When it comes to the most corrupt Member of Parliament, it is hard to choose. Could it be Theresa May for her dodgy dealings with Saudi Arabia and the wrongful deportation of tens of thousands of foreign students, Liam Fox for masquerading as a charity and scheming with Adam Werritty while Secretary of State for Defence, or Grant Shapps whose web publishing business relied on copyright violations while functioning for all intents and purposes like a pyramid scheme? It could be any or all of these people, besides whom there are plenty more.
But when it comes to the biggest idiot in the House of Commons, some members are so stupid that it at least narrows the choice. Perhaps many would cite Boris Johnson, but let’s look briefly instead towards Michael Gove, mired in the nineteenth century, whose ham-fisted grab for the Tory leadership left him shunned within his own party and widely characterised as a ‘backstabber’ once he had been successfully eliminated come the second round.
Parliament has been debating the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill, which Brexit secretary David Davis was forced to introduce, after the Supreme Court sided with the High Court by ruling that the government could not invoke Article 50 without parliamentary consent.
The bill – a swift response to the Supreme Court’s ruling – is a minuscule affair. Its contents barely cover half a page, simply clarifying:
‘(1)The Prime Minister may notify, under Article 50 of the Treaty on European
Union, the United Kingdom’s intention to withdraw from the EU.
(2)This section has effect despite any provision made by or under the European Communities Act 1972 or any other enactment.’
and its passage was never in doubt. In December Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, contrived to get the bulk of his Labour colleagues and the vast majority of parliament to agree in principle to the government’s March deadline for the invocation of Article 50, even though the Supreme Court hearing was just getting underway. And following the court’s decision, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn confirmed, ‘I am asking all our MPs not to block Article 50 and make sure it goes through next week’.
Introducing the bill, David Davis allowed for two days of parliamentary debate. Gove took this as the opportunity to pour more scorn upon himself, as he attempted a hopefully aborted parliamentary comeback. Speaking in the Commons on the matter at hand, the former co-convenor of Vote Leave ludicrously stated ‘we could not have been clearer in the Leave campaign’ that voting to leave the European Union meant leaving both the single market and the customs union.
This is a point which was only clarified a couple of weeks ago, when Theresa May took to Lancaster House for a highly-touted speech. Her speech – and the white paper drawn from it, which was published in some haste only this morning – was supposed to end all the uncertainty around the government’s plans for Brexit. But though it was lengthy and offered such ostensible tangibles as ‘twelve objectives’, it said little about what Brexit is or might aspire to be, focusing instead on what Brexit is not.
Britain will seek some sort of trade and customs agreement with the EU, while leaving the single market altogether and ceasing to operate as a full member of the customs union. Freedom of movement will end, but an as-yet-unspecified immigration system will still aim to attract the ‘brightest and best’. The government will offer no assurances to EU citizens already living in the United Kingdom, but will hopefully reach a compromise with other European countries ‘at the earliest opportunity’.
Britain will leave the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, but seek to establish separate resolution mechanisms for the sake of trade disputes. The border between Northern Ireland and Ireland will ideally be kept ‘as seamless and frictionless as possible’. Parliament will be offered a vote on the outcome of the negotiations, but this will effectively mean taking whatever deal the government has agreed or going entirely without. And whatever the result, all changes will be ‘transitional’ to avoid the potential disaster of an economic ‘cliff-edge’.
Britain may have to pay ‘appropriate contributions’ to the EU budget even after it leaves the union, especially if a free trade arrangement is successfully agreed. But May also issued her European counterparts with a warning, stating that ‘no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain’, and that if a good deal proves hard to get, Britain could wind up becoming what Jeremy Corbyn described as a ‘bargain basement tax haven’ just off the Continent’s shores.
In any event, the specificities of the single market and customs union could not have been further from the Leave campaign’s mind as it abounded in false promises and anti-immigrant rhetoric. Ken Clarke called Gove’s assertion ‘absurd’. And later during Tuesday’s Commons debate, Gove suffered a stern rebuke by pro-European Conservative Anna Soubry, who asked if he still supported giving £350 million a week to the NHS or else was ready to admit ‘that figure was always false and it was a lie?’. Gove dodged the accusation, saying ‘As someone who is not in the government I can’t deliver these sums’.
So Michael Gove is an idiot, and Theresa May, Liam Fox, and so on. But as for the biggest idiot? As George memorably says in Seinfeld, ‘suddenly a new contender has emerged’. That contender is none other than the longtime Labour MP and former senior cabinet figure Margaret Beckett.
The European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill passed in the Commons on Wednesday by 498 votes to 114, giving Theresa May carte blanche to press ahead with a hard Brexit. The Scottish National Party, Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, Green, and 47 Labour MPs voted against, with the notable addition of Ken Clarke.
But after imposing a three-line whip, Jeremy Corbyn proudly announced ‘Labour MPs voted more than three to one in favour of triggering Article 50’, as Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron rightfully stated ‘Labour’s leadership tonight have waved the white flag. They are not an opposition: they are cheerleaders’.
Equally eloquent was Plaid Cymru’s Westminster group leader Hywel Williams, who said ‘This was not a vote on whether to accept the referendum result. It was a vote on whether to endorse the Tories’ extreme version of Brexit’. Alas Margaret Beckett was not quite so coherent. During the debate she raised a number of sound concerns, noting that she ‘deplored’ the practise of
‘pretending that the question the public actually answered – whether to leave the European Union or to remain – is instead the question some leave campaigners would prefer them to have answered. I hear many claiming that the people voted to leave the single market – that they voted to leave the customs union. First, those were not the words on the ballot paper. Secondly, although we all have our own recollections of the debate, mine is that whenever we who campaigned to remain raised the concerns that if we were to leave the EU to end the free movement of people, we might, in consequence, find that we have to leave the single market, with massive implications for jobs and our economy, some leave campaigner would immediately pop up to assure the people that no such complications or problems were likely to arise…’
Beckett lamented equally the practise of ‘dismissing any calls, queries and concerns, however serious and well founded, as merely demonstrating opposition to the will of the British people’. But despite the government committing itself to a hard Brexit, despite the continued uncertainty around what Brexit negotiations might actually achieve, despite all attempts to evade parliamentary scrutiny and this the avaricious right-wingers’ last hurdle, Beckett noted that she would vote for the bill anyway, ‘although I fear that its consequences, both for our economy and our society, are potentially catastrophic’.
A version of this article originally appeared at The Shimmering Ostrich.