The British government has lost the ability to run the country. It is no longer in charge of its own destiny, let alone that of the nation. What makes this so humiliating is that power has been ceded not to parliament, but to the European Union. The immediate future of our country will be decided in Brussels and the capitals of the EU, not in Westminster. It will be the EU that decides whether or not to offer the UK an extension to the Article 50 process, and how long it will be. Once the extension has been agreed, then parliament — which has already voted against leaving without a deal — will rubber-stamp it.
Not since Denis Healey was forced to ask the International Monetary Fund for an emergency loan in 1976 has this country been so humiliated. Then the nation required an economic bailout. This time it needs a political one.
The request for an extension will go down as an IMF moment. Even before the request was issued, Theresa May’s spokesman was admitting that the country is in ‘crisis’: something that governments normally go to almost any length to avoid admitting. No. 10 seemed almost keen to emphasize the point, as it tried to shift the blame onto the Commons.
There are an uncanny number of similarities between today’s crisis and 1976. In both cases, we see a divided cabinet which repeatedly refused to face up to hard choices — a problem compounded by the tightness of the parliamentary arithmetic which made it extremely difficult to get anything through the Commons.
Another similarity is how civil servants maneuvered behind the scenes to get their preferred outcome. In 1976, the Treasury overstated the true extent of the deficit. Healey later claimed that, had he been told the real figure, he wouldn’t have had to ask the IMF for the loan. In this current crisis, the Treasury ensured that no-deal planning didn’t happen until too late in the day — meaning it was not a viable political option. In both cases, we saw strategic incompetence, ending in just the result the Treasury wanted.