We are in the first circle of Brexit hell

Written by Jenni Davidson on 25 January 2019 in Inside Politics

Can this week get us out of the Brexit limbo where nothing ever changes?

Theresa May in Dante's hell - Image credit: Holyrood

Looking at British politics at the moment, the political background behind Dante’s Divine Comedy rings a bell. Back then there had been two factions, the Guelphs, who supported the pope, and the Ghibellines, who supported the emperor.

Following the defeat of the Ghibellines, the victorious Guelphs in Florence began to fight among themselves, splitting into the Black Guelphs and the White Guelphs.

While Dante is out of town, drumming up support for the White Guelphs, the Black Guelphs take control and he is sentenced to death, and forced into lifelong exile from the city. Thus begins his decent into hell.

While Theresa May is now safe from being drummed out of town, after surviving two no-confidence votes, there’s much about both the real and fictional situation that Dante found himself in that May might find familiar.

In the fictional account, our protagonist finds himself in a dark forest where “the straightforward path has been lost” and then encounters three animals, a leopard, a lion and a she-wolf, often taken to represent fraudulence, pride and greed, blocking his way to paradise and so he passes into limbo, the first circle of hell.

Last October, Attorney General Geoffrey Cox reportedly warned Theresa May in a cabinet meeting that an indefinite Irish backstop would be like being stuck in Dante’s first circle of hell, yet we appear already to be there, as politicians from all sides attempt to resolve Brexit without moving from their own entrenched positions.

Week on week, as a no-deal Brexit slides inexorably closer, the same messages are played out, over and over again while everybody stands rooted to the spot, hoping someone else will move first, like some giant political game of musical statues.

Who knew back when Theresa May kept saying nothing has changed, that it was more of a prophecy than a statement?

Last Monday, Theresa May put ‘Plan B’ before the House of Commons. It looks remarkably like ‘Plan A’, with the main difference being that May promised it would be accompanied by more cross-party talks – something she could perhaps have tried before now, and indeed she rebuffed Corbyn’s invitation to do just that last September.

May said: “It is government’s responsibility to negotiate, but it is also my responsibility to listen to the legitimate concerns of colleagues, both those who voted Leave and those who voted Remain, in shaping our negotiating mandate for our future partnership with the EU.”

This didn’t impress SNP leader in the Commons, Ian Blackford, who commented: “The Prime Minister’s strategy to run down the clock, and blackmail MPs into a false choice between her bad deal and no deal at all, will not work – it’s time to end the charade.”

Meanwhile, the Lib Dems attacked Labour as much as the UK Government.

Jo Swinson said: “Brexit is a national embarrassment. The Prime Minister’s Plan B looks no different to her Plan A. Meanwhile, the Labour leadership continues to ignore its members, its voters and the country’s interests.

“With just 66 days to go until we leave the European Union, we do not have the luxury to wait for Corbyn to slowly inch his way toward backing a People’s Vote with an intentionally ambiguous amendment.”

And at FMQs on Wednesday, Jeremy Corbyn asked: “If the Prime Minister is serious about finding a solution, which of her red lines is she prepared to abandon?”, while simultaneously refusing to take his own red line of a guarantee of a no-deal Brexit off the table before even entering talks with May.

And despite promises from May to consult more with the devolved administrations, Nicola Sturgeon emerged from a meeting with the PM with the position of the two administrations as much at odds as it has been after every other meeting with May.

She said: “There’s no real sign of any willingness to compromise on the red lines that have so constrained the position she finds herself in.

“It seems to me that her priority is trying to win support from the DUP and the hard-line Brexiteers in her own party rather than genuinely try to compromise to try to bring others onside, and that strikes me as a course of action that is destined to fail.”

But despite Sturgeon claiming May was “running scared” of another independence referendum and a People’s Vote on the EU because she fears she would lose and “people who are confident in their argument don’t run away from the verdict of the people”, the SNP’s solution to Brexit, independence, looks as far away as ever, particularly with the distraction of Alex Salmond’s arrest to contend with.

And this Brexit limbo we find ourselves in is a surreal place. The last couple of weeks has seen Polish-born Brexiteer MP for Shrewsbury and Atcham Daniel Kawczyinski announce on Twitter that he had asked the Polish government to veto any request by the UK for the EU to extend Article 50, clearly demonstrating why it’s vital we take back control to stop foreign governments being able to interfere in decisions of the UK Parliament – after this foreign government has interfered in a possible decision of the UK Parliament that he doesn’t like.

Meanwhile, vacuum cleaner manufacturer Dyson – whose founder, Sir James Dyson, was a vocal supporter of Brexit – has announced that it is to move its head office from Britain to Singapore, after being held up as a great example of a business investing in Britain by the Leave.EU campaign.

Stranger still, UKIP appeared to suggest Nigel Farage might be a closet Remainer, asking on Twitter, “Who is Nigel Farage working for?” after Farage suggested he might start a new pro-Brexit party.

And George Osborne, who himself was chancellor when the Conservative government called the EU referendum, criticised Theresa May for putting party before country.

He said: “When confronted with the fork in the road between no deal and no Brexit, Mrs May knows in her heart which path she will take. She will put party before country.”

This in the same week the European Commission’s Donald Tusk claimed that David Cameron told him he never intended a referendum to happen because he presumed he wouldn’t get a majority in 2015 and that his coalition partners, the Lib Dems, would block it.

Meanwhile, harking back to another great empire of the past, Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel met in Aachen, capital of emperor Charlemagne’s great Carolingian empire, which covered much of western and central Europe before later splitting into factions, to sign the Treaty of Franco-German Cooperation and Integration, reaffirming the 1963 Élysée treaty that paved the way to post-war reconciliation and future collaboration.

There is a possibility of a way out of this Brexit limbo. On Tuesday, MPs will vote on a series of amendments to Theresa May’s ‘Plan B’.

Labour MP Yvette Cooper and Tory MP Nick Boles’ amendments, calling for Article 50 to be extended to the end of 2019 if a deal hasn’t been reached by the end of February, may well get support as the closeness to a no-deal Brexit focuses minds on a solution.

Tory MP and former attorney general Dominic Grieve is tabling an amendment that would give more power to MPs by increasing the amount of parliamentary time for MPs to debate the issue and table further amendments over the next few weeks, which may also get support.

Other expected amendments include calls for a series of test votes on the various possibilities, for a ‘citizens’ assembly’ made up of a representative sample of 250 members of the UK population to bring forward a solution, to have a no-deal Brexit ruled out and to formally call on the UK Government to hold a second EU referendum.

But despite the more positive noises about working together from Theresa May, there is yet to be an answer to the Northern Irish backstop and in reality, the most likely point of majority agreement is just to extend Article 50, which defers finding a solution and leaves us in limbo a while longer.

Presumably, we will emerge from Brexit Groundhog Day eventually, but whether we pass through March into the paradise of freedom from the constraints of the EU or fall into the deeper circles of hell, with neither food nor medicine to sustain us in the afterlife, is yet to be seen.

Comedy starts badly and ends well, while tragedy starts well, but ends badly. Let us hope, like Dante’s fictional version of himself, we find ourselves in a comedy.

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