During an entertaining interview with the BBC’s former political editor Nick Robinson, Attorney General Geoffrey Cox was asked to recite the beginning of a T.S. Elliot poem. Without warning he delivered it with almost perfect precision. Being one to pride himself on poetry, not to mention attention to detail, Cox was slightly dismayed at letting one or two words slip. ‘I’m increasingly fatigued by the stresses and the pressures of this role’, he said to Robinson.
He then proceeded to admit Robinson was ‘testing a tired brain’, to which his interviewer wasn’t one to let the comment from weary guest pass – ‘you’ve twice mentioned being tired’, he says ‘is there a sense that you, that everyone in government, that members of Parliament, for want of a more elegant and poetic phrase, are completely knackered at the moment?’. ‘I think you’re absolutely right’, came Cox’s reply.
The interview itself has been widely covered, with commentators interested in Cox’s admission that the UK would be at thae mercy of the EU in their choice of extension. He also insisted May was genuinely open to compromise; red lines could be diluted, previously unthinkable concessions granted in return for a Brexit deal which could pass Parliament. Those, like myself, campaigning for a referendum took hope from the Brexiteer’s admission that a referendum wasn’t off the cards either. It would, he cautioned, require a ‘good deal of persuasion’ before Mrs May were to reach the point of embracing the idea, but I’ll take that as movement nonetheless.
The interview was fascinating not primarily for the insistence that the Prime Minister was ready to compromise but for the frank and open discussion about the effect the febrile atmosphere on Westminster was having on our politicians.
Cox, keen to excuse himself from sympathy, nonetheless pointed out parliamentarians have had no recess this year. Cabinet met for seven hours on Tuesday. It’s not hard to imagine the turmoil felt by this bitterly divided cohort – with a fair few also preoccupied with the upcoming leadership contest – in facing the decision to hand Jeremy Corbyn the casting vote on Brexit.
Meanwhile, The Sunday Times reported on the effect the current, palpable tension in the palace of Westminster is having on MPs. Asked to vote repeatedly on May’s deal, a softer Brexit, a referendum, No Brexit and No Deal in past weeks, MPs seeking a route through the gridlock have been repeatedly attacked on all sides. A bunker mentality has entrenched the views of those staunch defenders of each proposal to the extent that any deviant who dares to find compromise is derided, sometimes viciously, by their colleagues. The most shocking revelation came from Andrew Percy MP, who has admitted to hiding in a cupboard to escape the torment. Nick Boles left the Conservative party, citing its inability to compromise as the primary reason why indicative votes yielded no decisive way forward.
MPs aren’t alone in their exhaustion with the Brexit impasse. Asked about the effect the persisting Brexit uncertainty was having on our country’s mental health, six in ten respondents said badly.
Brexit has always been an emotive issue – almost half of my generation, myself included, were said to have cried upon finding out the result of the referendum. But the continuing uncertainty is taking its toll on the nation’s psyche. The disintegration of political norms and the myriad of arcane parliamentary manoeuvres has only heightened the feelings of confusion and fear amongst a public overburdened with a collective concern for the future.
Mrs May insists the country wants this over with, and there’s no doubt that many MPs do too. But will some, or any, of the factions come to fold in the coming days? And would that see the end of the Brexit humiliation for good?
That passing May’s deal – or any deal, for that matter – would enable this fraught Parliament and the wider, anxious nation to move on from Brexit is an illusion. The desperation to move on and address issues of knife crime, climate change and cybersecurity is real, but the argument that the passage of a Withdrawal Agreement spells the end of the Brexit torment could not be further from the truth. The most painful, divisive negotiations; the most difficult questions about what our future relationship looks like; and the stark reality of the costs of any Brexit are still yet to come.
Whatever happens next Brexit will be part of Britain’s political furniture for years. Our affiliation with Leave of Remain is now a defining part of our political identity and will play a critical role in any future leadership contest or general election. Though the current level of tension is having an impact on MPs mental health, MPs should be feeling some pressure – the decisions they make in the coming days will define this country for decades. It will define the future of my generation, and with the Conservative’s Onward think-tank finding this morning that the age at which the average voter is more likely to opt for their party over Labour is now 51, rather than 47 in 2017, the party should be urgently considering the impact their Brexit mess is having on support among younger voters.
The first and most important thing to do is to hit pause. We must accept that a crisis of nearly three years cannot be solved in a matter of weeks, and we must recognise that forcing MPs to vote again and again on the same options is taking its toll on their health and that of the nation while yielding no solutions. Let’s give ourselves time to scrutinise the options left and, should Parliament find a deal they can accept, let’s then put it to the people and make sure that they can stomach it too.