There is nothing worse in politics than a failed assassination. Behind Brexit, it is simple to see the catastrophic consequence of former British prime minister David Cameron’s decision to roll the dice again, for a plebiscite on European Union membership, after a previously narrow escape on Scottish independence.
Another miscalculation looms almost as large, and that is Theresa May’s calling of a general election in June 2017, a year after Cameron’s disastrous referendum. The referendum was a fundamental mistake. An unnecessary election ensured that the consequences played out in the worst of all possible circumstances.
The Fixed-term Parliaments Act, 2011, decanted the lot into a political straitjacket. It allows turkeys to vote, without any prospect of Christmas. It removes the threat of real consequences, and the reality of fear, without which effective parliamentary discipline is impossible. When Mr Speaker rose from his chair in the House of Commons, at 3.33pm on Monday, and made his statement, it was the failed assassination attempt that flashed back. Although John Bercow’s ruling then, that, “A motion or an amendment which is the same, in substance, as a question which has been decided during a session, may not be brought forward again during that same session” is only the latest in a litany of whatever can go wrong, will go wrong on Brexit, it has context.
One context is timing. We are only nine days away from Brexit. If a week is a long time in politics, there are grounds to be nervous now. A second context is the ongoing consequence of the worst of all circumstances, already described. Attempts to work a solution are hampered by parliamentary numbers caused by an unnecessary election, in a fixed-term parliament where logical consequences do not follow from irresponsible actions. A third context is the astonishingly poor relations, indeed any relations at all, between the government and the speaker.
It is a government, after all, that notoriously tried, but stupidly failed, to decapitate him in the final hours of the last parliament. If accusations of politicisation of the speaker’s office are two-a-penny in Brexit-leaning British media now, the failed parliamentary putsch of March 25-26, 2015, was the start of it. Without notice, and without telling the chairman of the relevant committee on privileges, Charles Walker MP, in the person of the leader of the House, William Hague, tabled a motion on March 25, 2015, to ensure that the next speaker would be elected by secret ballot.
This was to do-in Bercow. On the 26th, in the last hours of the last day of that parliament, the government got its answer, which was a bloody nose. Conservative backbenchers rebelled as it emerged that then chief whip Michael Gove played Baldrick to Hague’s Blackadder. The former, in speaking several times over the previous day to Wilson, had never told him that a matter central to his committee’s remit was to be discussed practically without notice, as parliament literally packed its bags.
In gaucheness and incompetence, it was a cack-handed manoeuvre and it heralded all that came later. It ended whatever sort of informal relations should exist between Speaker’s House and 10 Downing St. Looking at a clearly emotional Bercow stare down his would-be executers on the government bench, as a raucous House of Commons came to his defence by 228 votes to 202, in 2015, it presaged the sight of a visibly older speaker, four years later, deliver the coup de grâce on Monday afternoon. He is a man who knows how to keep his powder dry.
It is an open question as to whether Bercow is being selective in the application of his discretion. What is unquestionable, however, is that his intervention on Monday was the most dramatic conflict between the executive and the legislature since Charles I entered the House of Commons in 1642 with troops to arrest five members but left empty-handed, since, in the king’s words, “I see the birds have flown”.
The backdrop to the attempted arrest was the king’s fear that puritan parliamentarians were fermenting a Scottish Presbyterian invasion of England. The counter conspiracy was that the king had an Irish army on standby to subdue the kingdom. In the immediate aftermath of the 1641 rebellion here, and its massacre of Protestants, that was both a credible and an appalling accusation.
If those comparisons seem more comedy than reality, there is a core point that is identical. Looking at the House of Commons on Monday, and recalling the scope of issues in 1642, is to see two points in British history — the intertwined story of three kingdoms — when the centre couldn’t hold. In understandably being caught up in the specificity of events, we can miss the underlying currents. The ultimate issue, enormous though it is, isn’t if the UK leaves the EU, it is whether there will ultimately be a United Kingdom after Brexit. In a timeframe I cannot anticipate, Scotland will come into play again.
Whatever about the ultimate slow turn of demographics in Northern Ireland, or even a quickening of the pace because of Breixt, there would be little logic overall for the rump of a union between England and Wales and Northern Ireland.
There would be precisely none in any calculation from a specifically English treasury. It is this reality — both the opportunity and the responsibility of a united Ireland — in our lifetime, that underlines the stupidity of Sinn Féin hawking a decades-old banner reading “England Get out of Ireland” at New York’s St Patrick’s Day parade. It harks back to a “burn everything except their coal” era, at a time when we desperately want them to buy our beef. It foolishly risks a constitutional dishevelment, where six of the 32 counties may suddenly be deprived of what is now British gold, because what may become specifically England won’t part with it. That is not to speak of gratuitous disrespect for the unionist tradition, which mirrors exactly what Sinn Féin most vociferously accuses the DUP of. We will see in Brussels tomorrow night what we learn about an extension to Article 50: on what terms and for how long. Brexit was always going to the wire. What wasn’t expected is that the wire is barbed, and the approaches booby-trapped.
What is now abundantly clear, however, is that carelessness can have appalling consequences. In Cameron’s government, for the first time since Harold Macmillian’s in the 1950s, you had a reprise of the Duke of Wellington’s boast that “the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton”. The grandeur was palpable.
So was the nonchalance. It was colossal affectation. The only truly satisfying moment Theresa May had as prime minister was sacking George Osborne, who was probably the only one in that lot with outstanding political capacity. But he had disrespected her, and had to be dispatched. And so it is, as in Dante’s Inferno. The only pleasure for the demons is in tormenting one another.