Saturday 19 October 2019

The day that decided nothing

The latest parliamentary dramas can seem perplexingly arcane or, alternatively, as the ‘Super Saturday’ terminology suggests, like some kind of sports tournament. The latter trivialises that the future of country is at stake. The former distracts from what are at heart quite simple issues.

No actual form of Brexit can be agreed on by Brexiters

The first such issue is the familiar one that has been at the core of the entire row over Brexit. As soon as its gets defined in any particular way, some who support it in principle do not support it in that version. As regards Johnson’s deal, predictably, that includes Farage and his Brexit Party followers. For them, not just that deal but any deal will be unacceptable. That is partly because nothing can ever live up to their fantasy, and partly because they are invested in the politics of protest.

The Brexit Party has no MPs, of course, but its views are often closely shadowed by members of the ERG and their sympathisers, principally amongst Tory MPs. That was clear at the time of May’s ill-fated deal. Surprisingly, they are now signed up for Johnson’s deal. Perhaps that is just because they realise that to reject it might well mean ending up with no Brexit at all. Perhaps it is that they recognize that Johnson’s deal takes them to the hardest form of Brexit short of no deal. Still, it is surprising in that it concedes that – not as a backstop but as the definite form Brexit will take – one part of the UK will remain for very many intents and purposes within the EU. That, apparently, is the price worth paying.

As a result, the people who have fallen off the end, of course, are the DUP. Since they sometimes give the impression of being in a permanent state of anger it is easy to miss the fact that they are currently genuinely and deeply angry. And they have good reason to be, in that it is unarguably true that Johnson’s deal constructs a significant border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, in clear violation of the DUP’s core principles. Moreover, they have been sacrificed by those with whom they made common cause over Brexit, and who professed to have common cause with them over the union.

Their votes proved crucial in ensuring the passing of the Letwin Amendment on Saturday, which withheld parliamentary agreement to Johnson’s deal in the absence of the passage of the Withdrawal Agreement legislation. This in turn triggered the Benn Act provision, requiring Johnson to apply to the EU for an extension.

So that’s the first part of the story of this Saturday: once Brexit got defined in a particular way, some Brexiters – in this case the DUP – didn’t like it. Of course, at the other end of the spectrum, some Tory MPs who would have accepted a soft Brexit have long ago jumped ship because of the hard Brexit nature of May’s deal.

A total breakdown of political trust

The second part of the story relates to the total breakdown of political trust within parliament, and the ongoing battle between Executive and legislature. That, too, has been a feature of the Brexit saga from the outset. It was first manifest in the attempt – blocked by the Supreme Court in the first Gina Miller case – to prevent parliament having a vote on triggering Article 50. But it continued throughout Theresa May’s premiership in all kinds of ways, including literal contempt of parliament and the metaphorical contempt that May showed in, for example, her extraordinary public broadcast last March castigating parliament for not passing her deal.

Such conduct would be ill-advised at the best of times. In the context of having no overall majority it is supremely ill-judged. But Johnson has continued down the same path. It is worth recalling that the Letwin Amendment only arose because of the possibility that the government, or at least some Brexiter MPs, might try to use a loophole in the Benn Act. That is, if the motion to support Johnson’s deal had passed unamended then the extension letter would not need to be sent on 19 October, and the provisions of the Benn Act would lapse. But if the withdrawal legislation were then collapsed – perhaps by the ERG – then no-deal Brexit, which the Benn Act had been designed to prevent, could occur via the back door.

That suspicion was greatly exacerbated by the constant messages from Johnson – including his loutish baiting of other MPs about ‘the Surrender Act’ - that he does not see the Benn Act as legitimate and would do all he could to flout it. Even on Saturday, and despite the most recent Cherry case in the Scottish courts, he spoke as if he might not send the letter (it was later confirmed that he would, so it was a pointless bit of petulance not just to say so, outright). At any event, the seeds of distrust had been sown long before, and MPs had good reason to fear that, absent the Letwin amendment, a way would be found to flout the clearly expressed opposition of parliament to no-deal Brexit.

