Brexit round-up: more crazy madness – and a break in the stormclouds

By on 28/03/2019
Saturday’s protest, calling for a ‘People’s Vote’ on any Brexit deal, drew over half a million people to central London. Pics by Alessandro Mariscalco, www.alessandromariscalco.com

As the UK’s Tory party descended into yet more infighting this week, Parliament started to look for consensus. Having finally lost patience with the government, the House of Commons is trying to forge its own plan – offering an escape route from Britain’s political paralysis. Matt Ross reports

In another chaotic week for British politics, two key events stood out. The House of Commons finally seized control of the Parliamentary timetable from the government, holding ‘indicative votes’ pointing towards a possible majority for a softer Brexit. And prime minister Theresa May promised her own MPs that she’d quit if the House approves her Withdrawal Agreement (WA) – kicking off much jockeying for position among leading Tories, many of them committed to a harder Brexit.

So Westminster – as it has for 33 interminable months – is heading off in two mutually-incompatible directions. But while the interpersonal drama convulsing the Tory party is sucking up much of the media airtime, it was in the Commons that the terms of the debate really shifted. Until this week, all the key decisions around the UK’s approach to Brexit have been forged in the Conservatives’ internal struggles; but the wider body of MPs have – at least for now – wrested the controls from government. And unlike the Tory party, it looks like they might be close to agreeing a common way forward.

Parliament wields its sovereignty

The scene was set last week, when a ‘People’s Vote’ referendum march attracted over half a million protesters, while a petition calling for the revocation of Article 50 dramatically took off: it now has over six million people signatories. Meanwhile, May further alienated MPs, and badly mishandled her meeting with EU leaders – who promptly offered an extensions package that gave the Commons a shot at seizing the agenda.

Conservative backbencher Sir Oliver Letwin, a former party loyalist horrified at the prospect of no deal, had for some time been trying to win cross-party support for indicative votes: a series of polls designed to find a Commons majority for a clear way forward. And on Monday, Speaker John Bercow – who last week barred May from bringing her deal back to the Commons unchanged – permitted a debate and division. The government opposed Letwin’s move, offering to run the process itself; but May’s tone-deaf attack on MPs and repeated u-turns had cost her the House’s sympathy. Letwin’s plan passed by 327 votes to 300.

Fresh convulsions in the Tory party

In the run-up to Wednesday’s first round of indicative votes, May went all-out to win Tory MPs over to her deal – pledging to step down if the WA passes, leaving the subsequent trade negotiations to her successor. But Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party refused to drop its implacable opposition to the WA’s ‘backstop’ provisions; and after appearing to waver, Brexiteer Tories – including leadership hopeful Boris Johnson – soon began briefing against it, today telling allies that the deal is dead.

He is probably right – and May’s offer to quit, designed to reinvigorate her beleaguered plan, played a part in squashing further life out of it. For the WA does not define the future relationship between the UK and EU: this is left to the accompanying Political Declaration (PD), which sets out the starting point for trade talks. With May gone, the UK’s negotiations would be left to her successor – quite likely an arch-Brexiteer, such as Johnson or former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab. And the prospect of helping the right-wing of the Tory party to take Number 10 horrified Labour leavers: May’s move may have won over a few ambitious Tories, but it made backing her deal unthinkable for all but a handful of Labour MPs.

Pics by Alessandro Mariscalco, www.alessandromariscalco.com

Finding a Commons majority

Meanwhile, Wednesday’s indicative votes found more support than expected for two key proposals. The Brexiteers’ no deal ideas were demolished, and soft Brexit options – including a ‘Norway model’ plan to remain in the European Economic Area – fared badly. But plans by veteran Tory Ken Clarke for the UK to remain in the Customs Union fell by just eight votes, and Labour MP Margaret Beckett’s call for a referendum on any deal lost by 27 – securing the largest number of votes of any option.

Beckett’s proposal had benefited from a last minute change of heart by the Labour leadership. Just that morning, shadow international trade secretary Barry Gardiner had said that Labour is “not a Remain party. We’ve accepted the result of the referendum.” Maybe the angry reaction from Labour supporters prompted leader Jeremy Corbyn to turn around; perhaps it was the prospect of Boris Johnson as PM. But Labour whipped its MPs to back Beckett, inching the party another step towards formal support for a referendum.

