Parliamentary sketch: What's the plan for Brexit?
The Government’s plan is as brilliant as it is secret. And it's so secret no one knows what it is
The Brexit debate was an excellent chance to find out what the Government’s plan was, and so it seemed somehow fitting that Theresa May didn’t actually turn up.
In fact, it was probably her most convincing appearance since becoming PM. Opponents couldn’t land a blow. They didn’t catch her out once. Theresa May was bold, convincing, and elsewhere.
Things had started with Keir Starmer, Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, explaining this was not a vote on exiting the European Union. He ran through some of the other things the debate did not mean – which turned out to be quite a lot of things.
This was not an attempt to obstruct the Government, he promised. “The purpose of calling for a plan is not to frustrate the process or delay the Prime Minister’s timetable,” he said, adding, “Labour has repeatedly said it will not frustrate the process, and I stick by that.”
Labour will not seek to frustrate the Government. The party’s approach to opposition in a single sentence.
But actually, Starmer did pretty well, though he got nowhere. May’s responses were elegant, timely, and non-existent.
So it was left to David Davis, who was representing the Government in much the same way a clown represents the circus. Or Boris Johnson represents UK foreign policy. Or political sketches represent real journalism.
And watching David Davis, it was hard to escape the conclusion he is the sort of man you would try to escape from in a pub. Even his name is confusing. Like a fake someone would invent under pressure in a sit-com.
Taking to his feet, Davis accused Starmer of “putting up Aunt Sallies” – Aunt Sally is, apparently, a weird game which involves throwing sticks at a model of an old woman’s head which is played in the English countryside. It was confusing, but didn’t clarify much. So was the Government going to publish its Brexit plan or not?
He explained: “We must retain the ability to negotiate with a high degree of agility and speed; the more complex the negotiation, the more parties to it, and the more time-pressured it is, the more important that is.”
It was quickly becoming apparent no one knew what they were talking about. The Government’s plan is as brilliant as it is secret. And it is so secret that no one knows what it is.
You have to hand it to the Tories, it was smart. Think about it: in the past people only criticised their plans because they knew about them.
The danger, Davis explained, was that publishing the plan would undermine the Government’s objectives – given its objective is not to publish a plan.
Ken Clarke then stepped in to point out that a lot of what everyone was saying was incredibly vague. Davis rejected this, saying his own approach – of refusing to provide any information – was very clear.
To get a good Brexit deal, Davis explained: “The Government must have the flexibility to adjust during negotiations. It is like threading the eye of a needle: if you have a good eye and a steady hand, it is easy enough, but if somebody jogs your elbow, it is harder. If 650 people jog your elbow, it is very much harder.”
Indeed. And what if the needle hates you for consistently undermining it over decades? What if it is actually 27 needles with diffuse aims and complex historical and trading relationships? These are the questions, and it was at least heartening that MPs are considering them.
Iain Duncan Smith followed, speaking from the backbenches, and to be honest, it was just nice to see him. IDS represents a simpler time – when David Cameron was in charge, and leaders enacted policies they supported, and Nigel Farage was still on the fringes, and you could watch politics without recoiling in a mix of fear and confusion and self-hatred.
Obviously attempting to set things right, IDS complained he had “heard the liberals go on about how people voted to leave but did not vote for a destination”, before asserting that “leaving is a destination” – though of course that makes no sense at all. What did it mean? “It means we are in control of ourselves,” IDS explained.
Labour members watched on, having lost all control of themselves long ago. Speaking to Starmer, IDS explained that: “Leading the Opposition is like herding cats, and there are a lot of cats sitting on the benches behind him. They are divided about what they want. They are exposed in a simple position of not really wanting to leave, but recognising that 70 per cent of them now sit in constituencies that voted overwhelmingly to leave.”
It was unclear if he was still talking about cats. Apart from anything else, cats have territories, not constituencies. Also they only represent themselves.
Finally Hilary Benn arrived, bobbing around like a sparrow at a rave, to call for an “end of the phony war”, which sounded good, if you ignore the fact the phony war preceded the actual Second World War. Which was much worse.
And yet, despite their best efforts, the Opposition didn’t get too far. In much the same way it was difficult to criticise Theresa May’s input in the debate, it was hard to criticise the plan, because it wasn’t there.
Speaking in Edinburgh the First Minister will argue that, with immigration essential to maintaining Scotland’s population, “the case for a different approach here is, to my mind, overwhelming”
In a new paper, Scotland's Place in Europe: People, Jobs and Investment, the Scottish Government mapped out three possible outcomes from the UK’s negotiations over Brexit
Hopes of Brexit deal fade amid calls for 'regulatory alignment' Irish border deal to be extended across the UK
Deal for Northern Ireland should apply UK-wide, Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson warns