Journalists emerge as losers in Brexit vote saga

BY Denis MacShane   /  13 June 2018

Everyone is dumping on everyone as yesterday’s votes on Brexit in the Commons failed to deliver leadership, clarity and coherence. Last month I had lunch with Michel Barnier in Brussels and he and his T50 team are scratching their heads as they wait for the internal fighting in the Westminister political parties to come to an end.

They can handle a hard Brexit, a soft Brexit, an EEA Brexit and presumably no Brexit at all if a new referendum or a general election decided to end the present imbroglio.

But what they cannot do is substitute themselves for the thought process of the British political elites. Barnier certainly expected nothing ahead of the June EU Council. Eyes are focussed on October and the votes in the Commons in the funny fortnight when the Commons comes back in September but most probably in October once the trials by ordeal of the party conferences are over.

Do not forget that Barnier is above all a consummate politician who like Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn has done nothing else all his life. If there was such a thing as a French equivalent of a “One Nation” political animal, Barnier would fit the bill.

He began life organising a Young Gaullist social – i.e. left – movement and hasn’t stayed far from the political centre in a career that has taken him to two top posts in the French government – Foreign Minister and Agriculture Minister, the latter being a bed of nails for any French politician. He was twice a Commissioner and in his sixties learnt passable English unlike the monolingual Brexit secretary or indeed Prime Minister he has to deal with in London.

But he will be scratching his head at the weird proposal by Dominic Grieve, Tory Remainer MP, to take the negotiation forward into December or even the New Year. The one water-tight bit of wording between Brussels and London is agreement that the Withdrawal Treaty and any other cobbled together agreement must be in writing and legally watertight by the end of October.

The EU27 governments have their lawyers and some have specific problems like Spain on Gibraltar which will need careful examination. The European Parliament has to ratify the Withdrawal Treaty. The proposal to tear up this agreed timetable would have surprised Brussels as would the idea that Barnier should face 650 British MPs as they formed a giant negotiating collective to hammer out a Withdrawal Treaty.

It will be interesting to see if London journalists also draw some lessons from yesterday’s vote. In the days running up the votes every paper was full of its top pundits telling MPs how to vote. The Remainer columnists headed by Matthew Paris, Polly Toynbee, Will Hutton and Hugo Dixon issued their marching orders to vote for the Lords amendments. The journalist tribunes of Brexit with the splendid Rod Liddle at their head instructed MPs on how to vote to thwart the Lords amendments. Paul Mason, the doyen of left socialist commentators commanded Labour MPs to vote against anything that smacked of a soft Brexit like staying in the European Economic Area.

MPs took no notice at all. As far as can be judged not a single MP changed his or her line as a result of encouragement to vote for Europe or by denunciations suggesting they were traitors and saboteurs and should face deselection.

In fact, MPs stayed remarkably loyal to their parties. The moment Labour tabled its own amendment rather than make common cause with Tory MPs opposed to a hard Brexit, the game was over. No Tory MP will go into Jeremy Corbyn’s lobby in order to bring down Theresa May. No Labour MPs will easily vote to defy the Labour leadership beyond those who have decided like Corbyn himself during the Labour government that loyalty does not extend to voting for party policy.

There is no evidence that any argument, exhortation, appeal or threat from any prominent journalist had the slightest impact. There will be more votes on Brexit but perhaps the time has come for journalists to report and analyse rather than try and dictate how MPs should vote.

It barely matters whether you are a Remainer or Brexiter. In decades ahead when historians produce measured accounts of this extraordinary moment in our political history the chapters on how journalists gave up reporting and took up lecturing and hectoring will not redound to the credit of the profession of journalism.

Denis MacShane is a former president of the NUJ and a former Minister of Europe.