This spring Saturday was meant to be Day One of a glorious new era. After 46 years in the EU, Britain was supposed to be a sovereign state again, no longer partly ruled by bureaucrats in Brussels who don’t go to the bother of getting elected.
Instead of that joyous state of affairs, we are sinking further into the mire. After Theresa May’s third, and pretty resounding, defeat in the Commons yesterday afternoon, we find ourselves at the mercy of the European Union, which we thought we had escaped.
EU leaders may now offer us a lengthy extension beyond April 12, but at the cost of our taking part in Euro elections at the end of May. Some — me included — doubt whether we will ever leave. A general election and a Marxist Corbyn government may lie ahead.
The Independent Group and SNP MPs pose for pictures in the Chamber last month
How did this great betrayal happen? Why have 17.4 million votes cast in the referendum nearly three years ago been set aside amid chaos and in-fighting? The people of this country find themselves more frustrated and divided than at any time in living memory, and politicians can only lead them deeper into the mess.
And so it has become fashionable, particularly in Left-wing circles, to say our political system is broken. Our unwritten constitution, based on the 1689 Bill of Rights, is declared redundant. It may have served us well during Britain’s greatest days. It may have guided us through World War II. But it has been unequal to the challenges of Brexit.
Some assert we need a written constitution. I heard one supposedly knowledgeable expert on the BBC enthusiastically propose that we copy the example of South Africa — a novel idea since that country is one of the most corrupt and least well-governed on earth.
Others aver that the two-party system is moribund and we need proportional representation to deliver us from its dead hand. It’s said we must have more devolution to counter the excessive power of central government — not that this allegedly unruly beast has exactly been on the rampage in recent months.
A few even suggest that a vigorous new broom should sweep away the knee breeches and wigs and coronets and State carriages and all the paraphernalia acquired over the centuries, including perhaps even the monarchy itself, and replace them with the unfussy appurtenances of the modern age.
It would be foolish, after the political convulsions of the past few months, to argue that there is nothing in our political arrangements that should be changed. I’m sure improvements could be made.
But I’m convinced that the problem is not so much a defective system as a failed political class. It’s not the rat-infested, antiquated House of Commons letting us down — as Green MP Caroline Lucas claimed on Radio Four’s Today programme yesterday — but the MPs sitting on its benches.
Let’s conduct a brief thought experiment. Imagine that instead of emerging from the 2017 General Election as the wounded leader of a minority government, Theresa May had romped home with a majority of more than 150, as early polls suggested she would.
Prime Minister Theresa May (next to Andrea Leadsom and Geoffrey Cox) during a debate on Brexit in the House of Commons on Friday
Do we seriously suppose that in those happy circumstances she would have been unable to deliver a version of Brexit that would have satisfied the reasonable majority in Parliament and the country (i e. not the head bangers on the extremes of Remain and Leave) to get it through the Commons?
Surely it’s highly likely that, if she had had such a stonking majority, our now stricken Prime Minister would have been able to shape an acceptable Brexit, and would have done so without repeatedly having to rattle her begging bowl in an excruciatingly humiliating way under the condescending noses of EU panjandrums.
Oh, what joy there would have been! Today we would be celebrating a triumph of democracy, not grieving over our national embarrassment as the laughing stock of Europe. No one would suggest our political system is broken.
What has happened is that the peculiar — and, in modern British history, relatively unusual — conditions of minority government have exposed the shocking limitations of our political leaders on both sides of the House.
Without a comfortable majority, Mrs May was never going to be equal to the task of delivering Brexit. She might have coped with lesser problems (as the 1974-79 Labour administration struggled through with Liberal support) but not a divisive and once-in-a-lifetime issue.
Needless to say, she has been admirably resilient, and worked as tirelessly as was possible. But she lacks the empathetic skills to attract doubters in her own party and among opposition MPs to her cause, and her stubbornness and rigidity of mind made her a poor negotiator.
Moreover, she has been cursed with a Cabinet which, despite one or two exceptions such as Michael Gove, is one of the most mediocre in living memory. It has several members who would be fortunate to hold down jobs in middle management.
Errors of judgment by the hapless Chris Grayling, Transport Secretary, are legion, not least in relation to his No Deal planning. Gavin Williamson must be one of the intellectually feeblest Secretaries of Defence ever to occupy that great office of State.
Transport Secretary Chris Grayling smiles as he arrives for a cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street on Tuesday
His most ludicrous faux pas was his recent indication that he might despatch Britain’s sole aircraft carrier to the South China Sea even though it lacks planes, and could be sunk by the Chinese in minutes. The government in Beijing cancelled a trip which the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, had been planning to make to China. Few in the Cabinet have much knowledge or experience of foreign affairs, far less the inscrutable workings of the EU. Which among them could with any accuracy be described as statesmanlike?
The ineptitude of our rulers is by no means restricted to Brexit, though it is undeniably most painfully felt there. There is good reason to think that under Tories or Labour we are less well governed than we used to be.
The last Labour government managed to fight an illegal war in Iraq which cost the lives of 179 British soldiers, and a futile war in Afghanistan which accounted for the lives of 454 military personnel.
For years the Home Office, described by one former Labour Home Secretary as ‘not fit for purpose’, has been a by-word for incompetence. Its latest dereliction of duty was to deport at least 83 black British subjects in the so-called Windrush scandal.
Whether we are considering inefficiencies in the NHS or a falling clear-up rate by the police or a dysfunctional welfare system, there is a mountain of evidence that the political class is not up to running the country.
