The Commons trapped by blackmail on all sides

byIra Straus

26th February 2019

Three blackmail threats — no deal, no Brexit, and Jeremy Corbyn — have boxed in MPs as if in jail cells, blocking the changes a majority would want. Can the cross-party defectors start a jailbreak?

Blackmail on the Right, Blackmail on the Left. Mrs May has been deploying blackmail on all sides: if her deal is rejected, the threat of a no-deal Brexit; also the threat of no Brexit; also, if she is toppled, the threat of a Corbyn Government.

The no-deal threat terrorizes the Tory Remainers to live with her somewhat soft Brexit. The no-Brexit threat is meant to terrorize the Tory Brexiters, although it has not succeeded very well in that. The Corbyn threat terrorizes both wings of her Party to vote confidence in her in the Commons.

The treble-threat has produced a double-bind, a set of crisscrossing fears that paralyze movement in any direction. It is as if to trap people in a force field, one that surrounds them with invisible barriers on all sides. It has also produced a prisoner’s dilemma, the situation that arises when prisoners are threatened with a worse punishment if they do not act against each other. A majority of MPs in both major parties remains imprisoned by their leaderships, under threat of a worse outcome if they defy their leaders, even while they are being marched by those leaders to the edge of the cliff.

Mrs May has been skillful in using the threats to stymie any alternative to her approach: a second referendum, a softer Brexit with cross-party majority support, a new election, a replacement of her as party leader and PM. When her Brexit Deal was crushingly defeated, she used the Corbyn threat to stop Parliament from voting her out. She continues using all three threats in order to try to resurrect her Deal.

When Mr Corbyn and Mrs May each accuse of the other being cynically motivated by their party and personal interests in holding power, they are both surely right. But both are also surely motivated by passions; very unfortunate passions, but sincere passions. Mr Corbyn is sincere in believing in the Labour Party, or his wing of it, as the repository of good; and the Conservative Party as the locus of evil, the driving of which from power is a supreme duty. Mrs May sincerely has wished to carry out what she told herself, the day after the referendum, was her “duty”, her job description in her further life in politics: to “deliver on” the result, proud of sacrificing her own better knowledge to this duty, turning it into a fixed point in her mind. She has passionately tried to communicate this mental block to the rest of Parliament, and has apparently succeeded in imparting this upside-down conception of their duties to many a fellow Conservative Remainer.

I suppose it is not necessary to demonstrate here that a no-deal Brexit would be a disaster. A majority of Parliament agrees on this as does a majority of the country.

A majority of the country may well also agree that Mr Corbyn would be a disaster. About this there is, inevitably, some disagreement within his own Party. Much of the Labour membership supports him, as much of the Tory base supports Brexit. Others in Labour, including many an MP, do not, and see his and and the Party’s overall ideological trend as highly dangerous; but domestic ideology is not our concern here. What is concerning here is the ideology of hostility to Western institutions, one that Mr Corbyn has continued as Party leader to display, thinly disguised in comments on the EU, undisguised in impassioned speeches on NATO, which reproduce the manner and moves of the anti-NATO campaigners of yore.

The situation is not much better in the Conservative Party. Under the May Government, it has been heavily Brexitized.

In these dire conditions, one might excuse the majority of MPs for feeling trapped. This does not, to be sure, relieve them of their responsibility to find a way out of their prisoner’s dilemma.  Nor excuse the two party leaders who have trapped them in it.

Yet a strange fact intervenes at this point: In the last days, several reasonable people in both parties did jump ship from their party and declare common cause. It had the air of a few prisoners escaping their cells, and joining hands to try to let all the others out in a general prison break.

Now all that remains to fantasize about is something rather less fantastical than this initial prison break, if still fantastical enough. For example: to persuade a majority of MPs in both major parties, irrespective of their leaders’ wishes and demands, to vote an amendment to call a second referendum, and then see to it that Mrs May does not succeed in reducing that referendum to another blackmail choice between her deal and no deal. Or another fantastical possibility: to persuade a dozen or more moderate Tory MPs, who may not be ready to renounce the Party, nevertheless to be ready to follow them in voting no confidence in Mrs May, unless she changes course fundamentally in a matter of days. A dozen switched votes by Tory moderates would have been enough in the last Commons vote to have deposed her. A readiness to vote her out would enable them to finally turn the tables on Mrs May and make her the one feeling held to account: to inform her that she will in fact be ousted, with disgrace for herself and potentially radical consequences for her party, unless she reaches a cross-party agreement on Brexit. That agreement could be a more minimal Brexit, staying in the Customs Union, or a second referendum, with the option of “no Brexit” on the ballot.

It is a crazy fantasy. Almost as crazy as the fantasy that some reasonable people in both parties would break out of their party cells and make common cause.  Oh — but they did that. What is dream, what is reality at this point? The Buddhists teach that we ordinarily have it backwards. That our routines and our stories are the dream, taking us away from the reality before us. That we truly wake up only when we let go of the narratives running through our mind. But what am I thinking here — that people could wake up from the nightmare, look inside themselves anew, look around, see where they really are, stop the whole sleepwalk. What a wild dream!

Or is it just a dream?

About the Author
Ira Straus is the Chair of the Center for War-Peace Studies, which examines the use of complex electoral systems in holding plural societies together. In the 1990s, as Executive Director of The Democracy International, Ira gave close attention to consequences of independence referenda in post-Communist countries including Bosnia.