Brexit bickering is back and oh, how it has not been missed. There is something about the EU question that sends Westminster — and the rest of the country — around the bend. As with last autumn, British politics is now dominated by a boisterous debate about our future relationship with Europe. Back then it was about when we would leave the EU; now it is about whether the final break will be a friendly or hostile one.
Watching MPs bicker and brief this week has confirmed to me that this issue is unlike any other. Brexit, for some Brexiteers, is not about pragmatic, difficult policy decisions taken in the national interest. It is about pure faith. Seemingly thoughtful and wise heads appear to lose theirs whenever the question of Europe comes to the fore.
Commons debates become furious when the B-word is on the agenda. Bad motives are suspected in both sides.
Consider the type of break with the EU that Boris Johnson is seeking: whatever the outcome on a trade deal between now and the end of the year, the break is going to be a decisive one. Ties between the UK and its nearest trading neighbour are going to be looser than they have been since the war. Brexit will be harder or cleaner (depending on what phrase you prefer) than even the most passionate Leaver could have dreamed of five years ago.
And yet for some, it is still not enough. The UK is exiting all central parts of the EU — the single market, customs union and regulatory agencies — and forging the slimmest of trading ties, but the most passionate believers in Brexit still want more. Several Conservative grandees called on Mr Johnson to tear up the withdrawal agreement he signed regarding international law last year, instead of challenging some elements of the treaty, as the prime minister plotted this week. They have decided, with hindsight, that the terms are not good enough.
In a reasonable view, most folks might accept that the UK is making a hard Brexit and move onto caring about something else — such as what the economy is going to look like after coronavirus or how the UK is going to survive the severely challenging winter ahead (Brexit, plus more coronavirus, a rise in unemployment, the normal flu season and potential flooding all make something to look forward to). But instead, sensing a moment of weakness in Mr Johnson’s negotiations on with the EU, Brexiteers have gone in for another win.
Catholics can appreciate why patient belief is vital in coping with daily events.
Such faith is particularly jarring because British politics is devoid of zealotry passion. Sure, the House of Commons has its feisty moments, but most MPs tend to lean into detailed debate, amendments to legislation and committee hearings rather than character assassination. There are very few MPs in parliament for the wrong reasons and almost all parliamentarians can see some good in what their opponents hope to achieve.
But when it comes to Brexit, all of that good can disappear. Commons debates become furious when the B-word is on the agenda. Bad motives are suspected in both sides: Leavers think the other side is bent on disrespecting democracy, while Remainers argue Brexiteers will ruin the country. No other topic (I can think of) creates such bitter division.
Maybe it is because Brexit is about personality and character — the Remain/ Leave split has not been scrubbed from society and it will not be for years to come. Maybe it is because the issue has such significance: Brexit is a prism for every person’s world view. Or maybe it is because those who passionately believe in it have a deep faith that their cause is worth surviving some immediate turmoil.
Catholics can appreciate why patient belief is vital in coping with daily events. Faith buoys us towards something greater. Brexiteers have adopted the same attitude we have sought throughout our lives. Yet for those of us who keep our faith personal and discrete, this political development may not be a helpful one. The evidence of the last four torrid years in Westminster suggests pure faith does not chime well with good politics.
Sebastian Payne is Whitehall correspondent for the Financial Times.
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