When the Prime Minister first announced, in the light of the heavy parliamentary defeat for her Brexit plan, that she would be talking to other parties across parliament to hear their views, it was apparent that the only views in which she was interested were about what it would take to persuade those MPs to back her deal. Alternative proposals were not welcome, although if they came from within her own party, they might get a grudging hearing. The idea of persuading MPs from other parties – particularly Labour MPs from leave voting areas – has reached new heights with the plan to make extra funds available to those areas in return for the votes of their MPs.
It’s pork barrel stuff, of course; and many will condemn both it and the MPs concerned for being taken in by it. At one level, however, I can understand why an MP representing an area badly hit by austerity and government cuts might think that obtaining extra investment in exchange for a single vote in parliament might be doing the right thing by his or her constituents. There are some wider issues arising, however.
Firstly, the way in which the government can find money for such bribes and sweeteners underlines the fact that austerity is, and always has been, a deliberate political choice made by the Conservative Party. It was to all intents and purposes supported by Labour in the 2010 election, when the main argument of Labour candidates and MPs was, as I recall, effectively that Labour austerity would be better than Tory austerity. The government could have done things differently had it so chosen, and the way in which money is being found for anything and everything to get Brexit sorted underlines the fact.
Secondly, had it not been for that deliberate political choice, it is probable that the level of desperation which drove some to vote for Brexit would have been lower, and the result of the 2016 referendum different. There is something very ironic about the government now spending money to ensure that it delivers on a referendum vote which resulted from not spending the same money 8 years ago.
And thirdly, MPs who are prepared to vote for something which will be damaging not only to their own constituents but also to those in other constituencies in exchange for a short-term amelioration of part of the problems which led to the original vote are taking a very short-term and parochial view of their responsibilities. They are also placing their faith in a government which has shown itself to be utterly untrustworthy and able to reverse its position in a trice.
Talking about the proposal, a Downing Street spokesperson said “we are determined to lead a programme of national renewal, post-Brexit”. Of course, it doesn’t and never did require Brexit to do that. In fact, without Brexit and the inevitable short term hit to Treasury revenues which will result from it, they would have been in an even better position to do it, were it really what they thought the right thing to do. They didn’t – and still don’t. That magic tree isn’t being given another good shake because they think it’s the right thing to do, but because it suits the interest of the PM and her party.