On democracy, Sir Lewis Namier and the struggles of the super-rich

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By BAGEHOT

I SPENT MUCH of this week in the House of Commons press gallery not knowing whether to laugh or cry. Theresa May laying out the case for her deal on Tuesday, her voice so hoarse that it could hardly be heard and her body hunched, was a moment of both personal and national humiliation. The chaos on Wednesday, when Tory MPs were first told that they wouldn’t be whipped and then, at the last moment, that they would, sending them scurrying hither and thither, was a moment of high farce. And what are we to make of Thursday, when Stephen Barclay, the Brexit minister, spoke in favour of a government motion at the dispatch box and then marched off to vote against it?

But before we lose faith in British democracy entirely it’s worth remembering two things. The first is that there were some fine speeches among the craziness and dross. Kenneth Clarke, the Father of the House, was the most statesmanlike. He made a good case that what the British people voted for in the referendum was to leave the political structures of the European Union but remain within the common market and suggested that this might provide the template for a compromise. He also had a merry time mocking Brexiteers who probably didn’t know what the WTO was a few months ago but who now think it’s the fount of all wisdom. (One of the oddities of the Brexit debate is that the WTO is now being praised by protesters rather than denounced by them.) Anna Soubry, a former Tory who has joined the new Independent Group, was the most withering about the Brexiteers who have taken over her party. (Shortly after listening to her I queued up for a cup of coffee behind Peter Bone, one of the leading Brexiteers, who has taken to wearing dirty old trainers, as if he is preparing for a career as a beggar.) Hilary Benn pointed to the logical contradiction at the heart of Mrs May’s policy: why is it reasonable for her to keep putting the same question to the House, when it has been rejected twice by huge margins, and not reasonable to hold a second referendum after a relatively narrow vote in 2016? And, on the government side, Michael Gove, secretary of state for agriculture, proved, yet again, that he is the best debater in the House.

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