To return to the catastrophe of Brexit: if the current Tory front bench is weak and ill-suited to meet its challenges, Labour is uniquely ineffectual. Whereas the 1964 Labour Cabinet was crammed with Oxford firsts and men with practical experience, today’s Shadow Cabinet has perhaps a couple of people of intellectual distinction, and many who have never had a proper job.
Foremost among them, of course, is polytechnic drop-out and life-long Marxist ideologue, Jeremy Corbyn. It’s not just his mental equipment which needs a good overhaul. The man who offered himself as a breath of fresh air has turned out to be politically poisonous.
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn speaking on a point of order in the House of Commons on Friday
What prevented Labour from supporting the Withdrawal Agreement yesterday? Corbyn had previously expressed no significant quarrel with its terms for our extricating ourselves from the EU. But he nonetheless refused to back what he called a ‘blindfold Brexit’.
And yet the Withdrawal Agreement is very specific. It is the non-legally binding and aspirational Political Declaration, which was not voted on yesterday, that might reasonably be described as blindfolded.
The truth is that Corbyn will cynically seize any pretext he can find to oppose the Government because he hopes to precipitate a general election, which he believes he would win — and then unleash his madcap Marxist experiment on an unsuspecting public.
The pity of it is that he may now succeed, and Britain could face economic impoverishment at his hands and his sinister comrade-in-arms John McDonnell, by the side of which No Deal — not that I think it will happen — would resemble a stroll in the park.
Has any political leader ever so egregiously put party before country at a time of national crisis as Corbyn? In May 1940, the Labour leader, Clement Attlee, joined a coalition government led by Winston Churchill. He wasn’t even thinking about Labour’s electoral prospects.
Alas, it’s not just the leadership of both main parties that have failed so lamentably to rise to the occasion. There are plenty more minor players who are equally authentic representatives of a failed political class.
Look at the Tory European Research Group (ERG). I don’t doubt their members have principles. But some of them are also cussed characters who are constitutionally incapable of compromise, which is an essential part of successful government, and was once considered a quint- essentially British political virtue.
For example, the ERG’s Mark Francois, a combative little bruiser who makes a great deal of his short time in the army, insisted on Thursday that ‘I would rather put a gun in my mouth than vote for Mrs May’s deal’.
Mark Francois, a Tory member of the European Research Group, walks through Westminster yesterday
Around the same time, Steve Baker, deputy leader of the ERG and a man of scary certainty, announced he would oppose the deal and would rather ‘bulldoze’ Parliament than fall into line. Why do these people favour such apocalyptic language?
Even more intransigent are the ten Democratic Unionist Party MPs, an insular sect which claims to uphold the union but in reality thinks only of its own interests in Northern Ireland. Mrs May’s grisly supposed allies, although they voted against her yesterday, are an extremist party with links to the province’s terrorist past.
Meanwhile on the Remain side there are plenty of tin-pot Napoleons. What unites them is their self-importance and their hunger for the limelight, the Soubrys, Grieves, Wollastons et al. How they relish their moment in the sun!
Above them all looms Speaker John Bercow, the most preposterous figure in a crowded field. Almost unbelievably, this creature is venerated by some television news addicts abroad as an engagingly eccentric Englishman.
Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow gestures as he officiates on Friday
To many more weary British eyes, he is a Remain activist vaingloriously trying to scupper the whole Brexit process by a one-sided appeal to precedent in defiance of the votes of 17.4 million people. He made no attempt to conceal his delight as he announced the cataclysmic vote.
With a cast of characters like these, it’s not surprising that public esteem for our politicians is rock bottom. Naturally, I don’t deny that on all sides of the Commons there are sensible and committed MPs. Unfortunately their voices have been drowned out.
No, what we see is a political class whose upper echelons are less competent than perhaps at any time in the past 200 years while, lower down the food chain, there are foot soldiers who are bigoted, parochial, and too partisan to accept the need to compromise.
And they’re sometimes venal, too. According to recent figures published by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, MPs are claiming 22 per cent more in taxpayer-funded expenses than they did a decade ago before the expenses scandal was exposed.
Much of the increase reflects higher staffing costs, which some may consider reasonable. But some MPs are charging for first-class train travel and business class flights — contrary to the spirit, if not the letter, of a supposedly more frugal expenses regime.
In all manner of ways, our politicians assume they occupy a different moral universe to the rest of us. While Theresa May’s political corpse is still warm, Tory Cabinet ministers are already publicly jostling for her job. Have they no shame? Can’t they grasp what we think of them?
I’ve been amazed over recent months by how well-informed most people I meet are about Brexit, whether Remainers or Leavers. It’s a curious paradox that while the public grows more knowledgeable, the political class deteriorates.
The sad truth is that the best and brightest are no longer going into politics, though of course there are exceptions. It’s not first-past-the-post or the two-party system or our ancient institutions that are the blight. It’s our pygmy politicians.
No one knows where our country is heading. There’ll be months of tiresome negotiations. We may well never leave the EU. We’ll certainly never get the Brexit 17.4 million people voted for. We could have an election, and a Corbyn government, and the ruination of Britain.
Tens of millions of people, including thoughtful Remainers, will blame a fractious, blind and selfish political class. The legacy of this Brexit debacle will be a lack of respect for our political masters bordering on contempt — and a perilous gulf between the rulers and the ruled that grows ever wider.