But, recall, the Benn Act itself was the product of the reckless way that Johnson has conducted himself since coming to office. On the one hand, again, it arose because of his insistence that leaving with no deal at the end of October was a real possibility, despite previous parliamentary votes against it. On the other hand, his ill-fated plan to suspend parliament was precisely designed to head off the possibility of something like the Benn Act being passed. Yet, because of imminent prorogation, MPs were pushed to act immediately, with the Benn Act the consequence just before prorogation began. Plus, in angrily taking the whip from the 21 Tory MPs who voted for it, Johnson set up at least some of the support for the Letwin Amendment and, possibly, for opposition to passing his deal as well.

So, over and over again, the actions of Johnson – like May before him – have provoked the circumstances of greater mistrust, greater suspicion, and greater acrimony. And how did the government react to Saturday’s defeat? By Rees-Mogg using the device of a point of order (which meant he did not have to answer questions about it) to announce that on Monday there is to be a new ‘meaningful vote’ – that is, a vote on whether to accept Johnson’s deal or not, the same question as the motion that was not voted upon because of the Letwin Amendment. And, as points of order were made in response, he arrogantly walked out of the chamber of the House of Commons.

It was, yet again, contemptuous of parliament and, perhaps most foolishly, of those on his own benches who had just supported the Letwin Amendment. It can also only increase the suspicions that lay beneath that amendment. For, if held and passed, the Monday vote would mean the extension letter being withdrawn and the possibility of no-deal Brexit would be reinstated.

The immediate question that arises is whether the Speaker, John Bercow, will allow this vote to occur. It seems to fall foul of his ruling – with respect to May’s repeated meaningful votes – against bringing the same motion back. But there may be some chicanery possible that circumvents that.

There will be no end to uncertainty

So that’s the second part of today's story. The last part is that, somehow or other, there will be debates about and votes on the legislation that would actually implement Johnson’s deal. Then, all the detail of what it really means will get picked over. Some who might currently look like supporting it may not do so. Amendments are possible, including an amendment attaching a confirmatory referendum. At the moment, the numbers are probably just about there for Johnson to get his deal done, and not there to get another referendum. But those numbers are tight, and could change – not least if Johnson, Rees-Mogg and – presumably, behind the scenes – Dominic Cummings continue with their combative and counter-productive tactics.

All that is to come, and there’s no point saying much about Johnson’s deal and the problems with it now. But one thing is worth saying, because it came up repeatedly in Saturday’s debate. The idea that Johnson’s deal should be passed in order to get certainty, including business certainty, is totally bogus.

One aspect of this is that although it is a cliché that ‘business likes certainty’, it doesn’t follow that having certainty will be good for the British economy. Certainty just enables business to make plans more easily. So if the certainty delivered is – as Johnson’s deal means – that there will be greater trade barriers between the UK and the EU than at present, it doesn’t mean that businesses just shrug and say ‘ok, so now we know’. It means that those affected by this will divert themselves or their new investments elsewhere. Similarly, individuals with the ability to do so will relocate accordingly. What is needed for economic prosperity is not certainty, per se, but certainty of the conditions that enable economic prosperity.

Beyond that, if Johnson’s deal passes and Britain leaves the EU at the end of October, there will be just 14 months to negotiate a new trade agreement (not to mention all the non-trade things, including regulatory cooperation) before the end of the transition period. That is clearly not long enough, and so we would very soon be having debates about whether to extend the transition period, application for which would have to be made by July 2020.

Johnson has already ruled out seeking such an extension. Which means that there will be a new business cliff edge looming at the end of 2020. Moreover, it will be a steeper cliff than would have been the case under May’s deal, because the backstop in that deal would have had the whole of the UK in the customs union, whereas under Johnson’s deal it will only be Northern Ireland.

To which should be added this. Not only will there be no certainty even if Johnson’s deal happens, nor will there be any let up in the political and cultural divisions Brexit has caused. For that goes back to the issue with which I began this post, about how no form of Brexit is acceptable to all Brexiters.

The national tragedy this creates is that even if Brexit is done through Johnson’s deal – or any other – the most passionate advocates of Brexit will still be bitterly unhappy. So an entire nation will have deformed its future for something that half – probably now more than half, and their voice was heard loud in demonstration today - the country don’t want, and a sizeable part of the other half, who did, don’t want in this form. We’ll still be just as deeply divided, but also much poorer into the bargain. Underneath all the obscure parliamentary protocols and procedures, it’s this which is at stake.

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