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UK government commits to not banging out of the EU unilaterally

In her speech to the House of Commons this afternoon, PM Theresa May promised a vote on March 13th to avoid a calamitous withdrawal from the European Union less than two weeks later:

Here's the relevant bit from Hansard:

As the Government committed to the House last week, we are today publishing the paper assessing our readiness for no deal. I believe that if we have to, we will ultimately make a success of a no deal. But this paper provides an honest assessment of the very serious challenges it would bring in the short term and further reinforces why the best way for this House to honour the referendum result is to leave with a deal. 

As I committed to the House, the Government will today table an amendable motion for debate tomorrow. But I know Members across the House are genuinely worried that time is running out—that if the Government do not come back with a further meaningful vote, or they lose that vote, Parliament will not have time to make its voice heard on the next steps. I know too that Members across the House are deeply concerned by the effect of the current uncertainty on businesses. So today I want to reassure the House by making three further commitments. First, we will hold a second meaningful vote by Tuesday 12 March at the latest. Secondly, if the Government have not won a meaningful vote by Tuesday 12 March, then they will, in addition to their obligations to table a neutral, amendable motion under section 13 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, table a motion to be voted on by Wednesday 13 March, at the latest, asking this House if it supports leaving the EU without a withdrawal agreement and a framework for a future relationship on 29 March. So the United Kingdom will only leave without a deal on 29 March if there is explicit consent in this House for that outcome.

Thirdly, if the House, having rejected leaving with the deal negotiated with the EU, then rejects leaving on 29 March without a withdrawal agreement and future framework, the Government will, on 14 March, bring forward a motion on whether Parliament wants to seek a short, limited extension to article 50, and, if the House votes for an extension, seek to agree that extension approved by the House with the EU and bring forward the necessary legislation to change the exit date commensurate with that extension. ... They are commitments I am making as Prime Minister, and I will stick by them, as I have previous commitments to make statements and table amendable motions by specific dates.

But let me be clear—I do not want to see article 50 extended. Our absolute focus should be on working to get a deal and leaving on 29 March.

The video includes all the derisive laughter from both sides of the house.

This, along with Jeremy Corbyn's about-face yesterday, means that there could actually be a second Brexit referendum:

There is now a real prospect of another referendum. Labour has committed to several parliamentary manoeuvres including one final stab at its own Brexit, which will certainly fail; another to support Yvette Cooper’s attempt to push no deal further into the realm of destructive fantasy, where it belongs; and a vote on an amendment demanding that any Brexit deal approved by the Commons must be ratified in a public referendum. In that public vote, Labour will campaign to remain in the EU.

“Sources” within Labour continue to deny this new reality, even as its senior frontbenchers have announced it. “It’s a disgrace,” one told me, “that unelected, unsourced voices are briefing against Labour’s frontbench.” “If they want to speak for the Labour party,” a staffer said, “they should stand for the Labour party.” The position as it stands now is not the seismic shift some suggest. It is a continuation of the policy adopted at Labour’s party conference last September. And credit for it belongs with the grassroots of the Labour party.

So, will the UK come back from the brink on Brexit? We'll find out in the next four weeks. 

Labour backs new Brexit referendum

In an unexpected twist, Jeremy Corbyn announced at a Labour party conference today that he supports a "people's vote" on the Brexit deal the UK Government worked out with the EU, and that hardly anyone in the UK agrees with:

In a statement, the party said it would “put forward or support an amendment in favour of a public vote to prevent a damaging Tory Brexit”.

Corbyn will tell MPs the party “cannot and will not accept” May running down the clock towards no deal. He will say EU officials and leaders in Brussels and Madrid found Labour’s alternative Brexit plan “serious and credible” and it could win support across the House of Commons.

“One way or another, we will do everything in our power to prevent no deal and oppose a damaging Tory Brexit based on Theresa May’s overwhelmingly rejected deal,” he said.

“That’s why, in line with our conference policy, we are committed to also putting forward or supporting an amendment in favour of a public vote to prevent a damaging Tory Brexit being forced on the country.”

