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The next 48 to 72 hours at Westminster are going to be exciting and meaningless, wearying and enthralling. But come Friday morning we will be at exactly the same point at which we started – if you want to begin Brexit and start the much more serious and important work of sorting out a permanent trading relationship with the European Union then, as a Member of Parliament, you have to vote for the Prime Minister’s Withdrawal Agreement.
If you do not, for whatever convoluted reason you have worked out, then you will not be allowing Brexit to occur. If you do vote for the Withdrawal Agreement then Brexit takes place. If you do not vote for the Withdrawal Agreement then we will not leave the European Union, at least any time soon, and we will almost certainly have a General Election. It is, in the end, that simple. What is taking place in the House of Commons, in practical terms, today is almost meaningless.
It is pointless to rehearse here the rights and wrongs, and there are plenty of both, of how we arrived here. We are, as they say, where we are. Several things, however, are worth noting. First and foremost it is vital to remember Brexit is not, and has never been, a first order issue. The country, the state, is not under threat. No-one is threatening an invasion and no lives are being threatened. It is because the threat is not existential that the absolute pressure to reach a resolution has not been enough to force one so far in this process.
Secondly, what we are witnessing is not a failure of democracy or of our Parliamentary processes – both continue to prove incredibly robust and resilient and thank God for it. What we are witnessing is a failure of our politics, and specifically of political leadership. This failure of political leadership reflects very poorly on all those who occupy senior positions in our national political life. We have been given front row seats in a series of virtuoso performances in buck-passing, blame shifting, and weaselling by our political overlords.
Thirdly, we have proven beyond doubt that referendums are completely antithetical to our well established and mature Parliamentary democracy. Mrs Thatcher was right when she approvingly quoted Clement Attlee, when he observed that referendums are the favoured devices of dictators and demagogues.
Fourthly, we are reminded, apparently necessarily, that you cannot lead anything successfully – business, charity, voluntary organisation, an armed service, anything, let alone a nation – by stubbornness, inflexibility and bullying. Politics, as with so much else in life, is about achieving what is possible in the context you are given in which to operate. Leadership requires principle, agility, stamina, skill, resilience, robustness and good will. Resilience, stamina and robustness on their own may be necessary qualities when tackling the Royal Marine Commando course at Lympstone, but they are not enough in and of themselves when you are trying to lead a political party and a nation.
The Withdrawal Agreement is the way to achieve Brexit and come Friday morning, or whenever it is brought back to the House of Commons, Members of Parliament of all colours should vote for it, respect the result of the referendum and move forward with the nation’s business.