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Adrian Masters: How the Brexit political crisis is running parliamentary democracy 'beyond breaking point'

You don’t need me to tell you how strange, unusual and bewildering this Brexit political crisis is.

It’s leading to strange alliances being formed and old friendships being broken.

It’s splitting parties, cabinets and it’s pushing the rules and traditions on which parliamentary democracy runs to breaking point. Or maybe beyond breaking point.

Credit: PA Images

Theresa May’s statement in Downing Street on Wednesday seemed to me to lead to one of the lowest of many low points.

The former Defence Minister, Guto Bebb, told me it was "unworthy and dangerous" because it pinned the blame on MPs as the reason for the chaos, using language that risked stoking violent hostility to parliament.

"Our inboxes are hate-filled," he told me. "She knows MPs are receiving death threats, so yes [it was] contemptible. It’s an utter failure of judgement on her behalf."

A UK Government source hit back at criticism of the Prime Minister, saying "they’re playing the woman not the ball. When she calls them out, they don’t like it. They need to talk about the issue not the person."

The trouble is both things are inextricably linked for many.

A Conservative MP who’s a May loyalist told me late Wednesday night that the mood was "pretty dark in the party." They described the statement as "depressing, pointless and diversionary" and was angry that those who had been doing their best to build support were again being ignored. "She’s always looking for a way to keep the hardliners on board rather than make the big decisions."

Another told me that those who had been helping whips with the delicate task of trying to win over Labour MPs were "in despair."

I had been told previously that the Government’s Chief Whip, Julian Smith, was seen going into the offices of Labour MPs who have hinted they could be persuaded to vote for Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement. He was reportedly embarrassed to be seen in that vicinity because he was held up by a slow-arriving lift. That embarrassment may have been wasted, the effort undermined by the reaction to the statement.

Talking of whips, during one of the multiple votes last week on the deal, no deal and delaying deal (don’t ask me which one, they’ve become blurred in my memory) I bumped into some Labour whips who described how they ended up having to act as quasi-government whips, helping Tory MPs who wanted to support the government into the Aye lobby, because there appeared not to be any government whips there. The Labour whips who included Mark Tami, shrugged as if to say this is the new normal.

Welsh Secretary Alun Cairns voted both for and against a government motion Credit: PA Images

Not much surprises me anymore but there are still some unexpected turns. After the vote to back a delay to our departure date, I stood in the cold outside parliament refreshing the Commons Vote app which shows, well, how MPs voted. I’d been surprised to see the Welsh Secretary Alun Cairns had voted against the government motion. Theresa May had granted a free vote so it wouldn’t see him being sacked but it seemed unusual in one who’s been so loyal to her. But it was an even bigger shock to see his name was in the ‘Ayes’ list as well as the ‘Noes’ because he’d voted twice. It’s a practice known as ‘positive abstention’, not unknown but not exactly common practice.

Away from parliament the tension is being felt in Cardiff Bay even if the focus on Westminster means there is much less scrutiny on potential divisions there. The Welsh Government is formally committed to preparing for a new referendum, sometimes known as a ‘People’s vote’ if all means to find agreement have been exhausted. But there’s frustration that the First Minister Mark Drakeford is still holding out for those other means and not throwing his weight fully behind a referendum.

In a statement to AMs this week he said that "if the House of Commons decides that a public vote is the way through the morass that has been created, then we will support it."

There are those within Welsh Labour angry at such a lukewarm statement. But the First Minister made clear his concerns that ‘a second referendum campaign would inevitable be divisive, with no certainty that it would be decisive."

That’s not the view of at least two cabinet members, the Health Secretary and the International Relations Minister who are both attending this weekend’s People’s Vote rally. In fact Vaughan Gething has paid for two of the 20 buses taking supporters from Cardiff to London for this weekend’s rally. The former minister Alun Davies tweeted that "many other ministers agree."

When I asked Mark Drakeford earlier this year if he was prepared for cabinet resignations because of his determination to keep working to find a deal that he can support, he seemed genuinely surprised by the thought. I don’t think it’s at all unlikely though.

Mark Drakeford wrote to the prime minister urging her to put 'country before party' Credit: PA Images

His letter to the Prime Minister on Thursday was strident in its criticism of her.

He said on Twitter that her Wednesday night statement showed her at her worst. Plaid Cymru said his response showed him at his worst too because he was "continuing to press ahead without a credible plan at Jeremy Corbyn’s command, rather than calling clearly for a People’s Vote." Alun Davies tweeted that he was "very disappointed that [the First Minister] has not also emphasised our commitment to immediately being preparations for a public vote. That was what we agreed in January and this is what he asked our parliament to support."

When I spoke briefly to the Welsh Secretary Alun Cairns, he wouldn’t respond directly to the First Minister’s points. But he did say that it was "hugely disingenuous" of politicians to oppose the withdrawal agreement even though they don’t have any particular problems with the backstop nor are they pushing for a second referendum.

It’s important he said that such politicians need to support the deal and encourage MPs to do so too. "They’re calling for red lines to be removed from the withdrawal agreement but the things that they want are for the future relationship and you can’t get to that without backing a deal."

It’s not at all clear whether a deal can be agreed - any deal, let alone the Prime Minister’s. They’re supposed to be trying again next week, but frankly anything can happen between now and then.

We’re in the end game, that much is clear. But the end game for what or for whom? One Conservative MP said it was like the end of a chess game where one player only had a king and a bishop while the other had lots of pawns but wasn’t a very good player. It involves moving around the king and bishop from square to square saying ‘you haven’t killed me yet.’ With a bitter laugh they said ‘Not dead yet, that’s what it’s come to.’