The Spectator's Notes

In defence of unicorns

19 January 2019

9:00 AM

19 January 2019

9:00 AM

The scale of the government’s defeat on Mrs May’s deal is, as everyone keeps saying, amazing — yet also not. Mrs May had been told again and again by Tory MPs who were not natural rebels that they could not accept her plan, partly because of the money, but chiefly because of the backstop trap. She just did not seem to take it in. When 117 of her party voted no confidence in her a month ago, she still did not pick up the message, but instead turned to trade union leaders, Labour MPs and potential Remainer rebels to make conciliatory noises on the other side of the argument. So 118 Tories quite logically voted against her solution in parliament on Tuesday night. The most significant new entrant in the ‘No’ lobby was Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee. He has until now combined strong support for Brexit with emphasis on the need to seek out compromise. He tried, but he just could not see how, if Brexiteers conceded the backstop, Britain could ever actually leave. If the most important tribal elder feels disdained by the Prime Minister, it is certain that scores of lesser beings will feel even sorer.

Mr Speaker Bercow, following his unvarying rule of trying to do down the government, refused to call the amendment moved by Andrew Murrison which would have allowed MPs to vote for a legally binding codicil to end the backstop on 31 December 2021. So we were denied the knowledge of how many MPs would support the government on such terms. But the scale of the defeat was caused by the backstop, which may make the EU reflect. It reminds people of the fact that the backstop could, in reality, be sorted out bilaterally between Britain and Ireland if only the EU would allow it. Significant numbers of EU prominenti are beginning to feel uneasy that £39 billion might be lost to the Brussels coffers because of M. Barnier and co making such a song and dance about an Irish border. Despite genuflexions to the Good Friday Agreement, what happens in Crossmaglen or Dundalk is not the key issue for Europe as seen from (© Winston Churchill) ‘Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic’.

Weirdly, though, Mrs May still regards the backstop as the sine qua non of any agreement whatever. In her wind-up speech in the debate, she said that ‘no backstop means no deal’. She also told the House, however, that it was ‘categorically wrong’ to say that Britain could not make a go of no deal. She needs to link her two thoughts: if a deal means a backstop, a backstop means her defeat in parliament and no deal can be made a go of, then her own logic suggests that making a go of it is what she must do.

The term ‘unicorn’ keeps being used as a term of abuse in Brexit discussions. Brexiteers are accused of conjuring up all sorts of ‘unicorns’ about how we can prosper outside the EU. It is sad to find this lovely beast besmirched and mocked, on the feeble grounds that it does not exist. (This insult is particularly hurtful in Scotland, by the way, because the unicorn represents that nation.) The lion and the unicorn together guard the unity of the kingdom on our royal coat of arms, although the unicorn has to be chained because it is such a dangerous beast. I like to think — whether or not there is any heraldic basis for doing so — that the lion represents courage and the unicorn imagination. A successful country needs both. Too many of our MPs possess neither.

In the many hours on Tuesday when the media had little to say because we were waiting for the vote, Radio 4’s PM programme invited Tim Garton Ash and me to come on and talk about the history of Britain’s relations with Europe. We had been primed to pick one historical incident which we thought had been key in these relations. I chose the Act in Restraint of Appeals of 1533, through which Henry VIII’s parliament asserted that England is ‘governed by one supreme head and king’ whose measures cannot be appealed against to the Pope in Rome. For Rome then, read Brussels now, and you see the long genealogy of the idea, and its huge effect on our history.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, recently chided us all for failing to ‘disagree well’ over Brexit, an important point which he then rather marred by telling the House of Lords that no deal would involve a lorry queue stretching from Leicester to Dover. It is hard to disagree well with him over this obviously absurd claim which really has nothing whatever to do with the office he holds. I do feel that the Archbishop, when looking at Brexit, should remember the Act in Restraint of Appeals. After all, if it had not been passed, his church would not exist and he would not be living in Lambeth Palace and making speeches in the Lords. Our polity is still shaped by Henry’s reformation of church and state and its eventual effects on our form of government, our foreign relations and the nature of our liberties. Our path was quite different from that of continental Europe. It still is. Already the period from 1973 to today begins to look like quite a short, strange aberration in our long story.

One new word was starting to move round the House of Commons on Tuesday night: ‘Prorogue.’ Has Mrs May thought of that?

As in previous years, the editor has kindly allowed me to advertise the annual general meeting of the Rectory Society. Our speaker this year is Matt, the celebrated cartoonist of the Daily Telegraph and one of the most distinguished inhabitants of an old rectory alive today. I believe his talk will be self-illustrated. It is at Holy Trinity, Sloane Street, SW1, on Tuesday 5 February, at 6 for 6.30. Tickets (£20 for non-members) may be obtained from

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