Wednesday, 16 January 2019
Brexit – the endgame [?]
Readers will not be surprised that I am returning today to the subject of Brexit. There is currently no subject that is more important than this. It requires our urgent attention.
As the dust settles following the catastrophic scale of the defeat inflicted on the government on Tuesday evening (the largest suffered by any government in parliament’s history), and the somewhat irrelevant distraction of today’s No Confidence motion, we need to reflect calmly on the situation. Unfortunately, it was clear from Theresa May’s statement to the Commons immediately following the vote on Tuesday (when she said that the government had ‘heard’ the House of Commons’ view) that she intends to take no notice of that opinion, but will press on instead with her mission to force her deal through. She offered talks with other parties, but the implication was that any such talks would be solely directed to gaining acceptance of that deal, or something very close to it. It is clear that she would not be prepared to consider any other options. Her attitude is, frankly, defiant. This does not bode well for the resolution of the current impasse.
There seems to be widespread misunderstanding in parliament (and even on the part of some cabinet ministers including, apparently, the Prime Minister) as to the position of the European Commission in relation to the draft withdrawal agreement that has been negotiated between the EU and the UK government. It has been clear for some time that there is no scope for re-negotiation of that draft agreement, and very little scope for ‘re-assurances’ or ‘clarifications’ of the agreement (particularly as regards the Irish backstop), and this was repeated from various European sources within the past 24 hours. The letters that were sent to the PM from Brussels a short time ago could not give any guarantees, still less any ‘legally binding’ assurances on this or any other issue. Furthermore, it has become clear that the European Commission has now concluded, in view of the size of the government’s defeat on the draft agreement (by 230 votes), that there is really no scope for any adjustment of the draft agreement that would stand any realistic chance of being accepted by the House of Commons, and so they see little point in entering into further discussions.
It is therefore entirely unrealistic for anyone, whether it be Theresa May, ardent Tory Brexiteers, or even the current leadership of the Labour Party, to talk in terms of seeking to re-negotiate the withdrawal agreement. What the Brexiteers in particular do not appear to have understood is that the stated position of the European Commission is not a bluff, nor is it a negotiating ploy; it is a settled position based on the fundamental principles on which the European Union is founded. There will be no ‘last-minute’ concessions or climb-down. It would be futile for British negotiators to go to Brussels and ‘thump the table’ to demand a better deal, as some Brextremists suggest we should. It is equally unrealistic to talk in terms of other alternatives to the current draft agreement (such as so-called ‘Canada-Plus’, ‘Norway-for-Now’ or any other fantasy deals that they might like to dream up).
With barely 10 weeks to go to the 29 March deadline, which is imposed both by Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and by section 20 of European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, we are rapidly running out of time to resolve matters, irrespective of the course that either the government or parliament chooses to take with regard to Brexit. Postponement of the exit date is now therefore unavoidable, even if the government were to opt for a ‘No Deal’ Brexit. But that poses a problem. Postponement (as distinct from revoking the UK’s Article 50 notice, so as to halt Brexit, which could be done unilaterally by the UK) would require the agreement of the 27 other EU member nations, and if the UK government were to seek such a postponement, perhaps for three months, the EU would be bound to ask – “For what purpose?”. If this postponement was simply to enable us to go on arguing among ourselves as to what sort of Brexit we really want, or to try to re-negotiate the previous draft of the withdrawal agreement, such a postponement is likely to be refused by the EU. In any event, even if consent to a short postponement were to be forthcoming, it is extremely unlikely that we would be any nearer resolving matters by the end of June, and that we would simply find ourselves in exactly the same position by that time as we are in now.
The time has come to be brutally realistic about the practical options that now face the country. Theresa May’s deal is irretrievably dead. (One is inevitably reminded of the Dead Parrot sketch, with Theresa May playing the part of the shopkeeper.) As explained above, alternative deals are equally unachievable. In the 10 weeks before 29 March there are only two stark alternatives left – a ‘No Deal’ car crash Brexit, or No Brexit (at least for the time being). Majority opinion in the House of Commons seems to be firmly set against a disastrous ‘No Deal’ Brexit, and if (as appears to be the case) the PM absolutely refuses to introduce emergency legislation in the next week or two to revoke the UK’s Article 50 notice and repeal the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 (and to make various consequential amendments to other primary and subordinate legislation), the House of Commons must take control, by amending its Standing Orders to enable this, and bring in the necessary Bill themselves.
As I have said before, I do not pretend that this would be a final end to the Brexit debate, but with the pressure of time removed following the cessation of the Article 50 process, there would then be time for mature reflection and calm discussion of our future relationship with the EU, and (maybe in a year or two’s time) a fresh properly informed referendum on our membership of the EU, following a series of citizen’s assemblies which would be held first.
UPDATE (1 February): “Onward and upward - to the land where the Cloud-Cuckoos dwell!” After Theresa May’s stunning parliamentary triumph earlier this week, she is now deploying her unparalleled diplomatic skills to......er, well, just re-read the blog post above. After all, nothing has changed.
There are still only two practical choices - (1) crash out of the EU on 29 March with no deal, or (2) revoke the UK’s Article 50 notice to bring the current abortive attempt to leave the EU to an end (and never mind all the guff about “the will of the people” or the mindless mantra that “the people have spoken” – that was over 30 months ago, and is well past its ‘sell-by’ date). After that, there can then be a proper ‘grown-up’ discussion on Britain’s future relationship with the EU.
Some people are inclined to say “Just get on with it.” But at least half the cabinet and a majority of MPs on all sides of the House of Commons appreciate that this is likely to be a costly mistake, even on the basis of the draft withdrawal agreement that was so decisively rejected by the Commons a couple of weeks ago, and will be an utter catastrophe in the absence of any agreement at all. So what we should be telling MPs and ministers is - “Pull the plug! And do it now, before it’s too late.”
UPDATE (15 February): Tick, tock. Theresa May's deal is just not going to be re-negotiated by the EU, and a disastrous 'car crash' Brexit, with no concluded withdrawal agreement, becomes ever more likely. The more the government runs the clock down, the more urgent it becomes to stop the clock before the time fuse detonates the Brexit bomb on 29 March. Simply 'extending' Article 50 is unlikely to resolve the situation, and will simply kick the can down the road yet again for a few more months at most. The Article 50 process needs to be stopped altogether, as the Father of the House, Ken Clarke, observed in yesterday's debate. Others, such as Sir John Major, have made the same suggestion. Unfortunately, most of the talk about Article 50 in the House of Commons is still focused on temporary postponement.
A final decision must be reached on Wednesday, 27 February, and the House of Commons must at last take back control and put in train the necessary legislation to halt Brexit for an indefinite period. Events on that date, and leading up to it, may prove to be quite dramatic, including possible resignations from both front benches. If MPs funk the essential decision on 27 February, then it may well be that all is lost.
© MARTIN H GOODALL