Other news sources suggest that Corbyn's volte face came about after the resignations of 9 MPs from Labour last week.

The next Commons vote on Brexit will take place March 12th, according to sources in Parliament, giving the Government only two weeks to react to another rejection before crashing out of Europe. With both Corbyn and May playing chicken with the British public, I can only wonder when the next election will happen.

Labour's Love Lost

Seven Labour MPs quit the party today, accusing the party and its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, of anti-Semitism and mishandling Brexit:

At a morning news conference, Parliament member Luciana Berger said she had become “embarrassed” and “ashamed” of the Labour Party, which she said was “institutionally anti-Semitic.” Berger, who is Jewish, added she was leaving behind a culture of “bullying, bigotry and intimidation.”

Chris Leslie, another breakaway lawmaker, said the party had been “hijacked by the machine politics of the hard left” and that Labour’s “betrayal on Europe was visible for all to see.” While many Labour party members support a second referendum on whether to leave the European Union, Corbyn has been cold to the idea of a do-over.

Leslie said, however, that “our differences go far deeper than Brexit” — revealing the depth of antipathy to the 69-year-old Corbyn, whose self-described “radical” agenda for Britain energized new and young voters in the last election, but has alienated the center of the party.

“The last three years have confirmed how irresponsible it would be to allow this leader of the opposition to take the office of prime minister of the United Kingdom. Many people still in the Labour Party will privately admit this to be true,” Leslie said.

The Guardian, generally a Labour-supporting newspaper, has more:

In the short term the group has one central task – to convince 29 more disgruntled MPs from any party colour to join their group. That would give them official third party status – overtaking the SNP and access not just to more short money but also a prized guaranteed slot for the group’s leader at every PMQs, replacing the SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford.

The group will meet later this week to decide how to structure their group – which could involve a process for selecting a leader. Much of the future will depend how many more MPs join them.

At the moment, all members of the new grouping are supporters of a second referendum. Yet sources suggested this would not necessarily be a prerequisite forever. Members of the group would hardly admit it in public, but there may come a point in the next few months when it becomes apparent that that campaign has failed and the group’s aims for the next phase of Brexit become more flexible.

This really is an interesting period for the West. Fifty years from now it will be a lot clearer whether the 2010s represented the beginning of a realignment in Western politics, or just a scream of frustration from people who feel left out. Right now, though, it feels a little chaotic, and it's a gift to those, like the Russian and Chinese governments, who have always wanted to discredit our political philosophy.

Everyone's talking about John Bercow

As I noted last week, John Bercow MP, the Speaker of the House of Commons, has exercised more control over the Brexit debate in Parliament than previous speakers would have dared. Today, Parliament votes on amendments to the Brexit deal that could radically change its outcome, and Bercow is the one choosing which amendments, and which MPs, get heard. The Guardian has a podcast going even more into the details. And yesterday, the New Yorker brought the issue to the smart set:

On Thursday, I spoke to Vernon Bogdanor, a visiting professor of government at King’s College London, who is one of Britain’s leading constitutional scholars, about Bercow. “I think he has damaged the role of the Speaker,” Bogdanor told me. “Every other Speaker in living memory has been scrupulously neutral, never been accused of any partisanship. He is the first.” Next week, the pressure will increase further. Bercow’s every call will be scrutinized. On Tuesday—the next big day in Brexit—the Speaker has to choose six amendments from M.P.s, which will set the course of the drama for the coming weeks. Another plot among rebel M.P.s, who are searching for a cross-party solution to Brexit, is to suspend the rule that gives the government’s agenda priority in the House of Commons. If Bercow allows that, it would probably be the most dramatic act by a Speaker since William Lenthall defied King Charles I, who was trying to arrest five M.P.s, in January, 1642—and that helped set off the First English Civil War.

One of the saddest, and most maddening, aspects of Brexit has been the timidity of many British politicians to speak their mind about what is happening to the country. Neither Theresa May nor Jeremy Corbyn has ever said—or is likely to say—that leaving the E.U. will be positive for Britain’s health, wealth, culture, or well-being. It is both shocking and not surprising that one of the only people who really isn’t allowed to have a point of view about Brexit seems determined to express it—and that isn’t helping, either.

