UK Parliament can safely block Brexit deal, says former deputy PM

By on 27/04/2018
The Rt Hon Sir Nick Clegg. Drawing on his experience of British and European Politics, the former Deputy Prime Minister spoke about the UK's future relationship with the EU and the challenges ahead for the Brexit negotiations (Image courtesy: Institute for Government/Candice McKenzie).

Britain’s Brexiteers argue that a parliamentary vote against the Brexit settlement currently under negotiation would lead to a chaotic ‘no-deal’ exit from the EU. But the UK’s former deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, says EU leaders have reassured him that Britain would be given more time to resolve its internal rift. Matt Ross reports

If the UK Parliament refuses to sign off the Brexit deal eventually negotiated by prime minister Theresa May with the European Commission, the EU is likely to give Britain more time rather than sticking rigidly to the planned 29 March 2019 exit date, former UK deputy prime minister Nick Clegg said last week.

Brexiteers have warned that a defeat for the government in the “meaningful vote” promised to parliamentarians this autumn would lead to Britain crashing out of the EU in the spring without a deal on critical matters such as the status of citizens living abroad, travel, security and regulatory issues – creating huge social and economic problems.

But Clegg told an audience at the Institute for Government think tank that “this idea that there is a Biblical momentum toward the 29 March 2019, which is immutable – the idea that if Parliament withholds its consent then we’ll crash out without a deal – is absolute nonsense.”

EU consultations

Clegg has been touring EU capitals, he said, asking leaders about “the possibility that the EU 27 will be faced with a country this winter in a state of constitutional political gridlock, in which the executive and the legislature will be at loggerheads. And what I’ve discovered is that, in the event of that sort of constitutional paralysis, or if the cookie crumbles in a way that leads to a move towards a plebiscite here on the final deal, I am very, very sure… that the EU 27 will recognise that if the UK finds itself in that invidious position, they will need to give the UK more time. And I think they’d readily do so.”

Given an extension of the Article 50 deadline, the government could hold a referendum on the negotiated settlement, Clegg suggested – creating the potential for the UK to remain in the EU. However, he said that the EU would be unlikely to offer extra time if the UK’s goal is to reopen negotiations in the hope of getting a better deal.

“Where there is much less sympathy is with the idea that the government goes back to the EU 27 and says: ‘We want to tweak this or that’,” he commented. “There’s very little patience with that, and very unambiguous messages from some very senior powerbrokers… So I’m very sceptical of the idea that we could send the government back to renegotiate. But I’m much more confident that in the event that Parliament says ‘nyet’, we’ll be given more time to sort this out.”

Parliamentary calculations

“The temptation for government is to sketch things out in a woolly way, so as not to frighten the horses before the parliamentary vote,” (Image courtesy: Institute for Government/Candice McKenzie).

The former deputy PM’s view may reassure Remainers concerned that a Commons vote against the negotiated deal would lead to a chaotic exit from the EU – a line touted by leading Brexiteers. The government has also warned its MPs that the ‘meaningful vote’ will be viewed as a confidence issue, raising the prospect that a defeat would lead to Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party coming to power. But under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011 – passed to provide stability for Clegg’s 2010-15 Coalition with the Tory party – a general election can only be held if no government can be formed or with the backing of a two-thirds majority in the Commons: even if May resigned, it’s more likely that her successor as Tory leader would become prime minister.

Parliament has been flexing its muscles in recent days, with the House of Lords defeating the government in a series of votes on the Customs Union and the powers sought by May to enact Brexit. These bills will now come back to the Commons, where the minority Tory government is propped up by a handful of Northern Ireland’s unionist MPs.

Labour leader Corbyn has long been a Eurosceptic and is concerned about losing support within Brexit-voting communities, but Clegg sounded confident that the vast majority of Labour MPs will vote against a ‘hard’ Brexit deal – whatever their leadership says.