On Monday, MPs will hold another round of indicative votes – choosing from a narrower range of options, and probably using a proportional or preferential voting system. Then a majority may be found for a version of the WA, modified to include a full Customs Union – its inclusion rendered as Brexiteer-proof as Clarke can manage – and to require a confirmatory referendum.

A halfway house built on sand

Clarke, an avid Remainer, has slowly come round to the view that some version of the WA represents Britain’s best chance of averting a catastrophic no deal exit. But in their hearts, he and his fellow europhiles probably know that anything short of full EU membership would probably carry within itself the seeds of its own destruction. For public euroscepticism has long been rooted in the idea that the EU is an unaccountable and undemocratic organisation that infringes UK sovereignty; and if Britain were to become a rule-taker, closely tied to the EU economy but unable to help shape its politics, those tensions would surely grow over the years to come.

For decades, the UK has worked alongside other northern European countries to promote the free trade agenda within Europe – providing a counter-balance to nations such as France and Italy, whose approaches are more interventionist and regulation-heavy. Without Britain’s influence in the European Commission and Parliament, the EU’s economic policies would increasingly come into tension with the UK’s interests and preferences. And that’s without taking into account the individual interests of EU member states, some of which would seek to change the regulatory landscape in ways that made the Continent a better environment for businesses than Britain: France is already making a determined bid for chunks of the UK’s financial sector.

So any halfway house would, over time, prove unsustainable. The UK had a cushy number in the EU, and still we ended up here; stuck powerless in an unhappy marriage, the country would be miserable. Eventually it would either break away completely, or seek to rejoin the EU – having lost its current advantages, such as exclusion from the Schengen area and the Eurozone. On this, the hard Brexiteers and the Remainers agree: May’s Withdrawal Agreement – even with a Customs Union attached – would be a much worse outcome than full EU membership. The fact that some hard Brexiteers are now moving to support the WA tells us much more about their motives than the deal’s provisions.

Go back to the people

Given Britain’s predicament, though, many moderate MPs might back such a modified WA – both because it avoids no deal, and because the promise of a confirmatory referendum provides an escape route back to full membership. That referendum might confirm the decision to leave, of course. But given the choice between the prospect of EU trade negotiations stretching away into the distant future, and just stopping the whole wretched process, it must be likely that the British people would say: enough!

And if they approved the deal, accompanied by a Political Declaration setting out a target trade model? Then at least Britain’s politicians would have been given a clear mandate for a specific form of Brexit. The UK’s political paralysis would be broken, and the government and Commons would have to deliver the newly-expressed ‘will of the people’. It would be a damaging and fundamentally ill-conceived way to move forward; but the country would at least be able to move. And right now, its inability to cohere around any of the options threatens disaster.

Pics by Alessandro Mariscalco, www.alessandromariscalco.com

No safe solutions

Meanwhile, on Thursday afternoon the government announced its intention to have one more go at passing the WA – separating it from the PD to meet the Speaker’s requirements. This division, scheduled for Friday 29, will probably be tighter than the government’s previous drubbings. But unless the DUP moves, it seems impossible for it to pass.

Assuming it does fall once more, on Monday the Commons will again seize the initiative, holding its second round of indicative votes. And if MPs can find a majority, May will be under huge pressure to follow their directions – likely to include asking the EU for a long extension to Article 50.

By that point, the EU’s offer of a May 22 extension will have expired, and a no deal exit will be looming on April 12. The Commons cannot force May to go back to the EU; and while it might instruct the PM to revoke Article 50 before Britain goes over the cliff edge, it probably lacks the power to do so itself. So the stage would be set for yet another agonising showdown, as politicians play chicken with the UK’s peace and prosperity.

May’s only alternative to following the Commons would be to plump for no deal; and she might just do that. Yet there are no safe routes forward for the UK. Three years into a disastrously mismanaged Brexit process, every option facing Britain carries huge risks and potential costs. With the Conservatives more divided than ever, only Parliament seems able to map out a path to some kind of resolution. It is MPs’ duty to do so.

About Matt Ross

Matt is a journalist and editor specialising in public services, policymaking, government and management. He was the editor of trade title Civil Service World from 2008 to 2014, serving an audience of senior UK officials; and the features editor of weekly news magazine Regeneration & Renewal between 2002 and 2008, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development. He has also been a motoring and travel journalist, and now combines his role as editorial director of Global Government Forum with writing for other publications including The Guardian and Planning magazine.

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