Friday 27 April 2018

Brexit and the corridors of power

Students of politics can learn much from the now almost forgotten novels of C.P Snow, including that which gave us the evocative phrase ‘corridors of power’.

One thing they would learn is that, for all that politics is a complex business, it sometimes comes down to something quite simple: parliamentary arithmetic. And it is becoming increasingly clear that the arithmetic for seeking to negotiate a comprehensive customs union with the EU is not in the Government’s favour. Thursday’s House of Commons debate did not end in a formal vote, which would anyway have had no legal force. But what was striking was that a number of Tory backbenchers who were not amongst the Withdrawal Bill’s Amendment 7 ‘mutineers’ nor amongst the ten (Tory) signatories to the customs union amendment to the Trade Bill spoke in favour of a customs union. These included substantial figures such as Ed Vaizey and George Freeman.

This suggests that at least 17 Tory backbenchers might potentially defy the Government in substantive votes when they arise – and there may well be others, since there is no doubt that a greater number do not support, at least, Brexit in the hardline form that it is being pursued. Of course it remains an unanswered question how many of them will be willing to go the whole hog and defy the party whip on such votes.

Equally, the Government itself is in disarray, with reports of some Cabinet ministers pushing against any form of ‘customs partnership’ whilst others apparently favour staying in (sic) the customs unions. So who knows if the issue will be conceded before any vote occurs? It’s worth saying in passing that, although we are now inured to it, it really is quite extraordinary that, so far into the Brexit process it triggered, the Government is still not in agreement about the most basic features of what they want to do.

Readers of C.P. Snow would also learn of the symbolism of Parliamentary politics. Motions, questions and phraseology can have a significance well beyond their ostensible meaning. The very fact of Thursday’s debate was significant in that it arose from the combined actions of Select Committee Chairs, and these committees have done an extraordinary amount of work to probe into the practical, complex details of Brexit in a way that the Government appears not to have done.

More to the point, both this debate and the customs amendments to the Trade Bill and the EU Withdrawal are both meaningless and meaningful. They are meaningless in that a customs union is really not the burning issue of Brexit. The key economic issue, and the key political issue as regards the Irish border, is not a customs union but the single market. However, the customs unions votes are meaningful because they serve as both a symbol and a harbinger.

As a symbol, they say that Parliament asserts that it, rather than the Government, can legitimately at least shape Brexit (as discussed in my previous post). As a harbinger, defying the Government on a customs union is the logical prelude to defying it on the far more substantive issue of single market membership and, conceivably, on Brexit itself or on another Referendum. The logic, there, lies both in the fact that the single market is more important in and of itself and in the politics of Jeremy Corbyn (and therefore the Labour stance). For whilst he is, it seems, ideologically opposed to the single market he is, apparently, also committed to an open Irish border. If, as is said, he shifted ground on a customs union for that reason then there would be even better reason for him to shift on the single market since only the two can resolve the border conundrum.

Last night I spoke at an event where Sir Nick Clegg was the main speaker, and in a very forceful and impressive speech he made the point that it is really only Parliament that can now make a difference to what happens with Brexit. Opinion polls are not likely to shift much, and campaigns and marches are unlikely to have enough cut through, at least in time for March 2019. After which, as Clegg rightly said, and the Brexit Ultras clearly know, it will be too late.

Britain’s democracy is old, complex, and weird with many strange by-ways some of which – most obviously the House of Lords – are not democratic at all. Whereas referenda are relatively new in our system, simple and blunt. It’s still – just about – possible that the Byzantine workings of the corridors of power will manage to avert the catastrophe it is daily becoming clearer that Brexit will be. The crunch points will come over the next few months.

That said, no one should fall into the trap of thinking about Brexit just in terms of British politics. What happens to the Government’s Brexit plans (if that is not too generous a term) will depend just as much, if not more, on the EU as on Parliament. Here, the crunch point may also come in the next few months, perhaps early in those months, if, as Ireland’s EU Commissioner Phil Hogan suggested this week, the EU push the Government to resolve the Irish border issue in June. (My view, for what little it is worth, is still that it will end up being deferred to the transition period, because the UK will say that it can only be resolved via the trade talks [leaving option A in play] whilst the EU and Ireland will accept this so long as the backstop [Option C] is written into the Withdrawal Agreement).

That aside, though, suppose that, at the eleventh hour Britain pulls back from the brink? What would that mean from an EU perspective? Perhaps it might still be possible to agree a soft Brexit fairly easily, but would it really make sense to take what would undoubtedly be a still bitterly divided country, which might at any point have another Brexit spasm, back into the fold? The biggest irony of the Brexit mantra of ‘taking back control’ is that our fate will be decided not simply, and perhaps not even primarily, in Westminster’s corridors of power, but in those of Brussels.

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