Tuesday 18 December 2018

Might May's deal get passed after all?

Watching Theresa May’s latest parliamentary performance, it’s easy to see why she compares herself to her cricketing hero Geoffrey Boycott. Boycott, for those who do not know about cricket, was an English batsman famous for his stubbornly dogged and defensive style of play. Each time May grates out one of her stock phrases – such as that ‘the British people voted to leave the European Union and it is our duty to deliver on it’ – it is the political equivalent of a Boycott forward defensive shot, stonewalling every delivery back down the pitch.

Boycott’s approach did not make for elegant, still less exciting, cricket but in its own way it was undeniably effective. By occupying the crease hour after hour he would grind opposing bowlers down and painstakingly eke out big scores. I’m just beginning to wonder whether the Prime Minister may yet achieve a similar success, and by stubbornly digging in might manage, against expectations, to get her Brexit deal through the House of Commons in January after all.

Are the Ultras backing down?

There are just the glimmerings of a sense that the Brexit Ultras might fall into line. Some of their questions to her in the latest session – notably from Jacob Rees-Mogg and Sir Edward Leigh – were markedly more supportive than on previous occasions.  Indeed James Rothwell, the Telegraph’s Brexit and Europe correspondent, has noted how Rees-Mogg has also dramatically shifted his tone with respect to May, and reports a “chirpy” mood from some cabinet ministers about the possibility of the Ultras “coming in from the cold”. Meanwhile, Henry Newman, Director of Open Europe, has identified a sense that various influential leavers are coming round to May’s deal, and suggests that reports of its “death” are “greatly exaggerated”.

These are just straws in the wind, of course, but it’s possible to see why this might be where the Ultras are headed, now that they have failed to depose May. On the one hand, the combination of the growing calls for another referendum, combined with the ECJ ruling that the UK could unilaterally rescind the Article 50 notification, may spook them into realising that Brexit might be lost altogether. Indeed as I’ve remarked on this blog there is a real possibility that the dogmatism of the Ultras could have that ironic consequence. If I can see that, then so can they.

On the other hand, they may finally have grasped the obvious point that May’s deal potentially gives them a great deal of what they want. Although the Political Declaration is not binding, its reference to the future terms agreement being one that excludes freedom of movement and includes an independent trade policy sets as the direction of travel precisely the hard Brexit they wanted. By that, I mean hard Brexit in its ‘original sense’ of no single market membership and no customs union rather than in its new ‘no deal’ or so-called ‘managed no deal’ incarnation.

What about the ‘mutineers’?

If enough of the Ultras adopt this line of analysis over the Christmas break, the parliamentary numbers would begin to look a lot better for May come the postponed meaningful vote in January. It’s possible, also, to see some of the Tory remainer or soft Brexit ‘mutineers’ coming into line. This would be for a mixture of contradictory reasons. Those of the ‘Norway Plus’ inclination, in an inverse of the logic just described, may conclude that despite the steers towards hard Brexit in the Political Declaration, precisely because it is non-binding there might still be all to play for once the Withdrawal Agreement is passed. They may also conclude, for the same reason, that since the most they could do now would be to amend that non-binding Political Declaration, the potential gains of rebellion are not very great.

In other words, both sources of rebellion on the Tory backbenches may be waking up to the fact that so many of them seem never to have really understood: that the Withdrawal Agreement is just that, rather than the end state relationship. Moreover, just as the Ultras have to balance the gains from rebelling against the risk of losing Brexit, so do the other wing have to consider the risks of ‘no deal’ – the line now being pushed so vociferously by parts of the wider Brexit lobby in the media and elsewhere and underscored by today's government announcement of contingency plans.

Indeed the extreme recklessness and profound lack of realism of those proposals does May the considerable favour of validating her approach as a relatively sane compromise even though, as noted, it is well on the harder end of the Brexit spectrum. I’ve heard quite a few remainers saying something along the lines that it would be better to settle for this rather than risk worse. And I suppose that many in the general public are just worn down by the boredom of it all and will settle for anything in the (entirely misplaced) hope that it will mean the end of hearing about Brexit.

Taken together, accepting that the DUP will most likely still vote against May’s deal but assuming that some Labour MPs will support it, it becomes quite conceivable that it will pass (or get very close to doing so, setting up the realistic possibility of a second, clinching vote).

Corbyn’s continuing Brexit abdication

Meanwhile, what also became clear from the latest Commons’ session was that there is almost no prospect of Corbyn showing any leadership at all on Brexit. Any idea that he is playing a subtle long game, as many once thought, can surely now be discounted: we are at, or even beyond, the eleventh hour and the best he can come up with is his complete nonsense about seeking a strong single market relationship. Nor is this the work of a master tactician. Facing a government in total disarray, fighting an open and bitter civil war, Labour have, at best, miniscule leads in the opinion polls and often not even that.

On the central, defining political issue of the day he has refused to develop any kind of meaningful policy as an alternative to the government's. It is no good saying that Labour are not in power. In a hung parliament with a divided government Labour could and should be playing a central role in what happens with Brexit. But to do that you have to have a policy, so Corbyn – through a mixture of his and his allies’ longstanding antipathy to the EU and his apparent lack of interest in or understanding of Brexit – has abdicated that role. In cricketing terms, if May is Geoff Boycott then Corbyn is Pele.

Brexit isn’t a game

But of course none of this is a game of any sort. What happens in the next few weeks is going to affect the shape of Britain – economically, politically, and culturally – for years, if not decades. If the Withdrawal Agreement is passed then, almost certainly, the possibility of another referendum (and with it, the possibility of reversing Brexit) will disappear, even though opinion polls now fairly consistently suggest that the majority of the electorate no longer want to leave the EU.

It will mean, whatever form the eventual future relationship takes, that Britain will be poorer. Almost every forecast shows that to be so economically – and for that matter Brexit has already had that effect - but we will also be poorer in all sorts of non-economic ways: more divided, less tolerant, more closed. It will continue, as it already has, to wreck lives, especially those of EU-27 citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU. It certainly won't deliver anything remotely like leave voters were promised.

May’s cricketing model, Geoff Boycott, had a reputation for selfishness, often running out his batting partners, and was often criticised for being more focussed on his performance than what was good for the team. If May does manage to grind her way through to victory – and I’m not making that as a prediction, since all Brexit predictions are foolish, just saying it may not be as impossible as has been thought - it will be a Pyrrhic one, at least for the national interest she purports to serve.

In my last blog post of 2017 I argued that 2018 would be the year Britain had to get real about Brexit. In this, (probably) my last post for this year, my conclusion is that 2019 is the year that, one way or another, Brexit will get real for Britain.

On which cheery note: Happy Christmas and many thanks to everyone who has read this blog over the last year. I’m very grateful for all the (largely positive) feedback I have had in the reader survey, and extremely touched by many of the comments. If you haven’t already done so, please consider completing it via this link: http://chrisgreybrexitblog.blogspot.com/p/take-reader-survey.html

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