It’s not the “Parliamentary arithmetic”, stupid!

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It’s not the “Parliamentary arithmetic”, stupid!

Dominic Grieve thinks that it would be “extraordinary” for the Prime Minister not to step down in the event he loses a no-confidence motion. By extraordinary Grieve means unprecedented. But we all know Grieve’s relationship with “precedent” is, of course, a sort of Richard Burton-Elizabeth Taylor thing, a bit, as it were, “off and on”, says Sean Walsh.

I think by now we’ve got the point: “the Parliamentary arithmetic hasn’t changed”.  The Establishment, whose war against the voting public intensifies as Liberation Day approaches, is using its favoured device of ceaseless repetition to brand this point on the brows of the great unwashed. “We have a new Prime Minister”; yes but “the Parliamentary arithmetic has not changed”. “Surely we can expect a fresh approach to Brexit following the purge of the May Cabinet?”; yes but “the Parliamentary arithmetic has not changed”. “B and Q are doing a special offer on standard coloured emulsion paint!”; yes but “it doesn’t change the Parliamentary arithmetic”.

By “Parliamentary arithmetic” is meant “the arithmetic in the House of Commons” of course. It’s important to resist any conflation of the two. The determination of the Remain Vanguard to dissolve the executive into the legislature operates by linguistic stealth. But Parliament is not just the House of Commons, and the principle that Parliament is sovereign is not the principle that a majority of MPs, at a given point in time, should be able to get what they want.

The arithmetical emphasis is yet one more distraction. The arithmetic of the game of snooker is fairly constant (in the way that numbers usually are), but it makes a pretty big difference to the eventual distribution of those numbers who it is that is playing. Arithmetic may not change, but nor does it change anything itself. Replacing May with Johnson, on the other hand, is like replacing Peter Ebdon with Ronnie O’Sullivan. It may all come crashing down but it’s going to be a very different spectacle. Mere arithmetic has no intrinsic causal power, human decision making very much does. Behind the “arithmetic” of the Commons are individual MPs, with different views but a common primary objective: keeping their jobs. And behind each MP are thousands of other decision makers who are quite capable of thwarting that aim. That’s, ultimately, where the real arithmetical emphasis should be placed.

The snooker analogy is not entirely frivolous. For it is to game theory that we might look when assessing the likely shape of the final act in the drama of Brexit. What happens on October 31st is going to depend not just on whether or not Johnson is bluffing on the issue of a Clean Break, but on whether or not the matrix of bad faith that comprises the EU’s decision making structures, thinks that he is bluffing. And they can’t possibly know for the simple reason that it may well be the case that the Prime Minister doesn’t know himself. He may not yet have written his two articles arguing both sides of this question. What we can be certain of is that his predecessor’s interactions with the EU, whenever she was peremptorily summoned to Brussels, did not even rise to the level of attempted bluff. She turned up to a poker game expecting a jolly good game of Snap!.

For some, of course, the above misses the point, which is a useful strategy when you’re faced with a point that’s not worth catching. The arithmetic does matter, they will argue, because the House of Commons will serve as the theatre of operations in a final attempt to prevent a Clean Break Brexit. Foggy Grieve is, as we speak, in his Beaconsfield bunker (assuming he’s allowed back there), moving his fantasy battalions around his standard issue Remainer Map, constructing imaginary alternative governments, while Nick Boles is in the bunker kitchen replenishing the cafetiere.

Well I hope it stays fine for them, but I fear that Dominic Cummings was right to mirthfully relieve himself of his mouthful of coffee. There is nothing Johnson would like better than for them to collude with Corbyn in bringing forward a no-confidence motion and for the government to lose it. A Brexit General Election forced by the Remainer cabal? Bring it on. Let’s pencil it in for the first Thursday in November. Article 50 will do just fine during that campaign attached, as it is, to the Arrow of Time.

Grieve thinks that it would be “extraordinary” in these circumstances for the Prime Minister not to step down. By extraordinary Grieve means unprecedented. Grieve’s relationship with “precedent” is of course a sort of Richard Burton-Elizabeth Taylor thing, a bit, as it were, “off and on”. I suspect that the Foggy Dewhurst of UK politics might be about to crash his last bathtub-on-wheels; pretty soon he’s going to be out of materials.

The Prime Minister might, of course, blink, but he has no need to. The course is set. Furthermore, he knows that any attempt to represent the Withdrawal Treaty would not work. The Withdrawal Treaty minus the “backstop” remains the Withdrawal Treaty since its non-backstop clauses are equally pernicious, littered as they are with barely disguised mechanisms of continued membership. If Boris Johnson tries to convince us that the tumour was located in the backstop when we all now know that it had metastasized to the whole body of the document, then it will be a very short-lived Premiership. And contrary to the caricature he is not a lazy man; he’s in this for the long haul.

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  • Sean Walsh
    Sean Walsh
    Sean Walsh is a former university teacher of philosophy. He has a doctorate in the philosophy of artificial intelligence and his current research interests are in the philosophy of mind, metaphysics and the philosophy of religion. He is also interested in philosophical issues around addiction. He lives in Wiltshire and works with addiction and recovery agencies, and with a homeless charity. He runs a lot.
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