Saturday 30 March 2019

The horror show continues

The government’s failure to win the latest vote marks a further deepening of the Brexit crisis. It was not, formally, ‘meaningful vote 3’ because of the ruse of splitting the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) from the Political Declaration (PD). Had it succeeded, it would have created a very nasty trap in which, come next May, no further extension would be possible, because no preparations for the European elections would have been made, and yet the UK would still have to complete its domestic withdrawal legislation before then. In effect, back to May’s deal or no-deal.

It was a shabby ruse, typical of the endless tactical game-playing of this government, which deserved to fail and it did. There is a rich irony in the fact that this was in large part because of the continued rebellion of the most hardcore segment of the hardcore ERG. For, had they voted it through then, by subsequently rebelling on the Withdrawal Bill legislation they would have had a decent chance of getting to their no-deal nirvana. Perhaps they were too dim to work that out, perhaps they are simply beyond all reason and calculation.

On the other hand, there is also a certain pleasure to be taken in the way that Rees-Mogg, Dominic Raab, Boris Johnson and others compromised on their ‘principles’ – those speech marks should be especially heavily emphasised in the case of Johnson – but to no avail. They will now be in line for the ‘betrayal’ vitriol they have done so much to whip up against others. Few will weep for them.

At all events, Brexit has now been cracked wide open. The chances of applying to the EU for a long extension period are now very much greater (although it most certainly can’t be assumed that it will be granted) and those of another referendum, and the possibility of the abandonment of Brexit, now somewhat greater. Yet, at the same time, the possibility of no-deal has not gone away and may have increased – this seems to be the view of the European Commission in its statement following yesterday’s vote.

Nor, almost unbelievably, has May yet accepted that there is no chance for her deal. If reports are correct she intends to continue Terminator-like to try to engineer some new way of getting it voted upon next week.

The crisis has a long way to run yet.

Indicative votes

Most immediately, the Indicative Votes process that began this week now comes to centre-stage. As a result of this process, MPs finally began to have the discussions about the different things that Brexit could mean that should have occurred immediately after or, even better, before the 2016 Referendum. It is to the great credit of Oliver Letwin and a number of other MPs that they forced this process to happen in the teeth of government opposition which continued right up until the last minute, when it lost a vote trying to block it.

That said, even at this very late stage it is remarkable how riddled with confusion the debate remains. For example, amongst some of the propositions made (not all of which were called) for the indicative votes were ideas that are simply unworkable.

These included Nicky Morgan’s ‘Malthouse’ proposition (which was not selected to be voted on) and Marcus Fysh’s ‘Malthouse Plan B’ or ‘managed no-deal’ proposition, which was selected and garnered 139 votes. There’s not much point discussing what these proposals consisted of as it seems unlikely they will be revived (but see this previous post on ‘Malthouse’ for what is wrong with it). Of particular note is that the European Commission statement after Friday’s vote explicitly ruled out any transition period or sectoral deals if the WA is not passed. In other words, managed no-deal is, as it has always been, a dead duck.

Even some of those amendments which fared better were based on ideas with severe practical problems. The Labour proposal remains stuck in the meaningless pre-referendum nostrum of what Corbyn calls single market “access” (although the actual wording in this proposition was “close alignment”). It is an expression which should be expunged from the Brexit lexicon and has done untold damage all along by refusing to face the binary choice of membership or non-membership of the single market. It is worse than shameful that the official opposition should still be dissembling about this.

The Clarke proposal for a customs union (only) is coherent, and got more support (265) than Labour’s (237) but wouldn’t resolve the Irish border issue, and would not obviate the need for the backstop provision in the WA. The Boles ‘Common Market 2.0’ or ‘Norway+’ proposition is also potentially coherent, and would resolve the border, but attracted surprisingly little (189) support, though some expect it now to gain ground and it is at least conceivable that it will become Labour’s official position.

A modified deal?

The proposition which gained the largest number of votes (268, though there were still more against it) was not about the form of Brexit but the process; the Beckett proposal that any agreed Brexit should be subject to a confirmatory referendum. I suspect that come the second stage of the indicative votes process this, in some form, will come to command a majority.

For, despite some blathering from Brexiter MPs and a lot of quite misleading media reporting, this was always envisaged as being at least a two-stage process and on Monday (and perhaps on further days) the next stage creates the possibility of MPs coalescing around a policy and perhaps a process. Of course who implements that, and how, remain very big and open questions.

With May’s deal defeated again, one outcome, potentially, is that it comes back modified with something like Beckett’s proposal (i.e. the deal with the Kyle-Wilson amendment included), perhaps with May still in post, accepting another referendum through gritted teeth as the only way to get her deal through. I’ve thought for a little while that was possible. It seems less feasible that she would preside over that if the deal was amended along the lines of the Clarke proposal (i.e. with the Political Declaration re-negotiated with the EU to indicate a permanent customs union as the direction of travel).

