By Polly Toynbee
As theatre, Brexit loses out to drying paint. It is mostly excruciating. Time and again we are promised a high noon shoot-out with cabinet walkouts and armies of pitchfork-wielding Tory rebels, but then anti-climax: the real drama happens behind the scenes as our flawed heroine surrenders, leaving a damp squib finale in the Commons. It’s like the Richard II scene when the king calls off mortal combat between two nobles: that doesn’t end well. Today’s virtually Brexit–free front pages tell the story: no fighting is boring, boring, boring.
Yet what happened this week in Brexit has been momentous, even if we were denied catharsis. Battle honours go to Yvette Cooper and Oliver Letwin demanding the Commons’ right to vote down a no deal and extend article 50. They have saved the nation from the utter catastrophe revealed in the no-deal documents Anna Soubry prised from the cabinet. Backing for the Cooper/Letwin amendment from an unprecedented 20 ministers threatening resignation forced Queen Theresa to concede: she is ordering her troops to vote for a contradiction to her every Brexit word so far.
Climbdowns don’t come more dramatic. If there is an ounce of tragedy in her story, it’s here: she could have been a leader had she ruled out the appalling prospect of no deal from day one, had she convened all sides with flexibility instead of with her impossible red lines. Look what else was revealed last night: when the tide went out, the ERG were revealed to be swimming naked, with only 20 – just 20! – of their hardest of hardliners voting against the amendment that would deny their yearned-for no deal. It is almost tragic that May has been held captive by lunatics who turn out to be only a Potemkin army, all noise and striped waistcoats, no trousers.
The next hero is the one lone Tory who voted for Labour’s far better Brexit plan to stay in the customs union and close to the single market – Ken Clarke, father of the house, whose every wise and witty utterance routs the brainless inanities of the David Davis, Andrea Leadsom, Iain Duncan Smith, Mark Francois stupid party. Jacob Rees-Mogg, meanwhile, filled the London Palladium this week – an apt venue for this music hall grotesque.
But the surprise hero was an unknown, Tory MP Alberto Costa, who rode to the rescue of EU citizens living here and Brits living abroad, together numbering at least 5 million. Their rights will be assured in any kind of Brexit. All this time May has resisted giving security to people whose lives are deeply, invisibly, indivisibly interwoven into the fabric of British life. Her hostile environment has terrified families, some of whom have departed already, unwelcome under her chill xenophobic glare. What a mighty, swerving U-turn – and why should Costa be forced to resign his role as a parliamentary private secretary for his actions? Last night the whole house unanimously nodded through with no vote what should have been pledged the day after the EU-hating referendum result.
But Costa will have to keep campaigning. The hostile environment in the Home Office still needs to be vanquished with the registration scheme revised, otherwise, as the House of Lords EU justice sub-committee chair, Helena Kennedy, has warned, the home secretary faces “another immigration policy scandal”. The committee’s letter to the home secretary highlights the disaster lying ahead: the Home Office has learnt no lessons from the Windrush scandal, ploughing on with an EU settlement scheme riddled with faults.
Applicants can only apply online and only on android phones. As with Windrush, the unknowing will suddenly find themselves unable to work, use the NHS or rent a property if they don’t register by the two-year cut-off date with all the correct old documents, which many won’t have: the3million campaign is indunated with examples of vulnerable people at risk of being wrongly deported.
The Lords committee has taken plentiful evidence about those who can’t use computers, can’t fill out forms, are in care homes with dementia or are EU children in care whose councils may not register them. Human lives are infinitely complex: what happens to domestic violence victims and others whose husbands won’t register to bring in their children? What happens to the unregistered who return to their native country to care for aged parents, but find they are barred from returning, even if their children are here? Why are none given a document to show they belong here? Instead, they get a letter saying they are registered, but a warning saying that the letter is not a legal certificate.
The only evidence is their number inside the Home Office computer, which any would-be employer or landlord has to access via a government computer to confirm. Many employers and landlords will avoid the complexity and choose someone else instead. Why not issue everyone entitled with a welcoming document?
The tone has been hostile, not friendly. Meanwhile, figures released today show the number of EU migrants coming to Britain is falling fast – now at its lowest level since 2009 – with the number of non-EU migrants conversely at its highest since 2004. Was this the intention of the referendum?
Rollout begins in a month, the government boasting its two pilots went swimmingly, but they only tried it on universities and NHS employees – the competent young and IT-experienced. What of the Italian grandmother living here since the war, who never knew she needed to register – and has no correct documents? What of the Bulgarian whose passport is in Cyrillic? There is no office to visit and no “settled status” certificate at the end of the process. Few expect the notorious Home Office to register 3.5 million people within two years, fearing Windrush-reprise deportations through the usual mix of maladministration and malice.
Costa has his work cut out. And so do all those who now glimpse the real possibility that Brexit can be stopped. All the pollsters show a swing, with remain 8-10% ahead: by general election standards, that’s seismic. Labour has now pledged to back a vote, and we wait to see if Jeremy Corbyn is ready to put genuine rallying effort behind the path Keir Starmer has so adeptly charted for the party and the country.