"It is time for this House to act in the national interest," Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay said last night. "It's time to put forward an extension that is realistic. I commend the motion put forward by the government to the House." And then, minutes later, he went into the No lobby and voted against it.
The extent of the hypocrisy only grows when you look at the rest of the speech he made. His very first sentence praised the "integrity" of Keir Starmer's support for a second referendum. He then recognised the "sincerity" of Chris Leslie for leaving his party to join The Independent Group over Brexit. After that, he criticised Jeremy Corbyn's lack of "principle or integrity". And the entire time he was making a speech in defence of a proposition he was about to vote against. At some point he must have written those lines, knowing what he was about to argue for and how he would behave after doing so.
He wasn't alone. Several other Cabinet ministers voted against an extension of Article 50 last night, including Liam Fox, Chris Grayling, Andrea Leadsom, Penny Mordaunt, Liz Truss and Gavin Williamson. It was a free vote, so there was no consequence to this, except as an exhibition of how battered and ruined the government is. It simply cannot maintain any discipline.
Without opposition party support, the government couldn't have gotten the motion through extending Article 50, and we would right now be committed to no-deal. That is effectively the stated will of the Conservative party. It has turned into a millennialist death cult.
Or perhaps it hasn't. Who knows? MPs' votes have become so divorced from what they claim to believe that it is hard to tell what's going on anymore. Many would have voted differently last night if the question was about conviction. But it was not. They knew they could get away with it. They knew that more responsible minds than their own would vote for extension, so they could confidently vote against and not face the anger of their increasingly deranged echo-chamber local association. The same applies to Theresa May's deal. Lots of MPs have no issue with it. A great many of those opposing it want it to pass. They just can't be seen to be supporting it.
That political psychosis is not restricted to the Brexit side. Labour's official policy, if indeed it can be said to even have official policies anymore, is to support a second referendum. But last night it demanded its MPs abstain on an amendment demanding precisely that.
We’re currently voting on a People’s Vote. See if you can spot which party is abstaining… pic.twitter.com/aQhI1yPFrk
— Stewart McDonald MP (@StewartMcDonald) March 14, 2019
At least that reflects the conflicting wishes of the parliamentary Labour party, which has several figures implacably opposed to another vote and others intent on supporting it. The People's Vote campaign has no such excuses. The clue to its purpose is in its name. Just next weekend, it is helping to organise a march through central London to demand a People's Vote, but last night it was trying to get MPs to abstain from supporting the very proposition it was set up to secure.
The reason stems from deep-seated tactical disputes within Remain. The People's Vote camp behaves like Labour used to behave towards the Liberal Democrats: with a sense of outrage that anyone else dare portray themselves as representing a critical movement on Brexit. This has led them to regular attacks on the Norway option, because it can present itself as an alternative to the People's Vote. By doing so, they have savaged their own back-up option and the very model Brexit critics will have to support if Britain does leave the EU. This last-man-standing approach means they refuse to put a second referendum before parliament until they are sure it will pass. And that insistence, which has become totally inflexible no matter how things develop, now sees them demand abstention on their core principles.
When the results came in for the vote, Jacob Rees-Mogg tweeted: "A second referendum, the so called 'losers’ vote', has now been defeated in the House of Commons so is it is off the table."
His previous tweet read: "The law still says we leave on 29th March." This was sent after no-deal was defeated in the House of Commons. The hypocrisy and brazen self-interest is now so severe that you do not even need to scroll down people's Twitter feeds. You can track it from one message to the next.
The poison of meaninglessness and failure of conviction is everywhere. Last night, Brexiters who campaigned to leave the EU on the basis of returning sovereignty to parliament voted against an amendment by Hilary Benn which would have given parliament control over the process. On Wednesday, the government whipped against its own motion on no-deal, suggesting that it held the precise opposite view to the one it is committed to. Earlier in the week, Nigel Farage, who presents himself as a British patriot fighting against foreign interference in our sovereignty, lobbied far-right European leaders to veto a British petition for Article 50 extension authorised by the Westminster parliament.
It is madness, on a system-wide level. Principles have crumbled to nothing. All that's left is transitory tactical interest, fossilised strategic assessments, and the perpetual trembling terror of MPs in the face of the referendum result and zealots in their local associations.
Many of the arguments against a People's Vote rely on warnings about damage to public trust in politics. But the spectacle of hypocrisy we're being treated to right now does that more effectively than a hundred referendums ever could.
Ian Dunt is editor of Politics.co.uk and the author of Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now?
The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.