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Sat, 28 November 2020

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By Lord Garnier
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This age of ugly, divisive politics must come to an end

This age of ugly, divisive politics must come to an end
5 min read

A toxic political culture has MPs worried for themselves, their staff and their families. It’s hard to see the route back to a kinder, gentler politics. But we must all work together to find it, writes Tony Grew


It was Lord Hennessy who observed that the Queen is the only part of the constitution working to specification at the moment. Her Majesty's stability in the storm is comforting. Everything else is chaos.

We have seen the House of Commons consent to allow a backbencher take control of business. We have had a series of indicative votes, none of which commanded a majority. We have had a prime minister pledging to resign, but only if the Commons backs her withdrawal deal. This psychedelic parliament continues to defy expectations. Whatever the outcome of Friday's business, Brexit continues to devour parties.

The role of the Speaker has unsurprisingly been both praised and damned by MPs. It's fair to say he is freelancing, but what else is he to do? His decision to attack Greg Hands was undoubtedly a mistake. He does not command the support of a significant number of MPs, and in normal times that would be enough to end his time in the chair. These are not normal times. Speaker Bercow would no doubt argue that with an impotent government it must be for the House to decide the way forward. His argument is not bolstered by the increasingly partisan way he deals with MPs. Meanwhile, the government lurches along day by day, hour by hour. Even the pretence of collective responsibly has disappeared. We are in the worst mess any of us has ever seen. There is no comparable crisis. It stands alone.

The Commons appears to be fatally deadlocked. Perhaps a solution will present itself on Monday. If that does happen, the solution is as likely to be as divisive as the prime minister's withdrawal agreement and political declaration. It may also require a longer extension from the EU, which would infuriate some Tory MPs.

No deal is of course not just an option but the legal position if the Commons does not act to stop it. A second referendum would be divisive, may not produce a result much different than the 2016, and would most importantly of all be a huge failure of parliament. If MPs cannot resolve this issue, asking the people to do so would be a humiliation.

The obvious solution would be to dissolve parliament and call a general election. Would that solve the impasse? There are a number of issues with it. Firstly, the prime minister has already told colleagues she will stand down. Could she possibly lead her party in a general election under those circumstances? 'Back me and I promise to resign' seems like a curious election slogan.

Conservatives don't want Theresa May to lead them into an election. The procedure to trigger an early general election requires two thirds of all MPs to vote for it. We could conceivably have a situation where the PM tries and fails to garner that level of support, not because of Labour but because of her own MPs.

An election might possibly break the impasse, but what would the manifestos say? Would Conservative candidates be required to stand behind May's deal? Would Labour candidates be required to stand on a manifesto promising a second referendum?

Brexit has overtaken every other concern that MPs have. In the past week MPs have discussed launching a coup against the prime minister, proroguing parliament to get around the Speaker's ruling on meaningful vote three, offering to back the deal if there is a confirmatory referendum, walking out with no deal and many other things that in normal times would be fantastical.

One thing is clear. It's the fear. MPs are worried for themselves, their staff and their families.

Theresa May's comments blaming parliament for the impasse enraged many Members, but we don't speak often enough about the genuine fear it also stoked in MPs. Members have had to take additional security measures in their homes and offices. Anna Soubry is not the only MP to have received police advice not to return home alone. One MP revealed in confidence that his office on the parliamentary estate had been vandalised. Another revealed that the prime minister's speech made him "quite fearful for his safety" for the first time.

Our politics has become a dangerous place, more akin to a banana republic than a mature democracy. Brexit has poisoned the well. It's hard to see the route back to a kinder, gentler politics we are used to. But we must find it. We cannot continue with this toxic division, this targeting of MPs and this ugly, gleeful disrespect for those with whom we disagree.

Brextremists and Remoaners need to unite, detoxify the debate and move forward, otherwise our politics will be permanently broken.

***

You may have missed Matt Warman's adjournment debate last week. It was on bereavement counselling. MPs present were deeply moved by his speech. “27 is young to be an orphan in the western world. I struggled to admit it then and I struggle to admit it now, but I found it impossibly hard. I should have looked for help, because grief makes us all angry, irrational, upset and difficult,” he told the House. Minister Jackie Doyle-Price spoke of her pride in her friend. “He has shared his pain so we can all learn from it. That is the best of British.”

***

Clamjamfry. Mince. Bairn. Hee-haw. Stooshie. Scunnered. Bampot. Glaikit. Fankle. Stoater. Fuddery. Thrawn. Stookie. Fantoosherie.  Bahookie. Clusterburach. Guddle. These are some of the words that the SNP have introduced to Hansard since they became the third largest party in the Commons back in 2015. They have been compiled in a delightful short video posted on Twitter by audio engineer Sarah Mackie, aka @lumi_1984. We had sleekit from Neil Grey at the business question just last week. Say what you like about the SNP, but they have certainly expanded the vocabulary of the House in the last few years. 

 

Read the most recent article written by Tony Grew - A great reforming Speaker departs. The Commons will never be the same

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