Issue 160: 2018 06 28: Who To Betray


28 June 2018

Who To Betray

The Brexit mutineers.

By John Watson

I forget who it was who said that he would never trust a man who would not betray his country for his friends, but whoever it was, he made an important point.  You do not have to be Kim Philby to discover that you have loyalties in different directions and that from time to time you have to choose which to adhere to and which to betray.  Those choices have to be made by all of us.  In the case of politicians, they have to be made in public.

In the Parliamentary rumpus over Brexit, there are conflicts of loyalties on both sides of the House.  Let’s start then with Dominic Grieve, a leading light among those Tories who have been challenging the Government’s attempts to keep control of the UK’s negotiating position with ministers and to prevent Parliament from interfering.  Mr Grieve has a high reputation for integrity and has clearly been pulled in different directions.  A long-standing Conservative MP and one time Attorney General, his tribal loyalties must rest with the Tories.  It is rather more than that, however, as his loyalty to his friends is presumably buttressed by a belief that at least in general it is their party which best represents his political values.  That is the pull one way.

On the other hand he is a Remainer and views the prospect of a hard or no-deal exit as inimical to the national interest.  Accordingly he proposed an amendment to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, which would have enabled Parliament to give directions to the Government in the event that no acceptable deal was reached.  This was in line with his views on Brexit because it would have made it difficult for the Government to leave the EU other than through a soft deal, but it was anathema to his party who saw it as undermining the Government’s negotiating position.  After all, if the EU knew that British negotiators would be forced by domestic political pressures to do a deal, it would not have to worry that we would walk away without one and so could set its terms at a punitive level.  That was the opposing pull and left him last week with a choice.  Should he betray his party by insisting on his amendment or betray his perception of the national interest by withdrawing it?

A “nice dilemma [he] had here” which, to borrow from Trial by Jury, certainly called for all his wit, but which way to go?  Friends or country, which was the most important?  In the end, by not pressing his amendment in return for some rather vague assurances from the Prime Minister, he fudged it and stuck with his friends.  He was probably right and we will come to the reasons for that in a moment.

Let’s leave the government benches then, and swinging ape-like across the central strip which divides the House, alight on the opposition benches to look for something similar.  It is not hard to find.  Four Labour MPs voted with the government on the EU (Withdrawal) Bill and a number of others abstained. This meant rejecting amendments inserted by the House of Lords, which would have tightened the Parliamentary grip on the Brexit process and undermined Mrs May.  These individuals too must have found themselves torn between the loyalty to their party and the feeling that a government defeat in this juncture would do great harm to the national interest.  They betrayed the party and not the nation.  Again they were probably right to do so.

We live in a cynical age when a politician’s every move is analysed in terms of the need to curry favour in their constituency.  If a Labour MP in a Brexit constituency is seen to favour a tough negotiating stance, the pundits will assume that he is guided by the need to protect his seat.  Similarly the other way round.  But in the case of Brexit mutineers this probably looks at things on too local a basis.  For there is another player in the wings which we have not yet mentioned and that is public opinion.

There is a certain sort of dinner party in North London where, after the usual chatter about how well everyone’s children are doing at school or university (or, where that is palpably not maintainable, how sad it is that the system is too inflexible to recognise raw talent), conversation moves onto “The Mistake”.

Had the electorate known what they were doing, it is asserted, they would have returned a different answer in 2016.  That may be a right analysis, or it may not.  But the corollary which follows it is a non-sequitur, that if the Referendum were to be re-held now, or prior to exit, the result would be different.  That seems almost inconceivable.

Even if it is technically possible to change our decision and remain in the EU, would the public really vote for it?  It is true that the immediate economic cost of leaving becomes starker by the week but, against that, the long-term tensions in the EU are gradually making it look less attractive.  Still, in the end it is not the striking of that balance which is the clincher, but the fact that the public will not vote for a proposal that we creep back to the continentals on our knees.  The same probably goes for some of the “soft Brexit” proposals – proposals which leaves the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice or free movement of workers in place.  These matters were discussed as part of the referendum debate and even though the corresponding red lines limit our participation in EU markets it would be difficult to go back now.  For better or worse a course has been charted.  For better or worse, the public will expect their political representatives to push it through.  And for those who are seen to obstruct it there are two possible results.  The first is that despite their intervention the negotiations go well.  If that happens, they will just look rather silly.  The second is that things go badly, and that they are seen as having undermined the government.  In that case it won’t much matter to the public whether they took their stance to support their friends or out of political conviction.  They will be seen as having betrayed the public interest, and for a politician that is not a pleasant place to be.  That is why Dominic Grieve and the Labour rebels have jumped the right way.


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