The votes are underway at this writing. I'll have more later today or early tomorrow, and some analysis of tomorrow's PMQs.

The Rt Hon John Bercow MP, Defender of Parliament

The Times provides a bit of colour about the Speaker of the House of Commons, who earlier this month broke precedent to force the Government to accept more control from Parliament:

The outside world rarely takes much notice of the speaker of the House of Commons, a nonpartisan and typically low-profile figure who presides over parliamentary debates. But Britain’s last-minute paralysis over exiting the European Union, or Brexit, has made Mr. Bercow into a kind of celebrity.

With less than 10 weeks left before the country is set to leave the bloc, he has broken precedent by wresting some control over the Brexit decision-making from Prime Minister Theresa May, allowing Parliament to act to stop the country from leaving without a deal.

This has won him the admiration of Europeans — a French radio station named him “European of the Week.” Clips of his signature cry, “Order, Order!,” have gone viral on social media.

“From a political geek’s point of view, it was pretty astonishing,” [said Bobby Friedman, the author of a biography of Mr. Bercow] of Mr. Bercow’s decision. “He said, ‘I’ll do what I like.’ If anyone else was speaker, it would have been incredibly surprising. With him, not particularly.”

Bercow is quite amusing to watch as he castigates members of all parties for, among other things, “chuntering from a sedentary position ineloquently and for no obvious purpose.” Watch PMQs any week; he's as much of a character as either the PM or the Leader of the Opposition.

He has signaled that he will step down sometime this year.

We've already seen what happens when the UK leaves abruptly

Author Pankaj Mishra thinks Brexit may be comeuppance for the British ruling class. Exhibit 1: Indian Partition:

Describing Britain’s calamitous exit from its Indian empire in 1947, the novelist Paul Scott wrote that in India the British “came to the end of themselves as they were” — that is, to the end of their exalted idea about themselves. Scott was among those shocked by how hastily and ruthlessly the British, who had ruled India for more than a century, condemned it to fragmentation and anarchy; how Louis Mountbatten, accurately described by the right-wing historian Andrew Roberts as a “mendacious, intellectually limited hustler,” came to preside, as the last British viceroy of India, over the destiny of some 400 million people.

Britain’s rupture with the European Union is proving to be another act of moral dereliction by the country’s rulers. The Brexiteers, pursuing a fantasy of imperial-era strength and self-sufficiency, have repeatedly revealed their hubris, mulishness and ineptitude over the past two years. Though originally a “Remainer,” Prime Minister Theresa May has matched their arrogant obduracy, imposing a patently unworkable timetable of two years on Brexit and laying down red lines that undermined negotiations with Brussels and doomed her deal to resoundingly bipartisan rejection this week in Parliament.

Mountbatten, derided as “Master of Disaster” in British naval circles, was a representative member of a small group of upper- and middle-class British men from which the imperial masters of Asia and Africa were recruited. Abysmally equipped for their immense responsibilities, they were nevertheless allowed by Britain’s brute imperial power to blunder through the world — a “world of whose richness and subtlety,” as E.M. Forster wrote in “Notes on the English Character,” they could “have no conception.”

From David Cameron, who recklessly gambled his country’s future on a referendum in order to isolate some whingers in his Conservative party, to the opportunistic Boris Johnson, who jumped on the Brexit bandwagon to secure the prime ministerial chair once warmed by his role model Winston Churchill, and the top-hatted, theatrically retro Jacob Rees-Mogg, whose fund management company has set up an office within the European Union even as he vehemently scorns it, the British political class has offered to the world an astounding spectacle of mendacious, intellectually limited hustlers.

And yet, here we are, 10 weeks from Brexit with no plan and no likelihood of one. I hope on Her Majesty's petticoats that they hold another referendum and stop this from happening.

