nothing. Indeed, the government had already promised that Parliament would vote on the final deal struck with the European Union, and so this amendment merely translates this promise into a legal guarantee. And, crucially, this “meaningful vote” will not include the option of remaining in the European Union. After all, Parliament voted overwhelmingly, firstly to hold the referendum, and, secondly, to trigger Article 50 and thereby commence the irrevocable process towards leaving the EU in March 2019. And so, rightly, the final vote will move on from the ‘Remain-Leave’ debate – which has been settled, in Parliament, and, more importantly, the country – and, rather, an international treaty will be presented before MPs, which they can simply accept or reject. Is anybody seriously suggesting that those rebel MPs will vote against the Withdrawal Agreement, and therefore implicitly consent to the hardest of all Brexits, reverting to WTO terms? Such a prospect is ludicrous. Thus, whilst this defeat in the Commons is a personal embarrassment for the Prime Minister – particularly as she travels to Brussels today to meet EU leaders just hours after her loss – and serves to undermine her authority further, nobody can seriously argue that Brexit, or the negotiations, are in peril.  

It is difficult to remember a time in recent history in which politics has been so emotional, so tumultuous, so polarised. The result is that everybody, on all sides, has lost all sense of perspective; analyses have lost nuance. So, whilst it is, of course, right and reasonable to interpret this vote as a personal blow to the Prime Minister, let us not overstate the importance of events in the Commons last night. Brexit still means Brexit. 

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