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Please Parliament, step back from catastrophe

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Robert Evans

Back in 2015 anyone barmy enough to place a bet on a highly improbable three-card trick of a Donald Trump presidency, a Boris Johnson premiership and a no-deal Brexit could now be looking at a windfall to rival Jacob Rees-Mogg’s wealth.

The Moggmeister himself – a time traveller from Victorian Britain – may well be planning to stash away any winnings with his other investments, carefully removed from London to Dublin, far from the British taxman. Meanwhile, the rest of us will have to survey the collateral damage.

How have we arrived at a stage where a front-rank world nation is seriously contemplating an act of self-harm not seen since King Harold gave his personal protection-unit the push halfway through a tricky joust against the French in 1066?

Most of us know the answer. We have arrived at the brink of catastrophe as the result of a long litany of mistakes, rank political ineptitude and now constitutional chicanery.

The journey of the blunder-bus began when David Cameron needlessly called his referendum back in 2016 in a forlorn attempt to heal the rifts within the Conservative Party.  The poll exacerbated those divisions and opened the door for the hard right European Research Group to gain unprecedented and decisive influence. 

Careless of detail and the realities of hard politics, Cameron presented us with a referendum that was formally ‘advisory’, using that as a reason for the absence of a minimum threshold or a ‘supermajority’ – features that are standard practice in referendums in other countries.

This allowed just 37 per cent of the electorate and a majority of less than four per cent to be used by Brexiteers as a mandate for the biggest single change in the country’s constitutional and economic circumstances ever attempted at one go. A massive change for the worse.

In its wake, a vitriolic and polarised political environment has developed, splitting family and friends. People who had previously shown zero interest in politics now professed to be au fait with all the esoteric machinations of the European Union and to have discovered in their DNA an insatiable desire to take back an utterly illusory control.

The insipid 2016 Remain campaign didn’t help the situation. A botched job from start to finish, led by the wrong people with the wrong message — what could go wrong? In my home county of Bridgend complacency abounded, symbolised by an omnipresent army of UKIP campaigners while Remain campaigners were as rare as a Boris Johnson TV interview. 

The Leave campaign was full of catchy but meaningless sound bites and a false and flimsy vision for the future. Those who promulgated it skilfully manipulated the deep frustrations that had built up in those parts of the United Kingdom that felt left behind and disadvantaged.

The referendum done, nine months later on 20th March 2017 came the greatest political blunder of all, when 498 MPs voted to trigger Article 50 – even while knowing that the default position would be the crash-out catastrophe.  This single act lifted the curtain to reveal that the British government had done about as much strategic planning as a not-especially competent community council. 

Donald Tusk put it succinctly when he said there should be a “special place in hell for those who promoted Brexit, without so much as a sketch of a plan”.

The mistakes of the Theresa May Government could fill a political encyclopaedia but it’s worth giving a special mention to some of the most notable errors: the peremptory drawing of her red lines, the appointment of Brexit secretaries with the longevity of snowmen in June, and the failure to connect with the Commons, half her Cabinet and the public.

Such was the breakdown in Cabinet Government that the King of the Bungle, Chris Grayling, got scarcely a slap on the wrist for cumulative cock-ups that cost the taxpayer around £100m.

Only David Davis with his ‘the dog ate my homework’ approach to preparation and Dominic Raab, with his sudden realisation that Dover was a major ferry port, could begin to match the incompetence of “Failing Grayling”. May’s negotiating team could not have managed an agreement with pygmies to sell them longer spears.

And just when everything was going so badly, Theresa May decided to make things even worse, calculating that the electorate might actually warm to her and grant her a larger majority.

It left her relying on that most testy bunch of politicians, the DUP, bribing them with a billion-pound bung that went down in Wales and Scotland rather less well than an England World Cup win.   

While the Tories were rewriting the manual for incompetence in government, surely we could rely on Her Majesty’s Opposition to hold those in power to account? Wrong. Labour launched its own cacophony of chaos, elevating procrastination and prevarication to a fine art. 

Jeremy Corbyn took the hope out of hopeless, managing to become even more unpopular than one of the worst Prime Ministers in history, whilst simultaneously alienating most of his own party. Quite a trick.

With some notable exceptions, we have witnessed three years of dismal political leadership that has brought us to the edge of the biggest blunder in our recent history. And on top of all this, we are now faced with a political and constitutional outrage designed to push us even nearer, and quite possibly over, that edge.

This week the progressives of all parties put aside their reservations and their differences to agree on a common way forward embodied in the Church House Declaration. The aim, to stop a ‘no deal’ exit.

Faced with the real prospect of panic buying, food, fuel and medical shortages, the possible demise of our agricultural industry, even a recession with its massive economic and social costs, they signed. They took a decision to put the country first. They were right to do so.

Yet twenty-four hours later they were having to reassess their plans in the light of the Government’s outrageous scheme to bypass our own elected representatives and shut down any democratic control or influence for five crucial weeks.

It is almost incredible that a House of Commons in which a majority of its members voted Remain in 2016, and who still know that any Brexit is an inferior option, is now reduced to this – sidelined by a Government in which the lunatics have taken control of the asylum.

They know that a no-deal Brexit will hurt the weakest the most.  MPs from Wales know that the rich and privileged neo-liberals of the Tory party, kow-towing to Trump,   will not look after Wales. Kamikaze politics never works. No one voted for self-destruction. Let’s remain in the EU and reform it from within.

We must hope that our MPs, like us all, want to be able to look our children and grandchildren in the eyes – and themselves in the mirror – one day and say: ‘I did what was right for the country. I made the right call when the stakes were at their highest. I helped save the day for future generations.”

Are there enough of them? We must all hope there are.

Rob Evans is Chair of Bridgend for Europe • Penybont dros Ewrop