May lives to fight another day

No one really thought the UK government would collapse today (though it should have), but only because the norms of British politics have collapsed instead:

Theresa May has comfortably won the no confidence vote, by 325 to 306 - a majority of 19. The vote came after a debate which saw Jeremy Corbyn accuse her of leading “a zombie government”. And Tom Watson, the deputy Labour leader, closed the debate with a powerful speech saying May does not “possess the necessary political skills, empathy, ability, and most crucially the policy, to lead this country any longer”.

Opposition party leaders have refused an invitation from May to join her for talks about an alternative approach to Brexit until she abandons some of her red lines. After the vote May said she would like talks to start tonight. But Corbyn and the Lib Dems said they would not engage with her until she ruled out a no-deal Brexit. And the SNP said she would have to be willing to discuss extending article 50 and holding a second referendum before they agreed to participate.

This was PMQs today:

Confidence

After lying to nearly everyone about how easy the UK leaving the EU would be, pro-Brexit members of the Conservative Party have forced a no-confidence vote against Prime Minister Theresa May for negotiating a realistic deal with Brussels. She'll win; but as Conservative MP Simon Hart has said, "I think it’s a really strange time to be trying to depose somebody right at the final stages of the most complicated negotiations the country’s ever been involved with."

The Guardian has more:

Downing Street has dropped a heavy hint that Theresa May would not seek to lead her party into the next general election, even if she wins Wednesday night’s confidence vote.

As May embarked on a series of face-to-face meetings with her backbench colleagues in a bid to secure their backing, a spokesman said: “She does not believe that this vote, today, is about who leads the Conservative party into the next election – it is about whether it is sensible to change the leader at this point in the Brexit process.”

In a statement outside No 10 on Wednesday morning, May vowed to fight for her colleagues’ support “with everything I’ve got” – and warned that overthrowing her could hand the keys of Downing Street to Jeremy Corbyn.

“A change of leadership in the Conservative party now would put our country’s future at risk and create uncertainty when we can least afford it,” she said. “A new leader wouldn’t be in place by the 21 January legal deadline, so a leadership election risks handing control of the Brexit negotiations to opposition MPs in parliament.”

The next general election is not formally due until 2022, under the Fixed Term Parliament Act; but with MPs deadlocked over the best way forward for Brexit, the likelihood of a fresh general election is increasing.

That's one of the best things about the UK constitution, in my book: they can change governments any time they need to. That said, from my perch 6,000 km from Westminster I have even less confidence in Jeremy Corbyn than in May, which is sad because I generally support Labour over the Tories.

Someday we're going to have much more solid evidence of outside (read: Russian) interference in Western politics. Today, though, we have to deal with half the Tories and half of Labour living in alternate realities from each other and from the majority of Britons.

Where are the feminists for May?

Why is a white, gay, male, naturalized American the only journalist I have come across saying Theresa May deserves a lot more credit for persisting in the face of unrelenting male hostility? Sullivan:

I don’t know how else to describe Theresa May’s grueling slog toward the least worst Brexit possible.

The awkward prime minister is still standing upright, though maybe not for much longer. In this respect, I’m surprised more feminists haven’t come to May’s defense. May’s bourgeois Toryism, like Margaret Thatcher’s, doubtless disqualifies her from any respect from the left. But her tenacity in the midst of male obloquy is emblematic of many themes American feminists focus on.

May, after all, is taking responsibility while her male colleagues posture and preen and complain or resign; she gets almost no credit for negotiating one of the more complex international deals in British history for two demoralizing years; she works harder than anyone else in her government; and the deal she has struck is almost certainly the only one the E.U. will ever accept. A woman, in other words, got the toughest job in government in decades, did the best that could be done, has been pilloried for it, but still plowed on, and even now, won’t surrender. Her pragmatism and resilience — along with remarkably good cheer in public — are a wonder to behold. I guess May’s feminism, like Thatcher’s, requires no labeling.

Yes. Brexit is pathologically stupid; yet May has to make it work. She'll probably be out of office by March, of course, leaving the hard work up to someone who hasn't got the tools to get it done. Oh, England.