We are living through turbulent times, when old political certainties are being ripped up before our eyes and the drift and disfunction at the heart of the UK Tory government is making us a global laughing stock. Our international reputation for stability and commitment to democratic values was hard won and is currently being squandered as our incredulous allies look on. It is not yet clear where this instability will lead. It is still in the balance whether the turmoil will transform into a progressive opportunity to win a Labour government or become something much darker and more dangerous.
A stormy first week back at Westminster after the Christmas break illustrated this febrile mood perfectly. The government was defeated twice as parliament moved to take back control of at least some part of the Brexit process. Meanwhile on the streets outside, a hate mob of aggressive far right bullies intensified their daily harassment of MPs, activists and journalists who were trying to go about their lawful business. The undercurrent of threat and suppressed violence was palpable.
This already dangerous situation has been made much worse by the Prime Minister’s personal mishandling of the entire Brexit process from the moment she stepped over the threshold of No10 to her likely defeat in the vote on her botched blind Brexit deal. There is now a genuine cross-party dislike of her abysmal track record on Brexit and her authoritarian working methods. As a consequence of the secrecy and intransigence she has displayed from the outset, goodwill and trust in her has all but evaporated.
Rather than seeking to heal a divided country and reach out to forge a consensus about what an acceptable Brexit would look like, she has essentially spent the last 18 months negotiating with her own cabinet and seeking to placate only the Brextremist purists in her own party. She decided after minimum consultation to adopt a hard Brexit to please her own party activists. Winning easy applause in front of the party faithful, she contemptuously mocked citizens of the world as “citizens of nowhere”. She seemed to care little that she had alarmed and divided the country further.
As we approach the end of the Article 50 process, her partisan and authoritarian instincts have proved to be totally at odds with the requirements needed to bring the country back together. Prime Ministerial demands to unite behind her deal cut little ice when there has been zero consultation or involvement in forging it. Her partisan rhetoric has, if anything, ramped up since the 2017 general election. Labour’s Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer surprised many observers – but not MPs – when he revealed that nobody from the government had been in touch with him about Brexit.
This has been the pattern from the beginning. TUC head Frances O’Grady’s revelation that she had talked more to Angela Merkel than Theresa May didn’t surprise either. Our Prime Minister’s last minute desperation to accept an amendment on workers’ rights, which offers no actual protection, and to telephone trade union leaders after two years of radio silence isn’t going to change any minds. We know that this government cares little for rights at work and is actively hostile to trade unions.
The PM triggered Article 50 without a viable plan and no consultation. She then decided to call a general election instead of reaching out and seeking consensus. When that went disastrously wrong and she lost her majority, she simply carried on as if nothing had changed. She now frequently refers to the referendum result, demanding that it be respected or democracy itself will be imperilled, yet she never mentions the fact that she lost any mandate to implement a hard Brexit when she lost her majority. It’s difficult to take any lessons in democracy from one who only cites it for convenience.
Her latest and most desperate tactic has been to set up a ‘my deal or no deal’ blackmail attempt by delaying the ‘meaningful vote’ on her deal for a month over Christmas, erroneously claiming that there were more EU concessions on the way. As is now clear, ‘nothing has changed’ in the interim – except that we are four weeks closer to the no deal cliff edge. That is why this week’s government defeats were so important: they demonstrated that the House of Commons will not vote to crash out of the EU with no agreement. Whatever happens next, nobody believes this Prime Minister anymore when she talks about democracy or unity.
Angela Eagle is MP for Wallasey.