Expletives, Rebels and a Walkout: Brexit Sours U.K. Parliament
(Bloomberg) -- Brexit is having a dramatic effect on Britain’s Parliament, even considering its centuries of colorful and eccentric politics.
It began on Monday, with Prime Minister Theresa May making a veiled sex joke about Donald Trump and Justin Trudeau while updating lawmakers on a disastrous Group of Seven summit. Laughter ensued, with a member of Parliament yelling, “Kiss, marry?”
But the atmosphere turned uglier when the topic got to leaving the European Union, laying bare the deep divisions in May’s increasingly dysfunctional Conservative Party. Tuesday kicked off with the shock resignation of a junior minister, Phillip Lee, on a day of crucial votes on the key Brexit legislation.
“I cannot, in all good conscience, support how our country’s current exit from the EU looks,” Lee said. “A vote between bad and worse is not a meaningful choice.’’
As the marathon session of Brexit votes got underway, one lawmaker talked of members of Parliament receiving death threats.
“One of our number had to attend a public engagement with six armed undercover police officers,” said Anna Soubry, a pro-EU Tory and one of the party’s most prominent rebels. She went on to criticize lawmakers and even government ministers demanding “private meetings where they lay bare their despair, but refuse to go public.”
It wasn’t only Remainers the police were worried about. Hours earlier, uniformed officers guarded the room where Arron Banks, the millionaire who bankrolled the Leave.EU campaign, was lashing out at lawmakers for what he called a “witch hunt” against him meant to reverse the referendum result.
“I’m frankly sick and tired of this,” Banks, one of the self-described “bad boys of Brexit,” told a parliamentary committee investigating the influence of fake news on Britain’s democracy. “The reason I went into the referendum was I have a different version of what the future of this country is. I respect your right to disagree with that and I know that you’re all Remainers, you have a vested interest in trying to discredit the Brexit campaign.”
Back in the Commons, May was facing a potentially devastating defeat at the hands of pro-EU colleagues. Their informal leader, Dominic Grieve, was in open negotiation with Robert Buckland, in effect the government’s lawyer, on what it would take to make the rebels back down. Those talks had been going on for weeks and came to a crunch just fifteen minutes before voting began, when May called the rebels to her office.
What the debate was ostensibly about -- the right of Parliament to have a meaningful vote on the deal May brings back from Brussels -- was increasingly drowned out by ideology.
Ardent Brexiters saw a plot to derail the U.K.’s separation from the EU; moderates and pro-EU lawmakers from different parties said they were trying to prevent, as they saw it, the economic damage the divorce will cause.
May has made a habit of surviving -- just -- and again she averted the immediate crisis with a fudge that left both sides claiming victory.
But the mood in the Conservative Party was different this time, angrier and noticeably more hostile -- especially once the warring factions began briefing the media and taking to Twitter with conflicting accounts of what had been agreed. At a drinks party in Westminster that night, the two sides spent the evening yards apart describing each other as liars in increasingly derogatory language and expletives.
“It is hugely irresponsible, and I can’t believe those who are perpetrators of this don’t know what they are doing,’’ Conservative lawmaker Andrew Bridgen said of the rebels on the BBC. “This is a betrayal of the British people.’’
The drama did not end there. On Wednesday, the Scottish Nationalists took a leaf out of the parliamentary playbook when their leader in the chamber, Ian Blackford, deliberately got himself thrown out for interrupting Prime Minister’s Questions with a protest about the way Scotland was being treated in Brexit negotiations.
There was a furious exchange with the Speaker John Bercow, a divisive figure facing allegations, which he has denied, of bullying. “Resume your seat,” Bercow yelled repeatedly, before demanding that Blackford be forcibly removed. The rest of the SNP lawmakers followed their leader -- and probably ensured they’ll be on the front pages of all the Scottish newspapers.
Meanwhile, neither the government nor Parliament is any closer to agreeing on how to move forward with Brexit. Brussels is forced to wait -- and watch.
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.