‘I didn’t sign up for this.’ That’s what one Conservative MP, a ‘Leave’ voter incidentally, told me last week.
The unexpected Friday sitting meant that they’d had to cancel surgeries and other constituency meetings. ‘My constituents don't remember who I am,’ they joked.
On the other side of the argument a Labour MP stopped me to express similar concerns. ‘My constituents want this over,’ they said. ‘I’m getting abuse from Brexiteers and ‘Second referendum-ers’ but I and my constituents want a compromise so that we can get on with the important issues that are being drowned out.’
That despair is felt across the parties and across the Brexit divisions within party. This was a parliamentary crisis four months ago. I don’t know what the word is for it now. Perhaps the Conservative MP who said to me ‘I feel like we’re trapped in this endless Brexit prison’ had it right.
That frustration and desperation is what was behind the indicative votes process that began last week. Even before the debates began, nobody thought that a majority could be found to back any of the 16 Brexit options to be debated.
But there was a feeling that it had to be tried. It failed but they’ll try again on Monday with fewer options. The Government though hasn’t said if it will abide by any option that emerges although those behind the efforts say they’ll enshrine any such option in law.
Read more: MPs reject all eight Brexit options
But again, sometimes you have to pinch yourself.
They’re calling Oliver Letwin who’s in charge of the indicative votes process the ‘backbench Prime Minister’ or ‘jobbing Prime Minister’ as Monmouth MP David Davies put it. And he is really.
On Wednesday and again on Monday he was in charge of parliamentary business, he has an alternative system of assistants which you could see as ministers and they have their own alternative whipping operation.
Incidentally that position led to one of many surreal events last week when the Delyn MP David Hanson quoted one of my tweets to Sir Oliver who in response said ‘I do not know whether the right honourable gentleman is reading a tweet that is a Trumpian tweet or an accurate tweet.’
I can confirm it was accurate but to be called ‘Trumpian’ in the Commons by an alternative Prime Minister is something that’s never happened to me before.
- The 1922 committee as it happened
Something else I’ve never experienced is to be among the press pack during an important 1922 committee meeting. The committee is where the Tory party in parliament meets, often to express critical views about the leadership. It’s named after a famous meeting of Tories in October 1922 following a by-election in Newport and which led to the Conservatives pulling out of Lloyd George’s coalition government - look for historical parallels if you want.
I’m usually on-air or not in Westminster when these meetings take place but for this one I was able to squeeze into a corridor jammed with journalists and Conservative MPs and peers slowly filtering into the committee room, and to listen to the often-reported banging of desks for myself.
There was an atmosphere of expectation - they knew the Prime Minister was going to say something big and she did.
She arrived last, ten minutes after the meeting had begun and swept through the waiting journalists, only smiling and saying ‘evening’ in response to questions. A few moments later an MP texted me from inside the meeting to say ‘she will go if we pass [her withdrawal agreement.]’
At exactly the same time that she was making that announcement, two doors down in the same committee corridor, Welsh Labour MPs were holding their regular meeting with a slight twist: the First Minister was joining them after taking part in a UK Government cabinet sub-committee meeting that the Welsh Government is involved in.
There was only one committee room between them. Theresa May and Mark Drakeford both meeting their MPs at the same time, but only one of them was so embroiled in crisis that she was bringing forward her resignation.
- Will there be a general election?
It didn’t help much. She still lost her third and most desperate attempt to pass the deal on Friday and hinted at the prospect of a General Election. That prospect is being played down in Sunday interviews but don’t think it was something made up by journalists and frustrated backbenchers.
Government ministers were telling opposition parties that an election will be called if everything collapses (as it still might) this week. And a government figure told me not to believe those who thought it was being spoken about in order to ‘spook’ MPs. ‘It is genuine,’ they said.
Much more remote is the idea of a government of national unity. I know of two MPs from different parties who talked about it last week. One dismissed it as ‘just beer talk’ but then stopped, thought a moment and said, ‘Is it so crazy? A national government for the rest of this parliament to deliver a different form of Brexit?’
- Indicative votes part two
This week then the beyond-crisis (I’ll have to think of a better word) continues.
MPs will try the indicative votes route again on Monday. It’s rumoured that the government will have a fourth attempt at winning support for its deal on Wednesday. As another Conservative MP put it, it’s only going to get ‘messier and messier.’