It has caught on. “Brexit war cabinet” is now in widespread use as a label for the 11 senior ministers who are supposedly deciding the government’s strategy. This description has been adopted by the BBC and other broadcasters and has been taken up by a lot of the rest of the media. To which I say: cease and desist and do so immediately.
When Winston Churchill became prime minister in 1940, he formed a “war cabinet” initially composed of himself, his Labour deputy, Clement Attlee, and three others. That was because Britain was engaged in an existential military conflict with Hitler. Britain is not at war with the European Union. We are still a member of the EU and once we have left we are, or so says Theresa May, desirous of a “deep and special relationship” with it.
The bellicose description “Brexit war cabinet” is entirely inappropriate – except in one sense. The senior ranks of the government are at war with each other and obviously and viciously so. They leak against each other so much that they make Victoria Falls look like a dripping tap.
The 11 gathered for two lengthy meetings last week and failed to agree a strategy for the second phase of the negotiations with the EU, even though those negotiations are already under way. After the most recent meeting of the 11, David Davis, the Brexit secretary, declared that he and his colleagues had made “constructive progress”. This is the kind of language we are used to hearing from spokespeople for the United Nations when they are trying to broker a truce between murderous factions who have been slaughtering each other for decades – and it is usually taken as meaning that the two sides have spent the meeting swearing at each other. Mrs May is to reconvene the 11 for an “awayday” at Chequers to see if they can do better when closeted at the prime minister’s country retreat. Perhaps Mr Davis will emerge from that meeting to tell the world’s media that we should take it as a hopeful sign that the rival factions are at least still talking to each other.
It is not quite right to say that ministers don’t know what they want, as Michel Barnier recently complained on behalf of the EU when he said that the incoherence of Britain’s position was jeopardising the chances of securing a transition deal. It is more accurate to say that different ministers want different things that are simply not compatible with each other. The divisions that are paralysing the government and imperilling the national interest have a mirror in the opposition’s studied ambiguity about crucial aspects of Brexit. The government can’t govern and the opposition doesn’t want to oppose.
This has put us in the highly unusual position where neither the Conservative frontbench nor its opposition counterpart is leading the national debate. How is it that Anna Soubry, an ex-minister, and Jacob Rees-Mogg, a never-was minister, have become so prominent in the arguments? It is at least in part because they are filling the vacuum left by a government strangled by its internal divisions and an official opposition made inarticulate by its unwillingness to take robust positions.
If there is a precedent for this weird state of affairs, I cannot think of it. Who can step into the breach and try to make some sense of Brexit? The time is late. The need is urgent. There is only one body that can fill the void. That is parliament as a collective. MPs will have to work with each other, and across party lines, to try to bring some order to the chaos. If ministers cannot agree on coherent goals for the Brexit negotiations, parliament will have to write the mandate. Since government has shown itself incapable of fulfilling its executive function, MPs will have to take charge.
There is a means at hand. This is the host of Brexit legislation that is going through parliament. This presents MPs with both opportunity and duty to try to make some sense of where Britain is heading and build some protection for our country against a calamitously chaotic departure from the EU. MPs have the power to amend those laws and they can use that power to force a sensible negotiating position on the government.
The first big chance will come towards the end of this month when the legislation on trade reaches its report stage in the Commons. Amendments have been tabled that would instruct the government to make it “a negotiating objective” to maintain Britain’s participation in a customs union with the EU.
There are attractive arguments for taking a course that would make the business of doing business with the EU a whole lot more promising for post-Brexit Britain. Sustaining some kind of customs union with our most vital partners is the only realistic way of maintaining the frictionless trade with Europe that the government says it desires. It would give certainty to Japanese car manufacturers and other global companies with factories in Britain. According to the leaked impact analysis by Mr Davis’s own department, this is one of the less economically damaging options for Britain and one of the better ways of safeguarding investment and jobs. It addresses the otherwise insoluble problem of the Irish border. Unlike membership of the single market, staying within a customs union does not present an issue about freedom of movement.
The main argument against is that it would preclude Britain from striking its own, separate trade deals with non-EU countries. The hard Brexiters will be angry. Liam Fox will be out of a job. Deprived of his government expense account, long-haul airlines will take a small hit to their profit margins. I think Britain can live with that. Especially in the absence of any good evidence that as yet unsigned trade deals with more distant countries at an unspecified date in the remote future will ever be enough to compensate for the immediate damage that a hard Brexit will do to trade with our closest neighbours.
Parliament declaring in favour of membership of a customs union would not be a defiance of the referendum verdict, though I expect the harder Brexiters would claim that anyway. The opinion polling suggests that the majority of voters want to remain within a customs union with the EU.
If MPs vote in line with what they think is in the best interests of Britain, there is a majority, probably a substantial one, in the Commons. The nationalists want this. So do the Lib Dems. So do the great majority of Labour MPs. It is not presently Labour’s official position, but there are grounds for suspecting that the party’s leadership will shift in a direction that is favoured by both its voters and members. In fact, most Labour voters and members want to remain in the single market as well. It would be mighty strange were Jeremy Corbyn to order his MPs to vote with hard Brexiters against these amendments and by doing so spurn an opportunity both to defeat the government and please his supporters.
As for the Tories, by my reckoning there are enough Conservative MPs who think this would be right for Britain to achieve a majority in the Commons. They will have the secret blessings of the sensible faction of the cabinet. The main question about potential Tory rebels is whether enough of them are going to vote in line with their beliefs. Ken Clarke can be counted on, but how many more? There are electoral incentives for Tory MPs to vote with their convictions, especially those who are sitting on vulnerable majorities in Remain-voting seats with big proportions of younger, more internationalist, more affluent and more socially liberal voters. Good luck to Justine Greening’s chances of defending her south-west London seat of Putney at the next election if Moggery becomes the principal public face of the Tory party.
Parliamentarians have it in their power – beginning with the issue of membership of a customs union – to make the decisions about Brexit that a divided and paralysed executive is incapable of resolving. This would take us into uncharted and also rather exhilarating waters because we are accustomed to things being the other way round. We are used to ministers whipping MPs; we don’t have much experience of MPs giving orders to the government.
They have no choice faced with a government incapable of making sense of this mess. And the last people in a position to complain when MPs assert themselves are the Brexiters. They told us that the ultimate point of it all was to restore sovereignty to parliament. Time to do it MPs. Take back control.