Monday, 26 November 2018

Brexit, even bluer

I have been tempted several times in recent weeks to comment again on Brexit, but the position was becoming so chaotic that it was difficult to make sense of the constantly shifting situation as negotiations came to a head. But now that the PM has cobbled together a compromise deal with the EU (which seems to satisfy almost no-one) things really are moving towards the final crunch, when the Commons votes on it on Tuesday 11 December, after a 5-day debate.

I took some time out today to watch May’s statement in the House of Commons. The Honourable Member for the Eighteenth Century, Jacobus Rees-Mogadon, congratulated May on another ‘Boycottian’ innings at the dispatch box (the third in 10 days), but like her cricketing hero, she played nothing but blocking shots and, in yet another laborious innings scored very few runs, simply hanging on to her place at the crease, at least for a little longer. Like many a timid batsman, she let a number of balls go past her, if the questions raised by MPs were simply too awkward to answer.

As the session dragged on, there was a pathetically small measure of support for the ‘deal’ which the PM had brought back from Brussels. I counted very few Tory MPs who were prepared to give an uncritical welcome to the draft withdrawal agreement (and the first did not come until at least an hour into the 2½ -hour session). There were, on the other hand, numerous members on all sides of the House who urged the PM to hold a People’s Vote in light of the terms that have now been agreed, which bear little resemblance to what was promised on the ‘Leave’ side before the referendum of 2016.

There are many people, both inside and outside parliament, who cannot understand what the PM and others have to fear from a properly conducted referendum on the basis of the terms that have only now, at the end of long and weary negotiations, become clear. It is obvious that no-one wants to crash out of the EU with no deal, and that neither the government nor the Commons as a whole would seriously contemplate such a possibility. Veiled threats by the PM that this is a real risk if her deal is rejected are not to be taken seriously. The true alternative to the present deal is for the country to remain in the EU. This is the question which should now be put to the electorate as a whole, not least because it may be the only practical means by which the apparent impasse in parliament could be resolved.

The PM desperately clasps the result of the 2016 referendum to her bosom like a fig-leaf, entirely ignoring the indications from several different strands of research that there has been a change in public opinion, not least in the areas that voted for Brexit in 2016, now that the manifold disadvantages of Brexit compared with our continued membership of the EU are becoming clear to them. The inescapable fact is that there is no possible deal that could be more advantageous than our existing membership of the EU.

It was none other than the former Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, David Davis (the first of no fewer than three of them in a little over two years!), who once observed, specifically on the subject of a European referendum, that democracy is not democracy if people do not have the freedom to change their minds. If that were not so, why should we have any more General Elections? If May were right in her assertion that she is bound to give effect to the will of the people as expressed in a referendum more than two years ago, then it could equally be said that the ‘People Have Spoken’ in the General Election of June 2017, and the present hung parliament should be allowed to sit for the indefinite future, because that was what the People decided in 2017. Merely to state this proposition is to expose the absurdity of the Prime Minister’s position.

It is now becoming urgent to stop Brexit. The European Court of Justice will hear a referral from the Scottish Court of Session tomorrow, which seeks to establish that a country which invokes Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty can withdraw from the Article 50 process if it so chooses. The UK government went all the way to the Supreme Court in an unsuccessful attempt to stop this. Why? What were they afraid of?

Theresa May is implacably determined not to be deterred or diverted from the course she has so doggedly pursued for the past two years. But for the sake of the country, she must be stopped – first by the Commons on 11 December, then by irresistable pressure from the public, applied through their Members of Parliament. MPs must be told by their constituents that they must vote for a Referendum on either supporting May’s deal, or abandoning Brexit, in order to settle the issue once and for all.

[And in case you are wondering what ‘Remoaners’ (or ‘Remainiacs’) like me would do if the vote in this first and only referendum on the terms that have now been negotiated is still to leave the EU, the answer is that at that point we would have to admit defeat, and leave the country to its fate. But then, if Brexiteers are confident that they would still win, then what objection could they possibly have to a People’s Vote being held to determine whether we should leave the EU on the basis that has now been negotiated, or whether we should after all remain in the EU?]



  1. Hello Martin,
    In response to your last paragraph on a 2nd referendum, on which the choice would appear to be either i) Leave on Mays' terms or ii) Remain in the EU.
    In such a case, as a Leaver, I would have to vote to Remain as the terms May has obtained are worse than our present terms of membership.
    However, to arrange a 2nd referendum would presumably take some time, in which case we could well have passed the 29th March 2019 deadline. The EU Withdrawal Act specifically states that we leave on that date, deal or no deal. If in a subsequent referendum we voted to Remain, we would presumably need to re-apply for membership of the EU on terms which may not be as favourable as now (eg loose the rebate, adopt Euro/Schengen etc).
    Logically, it seems to me that no-one - Leaver or Remainer - would be satisfied with the result of such a referendum.
    I suspect that most would agree that May has been a disaster as a PM, and has zero understanding of what a negotiation entails. Had the negotiations been undertaken by committed Leavers, maybe we would have had a different outcome?
    Whichever side of the fence we are on, I fear that in the UK, the issue of the EU will not go away and will fester for many years.

    (My view of your opinion on this issue in no way affects my appreciation of your posts on planning matters; great blog - keep it up!).

    1. Although we are on different sides of the Brexit argument, there is a lot in what A. Gilbert has written with which I would agree (including his final sentence).

