Pandora's box

20 October 2010

There was a moment on Saturday afternoon when I got the willies. I saw nothing but an abyss before us. Let’s give Letwin the benefit of the doubt as to his principled reservations about Boris’ intentions. And let’s grant that principled Remainers did not disgrace themselves by falling upon his amendment as a yet another device to delay, frustrate or wreck the process of departure. It’s fair enough that they should be holding out for a change of heart on the part of the public, reinforced by the coincident million or so in Parliament Square. In their hearts, however, they must know they are playing a dead bat with the demo at odds with the public mood: ComRes’ poll of 26,000 adults taken between 2 and 14 October shows that 54% of the public want the UK to abide by the referendum result and leave the EU, regardless of the way they voted in the 2016 Referendum; and that there is a decisive majority of 50% leave vs 42% remain.

And here’s the thing: regardless of their private principles, MPs are close to creating a constitutional vacuum. They won’t permit any kind of resolution, neither letting the Government conduct its business, nor agreeing upon an alternative Government from the current crop of Parliamentarians, nor allowing the election which might resolve the matter. This is a Pandora’s box which - as the ancients warned us - may be expected to give rise to pandemonium.

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Now others will fill the vacuum. The first example is Boris’s disingenuous approach to the Benn Act. This enables his antagonists to reinforce the story that his unreliability vindicates further devices to delay, frustrate or wreck his programme. But what else could he do in the face of the unprecedented Commons machinations? Now he will find himself back in the Scottish Court where remedies are said to exist by way of other Government officers writing the Benn Act letter as plaintiffs prefer it. Were the Courts to accept this (and we’ve seen they’re in an interventionist mood), it would trigger a definitive constitutional crisis, that is several bodies in contention for the exercise of legitimate power. Does this place the Government in denial, proposing to revisit the Commons on Monday or Tuesday, when its very legitimacy may be coming into question? Me, I’d see such attempts as the best route to an orderly outcome, but they could come badly adrift.

There are other moving parts, too many for conclusive capture. The position of the EU is unclear: how seriously do they take Boris’s ambiguous extension request? what are their own inclinations? We may surmise that they are impatient and frustrated, but where do they see the balance of risk? Silence may concentrate the minds of British Parliamentarians but runs the risk of no-deal on 31 October. Assent - early or eventual - to an extension offers the possibility of an orderly resolution through a British election or referendum, but the polls deny a return to the European fold. I’m guessing they’ll dither and then - if the Brits don’t perform this week - extend.

Back home, the Speaker may rule revisiting Boris’ revised WA out of order. I’d discount this, as the Government’s Parliamentary officers ought to be able to muster an argument and the Commons’ mood is to revisit the matter. (Twenty-four hours later this is revealed as a poor call as the Speaker knocked it back!) The Opposition is going through its own private agony of attaching a referendum amendment. This seems inevitable, with the spectacle of squirming Labour MPs no compensation for the increased uncertainty the amendment presents. The DUP is hinting that it may throw in with this rather than allowing the deal through. No-one should disregard their justified feelings of betrayal.

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I have got over the worst of my funk from Saturday afternoon, but I still see only a disagreeably narrow path for an orderly resolution. If the Courts bring the Government’s legitimacy into question; if Parliament continues to decline a decision or an election; if either side takes its incitements beyond a threshold which no-one can identify for sure, but which comes closer with every provocation; well the ancients warned us of the demons which break loose from Pandora’s box. A final note from the past. The senators of Rome spoke of themselves as “conscript fathers”, in token of the responsibility which they understood themselves to bear. Would it be out of order to hope for such seriousness of purpose from the House of Commons?