May’s departure

But it is now clear (if she is to be believed) that if any deal does go through it will see the departure of Theresa May. That prospect clearly delights many Tory Brexiters, and it was one of the things which persuaded some to come round to voting for her deal yesterday. In some cases this was merely because it gives hope to their leadership ambitions. For others, it arises from their persistent delusion that the path Brexit has taken arises from May’s poor negotiation, perhaps resulting from her lack of ‘true belief’ in it.

That is nonsense in its purest form. Any Brexit deal would have involved the financial settlement and the citizens’ rights agreement. As for the backstop which they so revile, it arises precisely because of May’s insistence on the Single Market/ Customs Union red lines that those hard Brexiters themselves support. Their objection is based on the imagination that their choices would not have those inevitable consequences, and that these only arise from betrayal or lack of faith. It’s utterly infantile.

Equally, the idea that a hardcore Brexiter could create something better in the future terms negotiations is a fantasy. Those future terms will be decided by the combination of the UK red lines and the realpolitik of the EU’s superior negotiating power. No doubt their expectation is that, in the next phase, and as a third country, the UK will be able to rip up what has been agreed and all of the lies of the Leave campaign will be enacted. It won’t, and they won’t.

Brexiters on parade

One reason why the hard Brexiters are doomed to disappointment were there to be any future negotiations was in evidence this week in a vote which, in all the other drama, received almost no attention. This was the approval of the statutory instrument to change the leading day in UK legislation from 29 March, in line with what had been agreed with the EU following the previous (i.e. second) defeat of May’s deal. In principle, this was a minor technicality. Placing the date in legislation in the first place had in any case been a meaningless sop to the hard Brexiters.

The vote was always going to be carried, as both the government and Labour supported it, but it brought out of the woodwork a parade of bloviating, plethoric, ante-diluvian buffoons. Some were dubious barrack-room lawyers. Others paranoid fantasists. Still others just vicious demagogues. These are people you really wouldn’t want to be stuck in a lift with. It’s depressing that they play any part on public life, and intolerable that they should have a decisive role in deciding our future. Some 105 voted against the change.

What those speeches were a reminder of was how, even having secured the Brexit referendum vote, extreme Brexiters are so full of anger, vitriol and paranoia. That mind set bled into the UK approach to the negotiations with the EU from the beginning. Rather than starting the process in a spirit of generosity and, indeed, joy the tone was always sour, resentful and aggressive. Indeed, as I’ve remarked before, it has often seemed as if Brexiters think the UK is being expelled from the EU rather than choosing to leave.

If they now get their head, and install one of their own to lead the next phase, this approach will intensify and, as a result, the final outcome of Brexit – which will necessarily be bad – will be even worse than it needs to be. Indeed, whilst the prospect of May’s departure may have persuaded some of the Tory Brexiters to support her deal, the likelihood of her replacement with a hardliner undoubtedly played a part in dissuading potential Labour rebels from doing so.

Where next?

Of course, we are not there yet, and may very well never get there. There are so many other possibilities and permutations that it is almost pointless to speculate. There is much talk of an immediate General Election (Fixed Term Parliaments Act notwithstanding). Quite what Brexit policy the main parties could plausibly run on seems unclear, as does the capacity of an election to actually resolve the Brexit crisis. May might, as I speculated in my previous post, now double-down on no-deal (although those are not the noises she is currently making, and parliament might well be able to prevent it anyway). She might now resign immediately.

It’s in the nature of the crisis that there are far too many moving parts now, and they are moving far too quickly, for any sensible predictions to be made. For example, there have been indications in the last few hours that the DUP might actually change its stance on Brexit altogether. The fact that the ERG are now deeply split, having been pretty disciplined to date is another key factor.

The main conclusion to be drawn from this week’s fiasco is the point which I have often made on this blog. The longer and deeper the crisis – damaging as its effects are and horrible as it is to live through – the greater the chance that Brexit is averted. In a post on 20 July 2017 I wrote something which seems to have stood the test of time:

“… for all that it will be a white-knuckle ride, committed remainers might have as their best hope that the government continue to display division and incompetence and bring Britain to the edge of disaster … Of course this is very high risk stuff, not just for remainers but more importantly for the whole country. Precisely because it means going right to the brink of disaster in order to avoid disaster, it inevitably means damage. The jobs and investment lost, the companies relocating, the skilled workers leaving, the shredding of national reputation will all have long-term negative effects. But, against that, we might just get out of the even worse precipice that the Brexiters want to push us over.”

If so, and again to reprise a point made before, that will only be the end of the beginning. It will only avoid disaster and still leave us with the job of reconstructing our battered and bitterly divided country.