On Sunday, the government sent out three Brexit ministers to three different TV politics shows ahead of the debate on the Lords’ amendments to the article 50 bill in the Commons the following day. Somehow, Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox all managed to contradict one another. Call it covering your bases. Or being a bit clueless. Take your pick.
The three Brexiteers were back together for the debate but this time they all spoke with one voice. Principally because Boris and Fox were effectively gagged as Davis was the one who had to lead the debate. But even with a clear field and no interruptions, Davis managed to confuse himself.
“We care passionately about EU nationals,” Davis insisted. So passionately that their best interests were served by using them as bargaining chips. Not that they were bargaining chips, mind. Just chips that could be used to secure a good bargain. In Davis’s mind, there was a distinction.
Labour’s Helen Goodman interrupted to ask why, if the minister was so desperate not to use EU nationals as bargaining chips, he was unwilling to act unilaterally not to. Davis shrugged. What everyone had to understand was that the EU was basically untrustworthy and that if we were nice to them they would be bound to interpret this as a sign of weakness.
But look, he continued. It was all basically a game of bluff. We knew we were never going to use EU nationals as bargaining chips because we were British and we would never dream of behaving like that. But when you’re dealing with Johnny Foreigner you need to show a bit of cunning. Davis paused and looked wistful. How could he prove to all these people that he was fundamentally a decent man? More disturbingly, David realised that he actually agreed with most of the arguments being levelled against him. If he wasn’t a minister, he’d have been making them himself. Time to show his caring side.
“Pssst,” he whispered. Here’s what he was going to do. He was going to give his word that EU nationals would be allowed to stay even though he didn’t want it written into a legal amendment. Just don’t tell anyone in the EU that he had said so. “I take my commitments very seriously,” he continued. “I consider myself to have a moral responsibility towards EU nationals.”
So why wasn’t he prepared to put his money where his mouth was and allow the amendment? “Because it’s unnecessary,” he announced grandly. “I have given my word as a minister and my word is legally binding.” At which point various Labour backbenchers pointed out that the Tories had form for not keeping their promises having just gone back on their election pledge not to raise national insurance contributions in last week’s budget.
Davis then moved on to the Lords’ amendment concerning a meaningful vote for parliament at the end of the Brexit negotiations. Or rather the lack of one. Again, there was nothing more he would rather do than let the Commons have a meaningful vote because falling out of the EU on to World Trade Organisation terms would be a nightmare – despite what Boris might think – and he thought the prime minister had been bonkers to say that no deal was better than no deal.
But the people had spoken and it was far more important that the result of the referendum was respected than for parliament to have a say in anything that might delay Britain’s exit from the EU. Even if that delay was in the national interest. It was one of those unfortunate cases where the national interest was not necessarily in the national interest.
Keir Starmer, Labour’s shadow Brexit minister, was unwilling to accept these personal reassurances. Not least because he reckoned there was a fair chance that Davis might not still be in his post when it came round to honouring them. He then went on to remake the same arguments he had made last time round.
As did everyone else in the two-hour debate. Even though they knew it was basically all pointless. Most forceful of all was Stephen Gethins, the SNP’s Brexit spokesperson, who was clearly energised by Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement earlier in the day that she would be seeking a second independence referendum. Scotland had promised to protect the rights of all EU nationals in Scotland and would do so regardless.
“How many jobs will be lost if Scotland leaves the UK?” asked Conservative Crispin Blunt. Fifty-seven SNP MPs nervously eyed up their P45s.