The decision by Labour Party fixers to refuse to allow a motion on Brexit in its discussion on Europe shows an incoherence and confusion on how to handle the dominant issue in British politics.
By contrast Theresa May’s Florence speech to a small room packed with journalists had one target. Not the EU27 or the Michel Barnier negotiating team but her own Conservative Party MPs.
Both parties are locked in an agony of how to handle Brexit as an inner-party issue. Civil servants and business leaders have to twiddle their thumbs until the political elites in Britain decide how to handle Brexit.
As in the 1930s, 1950s and 1980s it is what is happening in the heads and hearts of 317 Tory MPs that will decide the future course of the nation. In those decades the other parties were irrelevant despite fond hopes that elections would change power.
Tory MPs are not turkeys voting for Thanksgiving and while parliamentary business will undoubtedly see votes lost in the Commons, none is likely to produce a collapse of the government before the end of Parliament in 2022.
Many Labour MPs hoped that the Brighton conference would begin Labour’s task of ripping to shreds Tory disarray and contradictions on Brexit but intead it is Labour that does not know what to say or which way to turn. In TV and radio interviews Labour leaders were muddled and barely seemed to know how the EU works.
Young activists raged at Labour’s indulgence of UKIP-type language that European workers were responsible for low pay but like moderate Tory MPs hostile to Brexit, Labour pro-Europeans are shut out by the partybig-wigs.
Public opinion is slowly leaving political opinion behind as the latest opinion poll by BMG shows a 52 per cent majority for staying in Europe.
Mrs May responded to this change of mood in Florence with a number of concessions about staying in the EU after 2019, paying billions, offering warmer words on EU citizens here in contrast to Brexit language that they were “bargaining chips”, refusing to repeat the anti-Juncker and anti-Barnier insults of Boris Johnson and David Davis, hinting at a role for ECJ and filing away the rhetoric “No deal is better than a bad deal”.
The Florence speech was written by grown-ups and shows that the administrative class of the deep state is finally getting seeking to get on top of the ideological-political state that has made the running on Brexit since June 2016.
Tory MPs now have to decide if they line up as Nigel Farage helpmates and cause a row at the Conservative Conference or stick behind Theresa May’s barely disguised U-turning policy.
The down-grading by the ratings agency Moody’s of the UK’s credit status combines with the bad news on growth, inflation, public and government debt, relocation of business out of the UK, and the threat of a hike in interest rates which will seriously hurt all borrowers, especially those starting on the housing ladder.
Jeremy Corbyn is not going to be in Downing Street this year or next. But as Brexit sucks all oxygen out of British politics up to 2021 on Mrs May’s Florence calendar most Tory MPs keen to stay as MPs must be hoping that normal politics can be resumed.
Mrs May’s Florence speech appears to be accepted by most Tory MPs even those linked to the hardline anti-EU Brexit Central grouping. If she gets through her conference without any rebuff she can move on to the next stage of U-turns and dilutions of her language compared to the hardline semi-Ukip tone of the months after the referendum in June 2016.
This week Labour is losing the opportunity to redefine the Brexit issue to its advantage. Instead Labour appears to want to stays on parallel tracks with the Tories but leaves the initiative to Theresa May.
Denis MacShane is the former Minister of Europe and author of Brexit, No Exit. How (in the End) Britain Won’t Leave Europe (IB Tauris)