a cri du coeur from the heartless ones

For three years, we remainers have held our breath. This is the moment our dreams may die
Jonathan Freedland, Groon, Oct 18 2019

It would be tempting to call this the moment of truth, had truth not been an early casualty of a Brexit saga that was mired in lies and deception from the very start. Even so the Brexit story, which has twisted and tormented this country for the last three and a half years, is at a moment of decision. Outside parliament, hundreds of thousands will gather to make one plea to stay in the EU, possibly the last one. Inside, MPs are due to vote on an agreement that will see us make the break in less than a fortnight, if it passes, thereby ending British participation in a dream that has animated Europe ever since the final bombs fell in 1945. Almost everything about this moment deserves either regret or condemnation. Forty months have passed since the referendum, but MPs will have little more than four hours to assess the new withdrawal agreement governing Britain’s departure from the EU. That’s barely time to read it, let alone debate and scrutinise it. To rush through a decision of such gravity is not the action of a country that is serious about its own future. That in itself is a good reason to support Oliver Letwin’s amendment, which would force the government to seek another EU extension and give everyone more time. Letwin’s prime purpose is to head off a bit of Spartan chicanery, making it impossible for the hardcore Brexiters to get round the Benn Act by voting yes on Saturday, only to vote down the withdrawal agreement later, thereby triggering a no-deal exit on Oct 31. What debate there is will be blind to the most crucial facts. The chancellor, Sajid Javid, has refused to provide an economic impact assessment of the deal, breezily insisting that any cost will be worth it because getting Brexit agreed will be “good for the fabric of our democracy.” The closest guide we have is an independent study, warning that the latest arrangements could reduce Britain’s per capita GDP by up to 7% over 10 years (compared with remaining), making this deal even more economically damaging than Theresa May’s. And yet it is being hailed as a great prize, and Boris Johnson lauded as a master strategist.

That is baloney. Once Johnson scrubbed out what had previously been a red line, no border in the Irish Sea lest that weaken the union of GB & NI, then of course the EU could offer some new options. That doesn’t make Johnson a negotiating genius. It just means he was ready to surrender a principle that for the leader of the Conservative and Unionist party should have been sacrosanct. If you’re buying a car and suddenly agree to give up on having back seats, the price will go down. That doesn’t make you a tactical mastermind: it just means you gave up on something you previously insisted was vital. News reports keep insisting that the backstop has gone, and Brussels is happy to allow that impression, but that too is false. It has become the “front-stop,” as one former Downing Street adviser puts it, meaning that what was once a contingency is now a certainty. In effect, NI will be in the ECU from day one, even if it officially remains part of the UK customs area. Credit to the negotiators for imaginatively finding that inch of space between de facto and de jure, and good for NI for retaining at least some closeness to the enormous market on the UK’s doorstep, even as the rest of the UK needlessly distances itself from it. Don’t blame remain-voting Scotland if it wants that too. In a telling slip, the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, told NI to cheer up and realise it was getting a “cracking deal” that would allow it to keep “frictionless access to the single market.” This rather highlights why this is a terrible deal for everyone else. Still, there’s no dressing it up. NI is being cut loose by the same Boris Johnson who less than a year ago was telling the DUP’s annual conference:

Any customs or regulatory distinction between GB & NI would damage the fabric of the union. No British Conservative government could or should sign up to any such arrangement.

How is this suddenly acceptable to today’s Tory party? A former minister sighs:

Because they don’t give a shit about NI and don’t care about the Union. Only Brexit matters now.

In return for their readiness to wave goodbye to NI, the Tory ultras are getting a harder Brexit than May ever offered. The new withdrawal agreement is replete with changes that will put ever greater distance between GB and our neighbours, measures that will “slash workers’ rights, environmental standards and consumer protections,” as Labour’s Keir Starmer rightly points out. It beggars belief that any Labour MP worthy of the name could possibly vote for it. The most wild-eyed Brexiters have spotted something else too. If they vote for this new agreement, they need only sit tight through the 14-month transition period and then, if no FTA has been sealed by the end of 2020, they’ll get the no-deal crash-out of their dreams. For that reason, and because there are pro-Brexit Labour MPs who reckon voting aye will bring only a mild slap on the wrist from a leader whose purposes it might suit to have Brexit out of the way so long as no one blames him for it, Johnson may just scrape home. If that happens, there will be many millions in this country who will feel nothing less than bereft.

