by Martin Odoni

The Parliamentary debates over whether to have a General Election have really drawn attention to the disregard for nuance in British politics. This has been driven by rather blatant ‘tactical false accusation’ (read: ‘lying’) on the part of Conservative MPs – a sadly standard strategy of politics more widely.

The Labour Party has been consistently pushing for a new General Election for over two years, as a solution to the unending gridlock of Theresa May’s Hung Parliament. That consistency finally came to an end in recent weeks with the realisation that May’s successor as Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, the ‘freshly-boiled clown’ according to John Oliver, might manipulate the process to force through a No Deal Brexit. (That is of course the real reason for the Tory decision to prorogue Parliament for a highly irregular five weeks.)

Boris Johnson - a boiled clown

John Oliver, of the popular ‘cookery show’ (honest!) Last Week Tonight, has a handy make-your-own-BoJob guide.

For this reason, Jeremy Corbyn and most of the Shadow Cabinet have suspended their calls for a Snap Election. They have been very clear, up-front, honest and explicit about why they will not support a Dissolution of the present Parliament for the next few weeks: They oppose leaving the European Union without a deal, and they do not trust Johnson – and who can possibly blame them? – not to use the Dissolution to run down the clock and make it impossible to avoid ‘crashing out’. As is well-recorded, such a crash-out would be disastrous, and so opposing it is well merited, and despite the deceitful claims of Brexiteers, it absolutely does not contravene the outcome of the 2016 Referendum.

In circumstances this exceptional – and beyond doubt they are as exceptional as they can get – a suspension of a policy that would run so completely contrary to efforts to mitigate them is entirely reasonable. Quite simply, avoiding No Deal has to be the highest priority. Unfortunately, the aforementioned disregard for nuance means that it is not being interpreted that way.

Essentially, no matter how many times that Labour spokespeople – including Jeremy Corbyn – have stated up-front that they are putting the policy on temporary hold, and their reasons why, Conservative MPs, Brexiteers, and many media figures, claim that it is an ‘extraordinary and inexplicable change-of-heart’ and that it is happening because Labour are ‘scared’ of losing an Election.

Now it is fair to say that in recent months, the opinion polls have not been encouraging for Labour, due to widespread misinterpretations of its Brexit policy and to the boost the Tories got from a new Prime Minister’s inevitable ‘honeymoon period’. However, the polls are not as bad for Labour as they were looking about three weeks ago, as the so-called ‘Boris Bounce’ has been stalled by Johnson’s own anti-constitutional recent behaviour.

Comres Poll 6-8 Sept

A ComRes poll for 6th-to-8th September 2019 suggests Labour are breathing right down the Tories’ necks again, and this was before the chaos of Monday.

Labour are talking quite openly and confidently about a new Election, and it is quite clear that once they are certain that No Deal is off the table until at least Christmas, they will resume pursuit of this Government’s demise. They have stated and re-stated this position, but during recent debates, Conservatives have repeatedly acted like they have either not heard it, or like they are too idiotic to understand it. I am not convinced that the Tories are doing themselves any favours by adopting this approach.

The ‘Labour’s-too-scared’ accusation was stated, by my count, at least six times, several times by the same MP, during the various debates on Monday before Parliament was formally suspended. It seems that the Tories have committed to using a tediously familiar political tactic sometimes known as The Big Lie. This is the habit of just stridently declaring something they know is not true over-and-over, repeating it until everybody starts taking it as a given. This is the tactic Josef Goebbels is wrongly assumed to have ‘codified’, so to speak.

To a greater or lesser extent, Tories can get away with this sort of stubborn insistence outside the House of Commons when there is no one on hand to correct them. The problem with using the tactic in a Parliamentary debate though is that, highly likely, the opponent they are speaking about is on hand to correct them. Labour MPs repeatedly answered the charge on Monday, only for Tory opponents to reiterate the same false claim. The danger to the Tories of doing so when having already been corrected, especially if they keep doing it endlessly, is that it is as likely to backfire as it is to damage Labour. The Tory MPs will look either dishonest and petulant, or worse, they will look like they are so stupid that they genuinely cannot understand the really straightforward and clear-cut explanation for holding back from a new General Election for a few weeks.

Given that the real explanation is so easy-to-understand, and indeed would be pretty easy to figure out even without any helpful nudges from Jeremy Corbyn et al, this Tory dishonesty could even be seen as rather insulting to the intelligence of the public. Regardless, it is unlikely to impress anyone who does not already support the Tories. Being transparently stupid or dishonest or insulting to the public usually pushes the electorate into voting for someone else.

There were other plainly stupid arguments I heard from Tory MPs on Monday – apologies that I am unable to remember most of the names, and I do not consider it a worthy use of time searching through eleven hours of video to look them up. (If you wish to complain about my skimping, feel free to write to your MP. Just do not expect them to send you an honest answer.)

John Redwood argued that the European Union will not re-negotiate Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement. Quite untrue. They have explicitly stated that they will not renegotiate on Britain’s present terms. But they are open to renegotiate if May’s silly, posturing ‘red lines‘ are removed, and if the UK can come up with a feasible alternative to the ‘Northern Ireland Backstop’. This has again been stated and re-stated continuously, so Redwood is either being (entirely characteristically) disingenuous, or he is just too stupid to understand the very obvious nuance.

A female Tory in a pink cardigan intervened to object that the Liberal Democrats’ desire to renegotiate the Agreement was unrealistic because it would take far more time than would be available before the current deadline of 31st October. I was actually saying, “Duuuhhhhh!” in the direction of the screen when I heard her say this. After all, who was not aware of that? Did she think the LibDems were trying to keep that a secret? It is the whole reason why the LibDems support an extension to Article 50 in the first place. It, again, has been made explicitly clear many times, and so it is quite impossible to imagine what points the Tory MP was expecting to score off of that.

I saw another male MP arguing that, because people are not allowed to pick and choose which laws they are prepared to obey and which they are not, so MPs cannot pick and choose which Referendum results they are prepared to obey. This was below asinine. For one thing, as has (yet agaaaaaaaaaaaaaainnnnnnn-grrrraaaahhhh!) been pointed out relentlessly, a Referendum is not defined in British law at all. Even if it were, that would not necessarily make the actual outcome of one binding. So this is very much a case of an apples-‘n’-oranges analogy, and any MP is in fact well within their rights to ignore the result of a Referendum. This is not to suggest it would be wise or honourable to do so, only to make clear that there is no point invoking the law to pressurise politicians where the law has no place. The implication is also dishonest once more, in that hardly anyone, at least outside the minuscule ranks of the Liberal Democrats, has been trying to ‘ignore’ the result of the Referendum. The great majority of MPs are not trying to terminate Brexit, they are simply trying to stave off a No Deal Brexit, a position that does not contravene the Referendum result. Very obvious nuance ignored again.

If you do not wish to believe that the Tories have underhanded reasons for saying this, well, credit to you for wanting to see the best in people. But if you do not see dishonesty, you must objectively see stupidity. It is one, the other, or even both.

It cannot be neither.