      For the sake of brevity, I did not go into the details of what I was suggesting yesterday. Everything turns on the vote of 11 December. Commentators seem to be almost unanimous in expecting that the government will be defeated, but what happens next will depend on the size of that defeat. If it is as huge a defeat as some are predicting (a majority of 100 has been predicted by some), the present government could very well collapse. However, I am sceptical of the more apocalyptic predictions. The whips will do their dirty work with desperate determination, and the scale of the defeat may very well be rather more marginal; in which case Mrs May would no doubt seek to struggle on.

      Parliament by itself cannot force the government to withdraw from or seek to delay or extend the Article 50 process; nor can it force a second referendum. Only the government could initiate either or both of those steps, and it would require primary legislation to do so, including the repeal of the current leave date (although legislation can be rushed through parliament with great speed if it has to be). May has made it clear that she absolutely refuses to initiate any such action, and so either her party would have to remove her as Prime Minister, if she won’t resign, or she would have to be convinced after December 11th to make the biggest U-turn of her life (but certainly not the first), and adopt this course of action as the only practical way forward (‘Plan B’).

      If this course were to be adopted, it would answer A.Gilbert’s point regarding the terms on which we would continue to be members of the EU. If we do not actually leave, having delayed Article 50, and then (following a referendum) withdraw from Article 50 altogether, there would be nothing in principle to prevent our continuing membership on the advantageous terms that we currently enjoy. However, if we were actually to leave and then sought to rejoin, A.Gilbert is right to point out that in those circumstances the terms are unlikely to be so favourable as now (and might well involve the loss of our rebate, adopting the Euro and joining the Schengen area). Best then to avoid that by halting Brexit before it actually happens.

      My money is on a cabinet revolt (which might even come before 11 December), which would force May out, to be replaced by a more flexible ‘caretaker’ PM, who could take the necessary steps to resolve the current impasse.

      As to how things will actually turn out over the next two or three weeks, I am just as clueless as everybody else.

  2. Martin, whilst i am firmly on your side of the fence regarding Brexit, with regard to your comment that " It is obvious that no-one wants to crash out of the EU with no deal.." i do think you under estimate the volume and depth of hate for the EU across this country.

    In the last two years i have had my eyes opened to numerous web based groups who, hiding behind the cross of St George or the Union Jack, purvey nothing but right wing nationalism of the worst kind, at a level probably not seen since the 1930's.

    That exposure has come about through clients of mine who have then become social media 'friends' and by reading their posts and what they share, it is clear that there is a huge swath of society that just wants to leave ! End of! They don't care about trouble at the channel ports, they don't care about the economy shrinking, or firms moving to Europe , they don't care if their children or grandchildren have a potentially worse future...they just want out ! Whats more they hate May's deal, because for them its not what they were promised. Promised by whom ( and were they in a position to deliver that promise) and what they were promised, are of course myths ( just like the £350million per week Boris promised to the NHS) but in their mindset they were promised and thats what the so called 'people's vote ' must have.

    Whatever the outcome ultimately is , however, it will not be their fault. May is a 'remainer' , therefore she has undermined all her 'leave' cabinet members in the negotiations. The Treasury is to blame for 'project fear', the Civil Service is to blame for wanting the 'status quo'. You cannot reason with irrational people , and whilst I'm not labelling all 'Leave ' supporters as irrational, there are large numbers who are pathologically hell bent on leaving.

    Why don't they want a second vote, because they know deep down the tide has turned and they will lose! This is their moment, use it or lose it!

    Brexit will divide this nation, potentially for as long as the Civil War has divided ( and still does to some degree) America. The issues are as deep and profound, and yes in my opinion race and identity are as much at the heart of Brexit as they are in America both then and now.

    1. I am aware that there are some very angry Brexiteers who, as Chris Weetman says, are hell-bent on Brexit no matter what harm it does to the country. But the noise they make on social media is wholly disproportionate to their actual numbers. I frankly don’t believe the threats of social unrest, even rioting, which some Brexiteers make if their precious project is ultimately thwarted. I hope and believe that MI5 and Special Branch have a pretty good handle on the potential troble-makers, and can take prompt steps to nip in the bud any attempt by the far right to foment trouble. [Incidentally, if there is unrest in the country, I certainly don’t believe that Brexit will prevent it from erupting. The root causes will still be there, because those factors have no connection with our membership of the EU, and they will be made worse rather than better by Brexit.]

      Bear in mind that what is being proposed is a completely fair democratic process, which will determine whether or not a majority of those who vote in it wish to leave the EU on the terms that the government has negotiated or whether, in light of these terms, they would prefer to stay in the EU. Those who are still convinced that we should leave will have the democratic right to vote accordingly. If they win, then Brexit will go ahead as they wish. The difference, compared with the 2016 referendum, will be that we shall all be voting with full knowledge of the terms that have been agreed and a much clearer insight into the economic consequences of our leaving the EU. As I observed in my original blog post, I cannot see what possible objection anyone could have to a democratic vote on this basis. The previous referendum asked only a simplistic question, on a matter of principle, without any clear information as to the practical details of our departure or its consequences. In response to that vote, the government has sought to negotiate reasonable terms for that departure. Now that they have done so, we are all in a much better position to make a final decision on the matter.

      To revert to the first point, and also picking up Chris's final point, the only way of reconciling the great divide in our nation (irrespective of whether Brexit actually happens or not) is for government at all levels to tackle the factors that have so alienated those parts of the population that feel ‘left behind’. This will require a concerted effort to revive industrial production in those parts of the country that have been de-industrialised, to invest substantially in public services and infrastructure in those parts of the country and to revive civic pride and local democracy. I frankly don’t think a Conservative-led government would ever be up to doing this. But that is another issue, which can only properly be addressed in the next General Election.

  3. Imagine all the great debate about planning matters we could be having if Cameron hadn't made his reckless gamble.