Was there ever such a principled stand over a such a feeble cause? If today’s Tory rebels were intent on overturning the 2016 referendum result because, in all their conscience, they could support a policy of leaving the EU, I would not agree with what they were doing, but I would have some grudging respect for it.
Instead, what is the great issue at stake in today’s vote? Another extension of Article 50 to 31 January. Yep, another three whole months in the EU. But to what purpose? The rebels can’t come up with a more specific demand because they do not know or cannot agree on what they want. Some want to remain, others think we should leave but do not know how. So they coalesce around a compromise cause which makes no sense at all – which instead seeks merely to prolong the agony, create more drift, makes the space for yet more hours of Parliamentary debate in which they can agree on absolutely nothing.
This is exactly what happened last time that MPs seized control of the Commons order paper, in March. Rebellious MPs had their moment to wield their authority, stamp their mark on the nation’s future – and they ended up supporting nothing. They could agree on what they didn’t want, but not on what they did. They voted down a second referendum, various brands of Norway-style arrangement, as well as Theresa May’s deal and cancelling Article 50. They want to abolish the default position – no deal – yet without any replacement default, nor any idea of what they would want it to be the default position from.
Few have the balls to defy the electorate and say we’re not going to take any notice of the referendum result – in spite of a great number of them repeatedly trying to make the point that it was only advisory. Go on, if that’s what you believe – dare to cancel the whole thing. But they can’t. Instead they just keep on postponing, voting down every firm proposal for Brexit. They pose as some great united front against Boris’s government, yet they have no real sense of purpose at all. If today’s motion is passed it will be by 300 rebels with 300 causes.
That’s why Boris has been such a breath of fresh air at Number 10 – not because he has come up with any ground-breaking idea, nor because his negotiating skills are working wonders on the EU (there is scant sign of that), but because he does at least have a credible plan of action with some kind of closure at the end of it. The rebels, on the other hand, claim high principles – yet they can offer no vision other than fog. If we do have a general election, rebels are going to be punished for that. After three years of drift, the mood in the country is to get some firm conclusion – and quickly. Can-kickers are not going to be treated kindly.