Rebels on both sides

“Regardless of Jeremy Corbyn’s personal views on Brexit, he’s not in a position any more to instruct his parliamentary party to go in the lobby with [the Brexit-supporting foreign secretary] Boris Johnson and [environment secretary] Michael Gove,” said Clegg. “I don’t believe that a large number of labour MPs will be able to stomach voting for a Tory Brexit.”

“Are they going to perform the greatest betrayal of internationalist, progressive politics in the post-war period? I just don’t believe it! So I think it will come down to how many Conservative MPs are going to pluck up the courage to do what they privately believe to be right.” If all but the handful of Labour Brexiteers vote to reject the government’s negotiated settlement, then a dozen Tory MPs switching sides would be sufficient to block the deal.

By contrast, Clegg noted, Tory Brexiteers have been remarkably quick to back down as May has blurred a series of red lines ill-advisedly set down in the months after the referendum vote. But their strategy is logical, he added: if they can stick to the original timetable for formally leaving the EU, then the UK will be able to gradually distance itself from the EU in the following years. Once the UK is officially out, the path back into the union is much, much harder, said Clegg – adding that people will be surprised “quite how rapidly the paths start diverging once you’ve left.”

Key decisions postponed

May’s determined pro-Brexit stance has attracted some public opposition, but she may have the parliamentary numbers to push through a deal (Image courtesy: Ilovetheeu)

Because the EU must be satisfied that the Irish border question has been resolved before signing off on the exit deal, the UK government can’t dodge addressing some aspects of the trading relationship – and Brexiteers fear that May could be gearing up to make concessions on membership of the Customs Union. Nonetheless, the agreement of a transition period running to 31 December 2020 – during which the UK and EU must finalise the details a trade arrangement outlined this autumn – means that key aspects of the final trade relationship will only become clear after the UK has formally left the union, and gives the government some room to postpone hard choices and thereby minimise political resistance.

“The temptation for government is to sketch things out in a woolly way, so as not to frighten the horses before the parliamentary vote,” explained Clegg. But those trade negotiations, he pointed out, are bound to leave one side bitterly disappointed.

“The EU would like nothing more than a signal that the UK will settle for a European Free Trade Area-style relationship, because they can compute that,” he said. “They’ve got that model, almost off the shelf.”

However, Brexiteers are focused on a Canada-style trade deal – creating much more friction in trading relationships – or on complex models built on voluntary and variable alignment of regulations. “These ever more elaborate and arcane schemes cooked up in London are increasingly becoming an expression of a peculiar policy narcissism in which we talk about Brexit as if all we need to do is agree amongst ourselves and then somehow ‘Johnny Foreigner’, in the end, will sign up,” said Clegg. “Johnny Foreigner has got plenty more things to be doing: the EU leaders have bigger fish to fry!”

It is bizarre, Clegg added, that the Tory party – which “did most, in many respects, to promote free trade over the last 100 years – doesn’t seem to understand what drives trade. And the party that created the most perfect example of borderless trade, the Single Market, doesn’t seem to understand what the Single Market is.”

Play nicely

In his concluding comments, Clegg warned that the Brexiteers’ autocratic use of their referendum win has been deeply divisive and undemocratic – and urged Remainers, should the tables turn, to build a solution that respects the views and rights of all sides.

“The winning side in the referendum did something which is extraordinary in a mature democracy,” he argued. “They said: ‘We don’t care what 48% of people think, we’re going to impose our own interpretation of this vote.’ That outraged me then and still does now.

“One of the basic functions of a mature democracy is that you don’t leave the losers empty-handed. If you take a highly-polarised debate, and say: ‘You losers are entirely disenfranchised’, then you can guarantee you’ll get a backlash – and rightly so, because the whole point of a mature democracy is that everyone feels they have a stake.

“So if the pendulum swings back to people like me, we mustn’t repeat the mistakes of the Brexiteers. You have to give people who believe we should leave the EU something; you can’t leave them empty-handed. There’s no doubt if that you were to simply snap back to the status quo ante, people would feel completely cheated.”

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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