29 March 2019, The Tablet

Is the collective of IQ of the House of Commons that of an 11-year-old?

It is hardly surprising that Theresa May, who is if anything too much of an adult, has had her fill of all this childishness

Is the collective of IQ of the House of Commons that of an 11-year-old?

The House of Commons during a Brexit debate, 29 Mar
Photo: House of Commons/PA Wire/PA Images

Earlier in my career I sometimes found myself having to chair meetings of National Union of Journalist (NUJ) members. I was greatly helped by the insight of one old hand, who warned me that the collective IQ of a meeting, regardless of the above-average intellect of all the individuals taking part, was that of a typical 11-year-old. I am sure Speaker Bercow knows this.

But the collective level of emotional intelligence of such a group is more like that of an eight-year-old. Boys of that age, once they get over-excited, are to say the least unpredictable. When in a group they can start running around in all directions, making loud noises, for no better reason than they enjoy doing it. Again, Speaker Bercow may know exactly what this is like. This chaotic and juvenile collective exuberance was on display in the House of Commons after the result of the "indicative votes" on Wednesday night, regarding future Brexit policy. I have to say it looked to me as if Mr Bercow was stirring it up rather than calming it down. Perhaps his own emotional age is eight too.

This age-shift downwards, which occurs once a group dynamic develops, is a major factor in the difficulties Theresa May faces in trying to get her withdrawal agreement past Parliament. She is not dealing with adults, but children who look like adults. Emotion always trumps rational argument, and the emotions in play are those of the playground - personal jealousy and rivalry, ambition and top-doggery, feuds, vendettas and ostracism, name-calling and petty spite - our gang against them. There is usually a good deal of bullying. Children can be at least as cruel as adults. Face-saving is an equally strong factor: children hate to look silly.

So it is hardly surprising that Theresa May, who is if anything too much of an adult, has had her fill of all this childishness. Unlike the usual political leader's pitch - support me OR I will resign - she has said the opposite - support me AND I will resign, don't support me and I won't. It reminds me of a raffle where the first prize was one week in a Blackpool boarding house; second prize, two weeks.

The net result on Thursday morning was the widespread misrepresentation of what had happened the night before in the morning's papers. Every one of the eight options that had been put to an indicative vote had received more votes against than for, which the press almost universally reported as a total defeat. But not quite all of them. Not for instance the London Evening Standard, edited by George Osborne, former Chancellor of the Exchequer and sworn enemy of Theresa May.

His editorial next day declaimed "There is a way forward on Brexit. You would not guess that from the screaming headlines about how the MPs had voted "no, no, no" to all the options put before them. That was always predicted... But permanent membership of the customs union, a policy this newspaper has advocated for two years, was only eight votes short of  commanding a majority." And it was discovered next day that the Scottish National Party's 35 MPs had not backed the customs union option even though it was their party's policy.

Had they done so it would have won a comfortable majority. They said the proposition did not go far enough as they also wanted to remain in the single market as well as the customs union. It seem they did not understand what the indicative votes process was meant to be about. It was a way of assessing parliamentary opinion, not rewriting the Ten Commandments. Intellectual age of 11, perhaps.


Clifford Longley will be writing regular updates on Brexit over the coming weeks. To read more click on the links below. 

Dark days in Brexit land

If a 'no deal' Brexit is ruled out, what next?

Revocation of Brexit on the horizon?

Could Brexit now be abandoned altogether?

Did May fundamentally misunderstand the Brexit referendum result?

What the Conservative Party really needs is a shift to the left


What do you think?


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