For seventeen spectacular minutes, the House of Commons actually had an opinion on Brexit

Tom Peck
EPA

If you’re confused by all this, then take comfort from the fact you’re meant to be. None of this is meant to make any sense. That’s the whole plan.

If you’re confused as to why the House of Commons said yes to Brexit then said no to it 17 minutes later; if you’re confused at whether there’s going to be a Brexit extension when Boris Johnson both asked for one and then didn’t ask for one in the form of two letters in one envelope; indeed if you’re confused about why the country voted to leave the European Union when it is self-evidently not in its interest to do so – then it all starts to make a bit more sense once you’ve worked out that you being confused is the whole idea.

Normality is fighting for its life with a Brexit project that has always been fully sociopathic. You’re meant to be hopelessly lost. That is the Cummings game plan. It’s going quite pyrotechnically badly but that is nevertheless the game plan. And despite the kind of setbacks that, were it an aeroplane, the passengers would now be seeing fish swimming past the windows, they are sticking to it.

None of the following is likely to make any sense but we must go through the motions anyway.

At 7.16pm, for 17 full minutes, the House of Commons said yes to Brexit, specifically to Boris Johnson’s Withdrawal Agreement. And then, 17 minutes later, they said no to it.

Well, that’s not quite true. The House of Commons didn’t say yes to Brexit. What actually happened is the House of Commons said yes to the right to give itself more time to turn the Brexit it had just said yes to in to something else entirely so that it could then, true to form, say no to it.

MPs said yes, in principle, to Brexit, but they said no to saying yes to it within the three days Boris Johnson gave them to do it. That is hardly unreasonable. It is nation-shaping legislation. It’s 240 pages long. It was published on Monday night and MPs were meant to have waved it all through the commons in 72 hours.

By way of context, they debated the Maastricht Treaty legislation in 1991 for 40 days. And when I say “they”, that’s exactly right. Quite a lot of them are still about. The same people. Publicly slagging off the EU has been keeping them on the public payroll for more than three decades.

When the House of Commons passed Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal, but with the caveat that it would need more time to scrutinise it, you might think that could be chalked up as a win. That the request could be granted. What’s a few more days after three and a half years.

But no. That wouldn’t be happening. What happened instead is Boris Johnson rose at the despatch box to announce that, in fact, he would be pulling the bill entirely. “Pausing the legislation,” he said, until he knew what the EU would decide to do next.

Because the EU, now, have to grant an extension to the 31 October deadline. But nobody quite knows what they will do. Because they have to take their instructions, or at least some sort of guidance, from the UK government.

And on Saturday, what the UK government did was send them three separate letters, asking for an extension but not asking for an extension, telling them they did want one but actually they didn’t, and now, the UK having “taken back control”, don’t forget, now just sits around and waits for the European Union, like the wearied parent of an unbearable toddler, to work out what on earth it wants us to do. (This has been its cursed role in life for three long years).

It is, of course, a complete mess. But it’s always been a complete mess. It’s a complete mess because, almost four years ago now, a man called Dominic Cummings (quite correctly, you might argue) worked out that the only way to convince the public to vote to leave the European Union was to bombard social media with lies about Turkey joining the EU, and how much money it would liberate to improve the NHS.

Brexit, now, can only be delivered by saying you won’t prorogue parliament but simultaneously threatening that you will, then doing it anyway but lying about why you’ve done it, then being told you can’t do it, then sacking your own MPs so you’ve got no hope of winning a vote and all the while, all the while, keep saying in public, as often as possible, things that you know aren’t true.

Even on Tuesday night, Boris Johnson stood there claiming it is “government policy to leave the European Union on October 31st”, 48 hours after writing to the EU to ask for more time.

This is the mad game. Just keep saying stuff, as often as possible, in the hope that it lands upon ears that might not know that it absolutely isn’t true.

Get everyone stuck in this mad maze, where nothing means anything, where the difference between the lies and the truth is how often they’ve been said.

It is also worth pausing to note that, even if this Brexit deal, in some form or other, is passed, which it may yet be, on one side or the other of an election or a referendum that may or may not happen at a point at which no one knows, it will, we know, come with a transition phase of several years while a new free trade deal is negotiated.

We also know, because it’s in Boris Johnson’s new bill, that those negotiations will begin in June 2020, and by July 2020 the government will have to decide if it wants to apply for another year’s extension.

It will inevitably do so. And being in the transition phase means, that’s right, you keep paying the fabled £350m a week to the EU to, except you’re no longer a member of it, so there’s no rebate, you have no control over what it’s spent on, and absolutely none of it is spent on you.

That’s right. By this time next year, if all goes to plan, the UK will be paying more to not be a member of the European Union than it was to be a member of it.

That, it turns out, is what taking back control always meant.

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