Not that long ago, I read a column in the Guardian where it was asserted that the Conservative party (and by extension the British government) had essentially become “The Brexit Party”. This came on the day of the Queen’s Speech, so tempers were a little frayed. It didn’t sit well with me at all.
The Queen’s Speech is written by Her Majesty’s Government, and read out by the Queen; it sets out the legislative agenda for the coming year. It happens at the beginning of every parliament, and is one of the least contentious speeches given in Westminster. No one picks a fight with the Queen.
This time around eight bills were announced. These bills are intended to begin the mind-bogglingly complex process of unpicking the legislative links between the United Kingdom and the European Union. Since Article 50 was triggered, announcing our departure from the EU, we knew that this was to be the time-table of events. Rather than the Conservatives being the party of Brexit, it is my view that this parliament, this almost uniquely two-year parliament, is the parliament of Brexit. And we have some of the perfect conditions for such a momentous and blinkered heads-down law-fest.
A key aspect of this perfect storm of legislative remodelling is the electoral map as it tremulously stands. Conversely, or so the opposition and the media have tried to tell you, this landscape is the precise reason nothing will happen. Too much infighting in the Conservative Party, too small a mandate for the hard line the Prime Minister espoused before the election. Or so “they” say.
That’s nonsense. The government do not have a majority, so they cannot just choose which way they want the bills, amendments and the parliamentary process to go: They’re going to have to work hard and fight for it. Is there anything important in this life which does not come from hard work and a good fight? Just because something is hard won does not mean that it was not worth the fight.
The challenges which the cabinet face in getting their agenda in to law, both from within their party (or parties, if you include the DUP) and without, will, I hope, keep them honest. All of the tough talk and high rhetoric about working in the national interest come to naught in the face of the brick wall of European anti-Brexitism. We cower in the face of such tough negotiations at our peril.
We can’t shy away from the fact that the EU wants us to fail in Brexit. If we come out of this with a positive, UK-trade-friendly outcome, then all of the other dissatisfied states will start their disorderly queue for the exit, with all the pushing and jostling that our European brothers and sisters so love.
If, as a nation, we stood up and decided that we wanted to undo the triggering of Article 50, the heads of states of the EU would chuckle to themselves, reach out a hand, and welcome us back. It is not they who want us to leave: it is us. Therefore this will never ever happen. We have face to save.
As an aside, with all of this focussed law rewriting, these trade negotiations and the ever-increasing divorce settlement, what if a national crisis occurred. I’m not talking about the possibility of a terrorist attack or a human tragedy: recent times have shown us that the British people and our emergency services will weather such horrific storms with or without the government of the day raising a finger. The chief downside of this Brexit Parliament is our reduced capacity to deal with something truly extraordinary occurring. Something where we actually need a capable government.
My own preferred outcome of Brexit would be a Norway-style EFTA-type agreement in which we would recognise the four freedoms of the European Union (people, goods, capital, and services). To refuse to do so would be to deliberately and irretrievably damage our economy. I know the British love to shoot ourselves in the foot, but that would be going too far, even for us; even for 2017.
The problem is that the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) is too good for the likes of us. It is now, at least. It would have been fine if we hadn’t chosen to leave it and join the EU instead; chosen to stay with Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Switzerland. Europe would have understood that.
Instead we joined. Then we argued, we paid in, we claimed money back, we argued again, we made Nigel Farage, and then we chose to leave. We knew that we were different from the rest of Europe: we don’t do community spirit unless it is in the face of tragedy; we don’t do al fresco dining unless it’s chips; we don’t do coalition governments unless it’s in a time of total war. We are not the same as the rest of Europe: why did it take us so long to work that out? Why did we argue so much?
A hung parliament is, in my mind, the ideal breeding ground for a truly positive Brexit (and oh how do I hate that contraction. Even the Queen is using it now; such has it become our reality.) Only with a government being forced to work for their pay can we be assured that the decisions they make are remotely in the best interests of the nation. The Labour party are making such glorious hay at the inconclusive electoral map that they will focus on every tiny detail of the process, picking apart every tiny decision, in order to win against the government, hoping to topple them from uneasy power.
My view is that the Prime Minister should state from the off (well, from now, as the off has very much offed) that no victory by the opposition will be sufficient to remove her from Number 10; no victory by the opposition will be sufficient to reduce confidence in Her Majesty’s government to an absence. Instead, wins on both sides will ensure that the political process – as voted for by the British people – will be enacted in each and every vote, decision and amendment. Loss is the most productive form of gain; weakness is our only true strength; victory is the bitterest taste of failure.