Tony Grew: To stand against Farage’s new politics, the Commons must first deliver Brexit
A chamber chasing its tail, too sluggish to fill the days, plays into the Faragist fantasy of parliament against the people. MPs need to take a hard look at themselves, writes Tony Grew
The Commons hasn't been at its best since its return from the Easter recess. Early finishes, multiple backbench, opposition and general debates and a notable lack of legislation have summed the past few weeks. It looks likely to remain the same until after the Whitsun recess.
The first week in June should see the Commons shaken out of its stupor. That is when the withdrawal agreement bill will have its second reading. It's a curious title for the bill, given that MPs can't even agree that we should withdraw. Even among those committed to leaving, there is a frustrating array of opinions on when and how we should do so.
Given that it is close to three years since the UK voted to leave, that can only be seen as a failure of politics, the Commons, the official opposition and the government. It is no surprise that the simplistic message of the Brexit party is resonating with many frustrated voters. Without wishing to pre-judge the outcome of the European elections, a victory for Mr Farage's manifesto-free candidates seems all but certain.
The lack of manifesto offered by the Brexit party is a worrying sign of what the future of our politics could look like if this Westminster farce continues much longer. The prime minister has wasted weeks negotiating with the Labour party to no effect. Why would Labour accept her assurances when she can't even control her own MPs? The objective of the cross-party talks has never been clear. We are told that they are constructive, yet nothing is being constructed. Keir Starmer has made clear that Labour will vote against the WAB at second reading unless there is a deal with Labour. Unless there is an unexpected breakthrough, the bill will fail to get Commons approval.
The plan B is a series of binding votes. If the bill fails at second reading and there is no definitive way forward from those binding votes, then we are back at square one. Even the most committed Westminster watcher is fatigued by this continued impotence.
'Even the most committed Westminster watcher is fatigued by this continued impotence'
The appearance once again of the Farage wolf at the door, sweeping all before him in the Euro elections, may be enough to convince a few Tory MPs back into the fold, but the DUP and their bedfellows in the ERG are characteristically unmoved. There may be a handful of Labour MPs prepared to vote for the WAB, but it will only be a handful. Those members convinced that a second referendum is the only way out aren't going to change their minds while impasse continues in the Commons.
MPs will block no deal, won't vote for the PM's deal and can't come to a consensus on the way forward. Whatever happens in the Conservative leadership beauty contest, the most likely scenario is the prime minister asking the EU for a further delay beyond October.
This is why Mr Farage's latest outfit is so dangerous for the two-party system that Westminster has held as an article of faith for centuries. The message is simple: betrayal. “The problem is this – the country very clearly wants us to stand up and be who we are," he recently told Andrew Marr. "Our political class do not believe in Britain. They simply don’t think we’re good enough to run our own affairs."
This is obviously nonsense, but to a frustrated electorate it makes sense. Those Westminster types aren't "real" like Mr Farage. There is no point arguing that he is a career politician, a member of the elite he rails against, a public-school boy who has never had a "real" job in his entire life. Politics has shifted. The 'new' politics is based on emotion in defiance of facts or objective reality.
The Trumpian nature of the new Farage plan is as plain as day. Who needs a manifesto? They are lies. In truth he has a point – no ordinary voter would bother to read a party manifesto anyway. Our timid old-style political institutions are exposed. The BBC can be dismissed as the enemy, the mainstream media's motives traduced, the old parties presented as a cartel, passing power between themselves.
The House of Commons has a chance to stand against this new politics, but first it must deliver Brexit. A chamber chasing its tail, too sluggish to fill the days, plays into the Faragist fantasy of parliament against the people. MPs need to take a hard look at themselves. They have created this crisis, whether through adherence to principles above pragmatism, or through a dishonest fantasy that a second referendum will produce a different outcome. MPs holding out for a hard Brexit or a people's vote may rue the day when the Farage wolf comes for their seats.
The new Hansard website is a wonder. It allows the user access to all sessions of Parliament since 1800 – catnip to parliamentary geeks. It also provides some surprising results. Anneliese Dodds recently used the word 'bricolage' – the construction or creation of a work from a diverse range of things that happen to be available –to describe the performance of HMRC. She used it again when talking about national insurance contributions. It turns out that she is in fact the only MP to use the word in the past 219 years. Finally, a new word that hasn't been introduced by the SNP contingent.
Andrew Stephenson described it as "the end of an era". Last week he had his last audience with the Queen as vice chamberlain of Her Majesty's Household. The wand of office has been presented to his successor Craig Whittaker. It's a curious job, the most eye-catching aspect of which is to write to the Queen about each day's proceedings in the House of Commons. The Vice Chamberlain is also held as a hostage in Buckingham Palace when the Queen comes to Westminster to open parliament – a reminder of the times when relations with the monarch weren't as friendly as they are today.