Since 2016, remainers have often been rightly rebuked for failing to respect or even understand the sensibilities of the 17.4 million of their fellow citizens who voted to leave. But 16.1 million Britons voted to stay in the EU, and they have often been dismissed no less casually, whether rubbished as elitist “citizens of nowhere” or mysteriously excluded from “the people” whose will must be done. Yet they too are devoted citizens of this country, and, very soon, they may face a change that, to many, will feel like a grievous loss. For three and a half years, they have put off that moment of pain, hoping that somehow, Brexit might be averted, that their fellow Britons would change their minds and change course. Sometime on Saturday that dream could be over. For all the procrastination since 2016, it will feel quite sudden: Oct 31 is very near. They will contemplate a project whose importance to them, like so much in life, they didn’t fully appreciate until it was nearly gone. Yet in these last 40 months, often unheard amid all the noise about process, about meaningful votes and second referendums, they have come to value it very dearly. It is an ideal of cooperation across borders; of their country combining with its neighbours, rather than fighting against them, to face down shared threats, whether they be the climate crisis or the lethal recklessness of Donald Trump. In 2019, that idea seems more necessary than ever. Yet tomorrow it could all vanish. So forgive them if they shout themselves hoarse at those demos and rallies, or if they watch the Parliament channel through their fingers as they wait anxiously for the vote. They, and we, fear we are about to lose something very precious.

Rebel amendment defeat is yet another painful belly-flop for Boris
Polly Toynbee, Groon, Oct 19 2019

The prime minister nose-dives again, yet another painful belly-flop among the many in his 88 short days in power. He takes the same humiliating punishment he inflicted on his predecessor in order to snatch her seat: she was gracious, but you could see the inner smirk. Today he was stopped dead in his tracks from bulldozing an EU deal through parliament. An act that would cement Britain’s fate for decades to come was insultingly put to parliament without time for scrutiny, with no Treasury economic impact assessment, and its 553-page legal text only handed to MPs in the morning as the debate began. No wonder many, like Sir Oliver Letwin himself, who back the deal in principle, balked at signing up blindfold to such a pig in a poke with no time for deliberation. Will Boris Johnson refuse to send the letter asking for an extension, will he break the law? If so, the law will break him, again. If anyone was hoping for some great historic parliamentary moment, this was no resounding debate on the nature and future of Britain to ring out through the ages. Instead you could hear the flapping of pigeons coming home to roost to this house that had created such a disastrously flawed referendum. MPs never defined what Brexit meant, leaving it open to anything from the softest to hardest exit. Thoughtlessly, no threshold was set for how big a majority was needed to make such a monumental change. No one thought to require consent from all four nations. They were reckless about the constitutional consequences of the clash between the power of a plebiscite and the authority of representative democracy, fatally pitting people against parliament. Slapdash from the start, everything about a referendum cynically devised as a quick fix for Conservative party internal strife has returned to haunt them.

Boris Johnson richly deserves to become the next Tory leader to fail over Europe. His opening bid was shamelessly devoid of detailed exposition of what his deal will mean, neither technical enlightenment for anxious just-in-time traders and manufacturers, nor any illumination as to the future of Britain’s role in the world. All we had was his cloyingly bogus talk of “our European friends” from the man who has done most in his mendacious writings to lie to Britain about Europe. His thin, tawdry stuff did nothing to elevate the strange Tory Brexit obsession with any vision beyond a mere “getting it done.” In his wooing of MPs, his deception unravelled as he promised Brexit hardliners a rosy future of red-tape freedom and deregulation, while guaranteeing Labour defectors all EU rights would be preserved in perpetuity. Well-earned deep distrust from all sides will do for Johnson time and again. Here’s the curiosity of his position. He calls in MPs, beseeching them to change their minds: many have, one way or another, as circumstance and evidence changes. Why wouldn’t they? Both he and Theresa May swore blind no prime minister could ever permit a hard border to split Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, yet both now vote for exactly that. How so? Yet outside parliament hundreds of thousands marched and rallied to demand the public’s right to change its mind with a referendum to confirm any deal. The will of the people is no more immutable than the will of MPs. Indeed, only one poll out of 74 this year has found a majority for leaving the EU. In these three and a half years every one of us has found out much more about what Brexit means, yet Johnson calls it “undemocratic” to let voters express their changing will, as if people are frozen forever in that one minute on one fateful day in Jun 2016. Public mind-changing is illicit, yet he begs members of parliament to shift their deeply held opinions.

Though this was no great occasion, just another grinding turn of the Brexit wheel, honours went to Keir Starmer, calm, forensic, analytic and polite but deadly in his demolition of this deal and the damage in prospect. Ian Blackford, SNP leader in the Commons, was eloquent and rational in his proof that Brexit will mean the end of the union. Why, he demanded, is NI allowed to reap the benefits of staying in the ECU and single market when Scotland’s plea for that same treatment was dismissed out of hand? The fury of the DUP’s Sammy Wilson, from his remain-voting province, crying out, “We are cut off from the country to which we belong!” shows how far Tory MPs of little England no longer cherish the UK. Out of Europe, it becomes clearer by the day how diminished in size, status and sanity the remnants of the UK will be. As for the great Brexit rift, the marchers who poured in from all over the country called for the only hope for some resolution: the cure for a bad referendum on a nebulous abstract question is another one to set the question straight on a clearly spelled-out exit deal whose terms can be scrutinised. Leading MPs had to be escorted from parliament with police protection today, for fear of assault. Yes, it’s come to that. Parliament has failed, so the best use for the delay demanded by parliament on Saturday must be to ask the voters to decide for them.

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