Uproar and acrimony has resumed, even more intensely, over Brexit at Westminster this week on the resumption of Parliament following the Christmas break. The expectation, or rather hope, that members might have softened their hard lines after a due period of reflection and deeper thinking, in the ‘national interest’, have been sorely disappointed.
What seems to have really rankled a good many was the decision prior to Christmas to pull the scheduled vote over the Withdrawal Agreement which was seen as a tactical move to use up time and build up pressure as the 29th March deadline approached. At that point, it was thought, the options would boil down to accepting the Withdrawal Agreement, as it stands (given that the EU will not renegotiate apart from ‘clarifications’ on the backstop), or going for Brexit without a deal.
Where some creative thought was given over the break was to possible ways and means of thwarting or foiling a no-deal Brexit, by attaching conditions to any legislation (e.g. Treasury Bills, to box in the government) or to plans to offset the negative consequences of a no-deal. This was tried on Tuesday when those opposed to a no-deal Brexit successfully moved a motion (303/296) to restrict the Treasury’s powers to prepare for leaving the EU without a deal. Twenty Tory MPs (including seven former cabinet ministers) broke ranks to inflict the first defeat of a government in the Commons on a finance bill for more that 40 years. The motion does not have legislative force but is a dramatic expression of Parliamentary feeling. However it doesn’t answer the question: if a no-deal outcome will not be supported, what deal would be?
As for on-going preparations and rehearsals for a no-deal, the hard-line Tory ‘nationalists’ dismiss the anticipated disruptions as vastly exaggerated, and argue that Britain could turn to the rest of the world for its trade and commerce and ignore Europe; overlooking that the vast preponderance of its trade is with Europe, and that cutting existing supply lines would be tantamount to severing arteries – a clear admission that they had done little seriously real homework over the break. They are even deluded over the assumed availability and enforcement of WTO trading terms given that the UK outside of the EU would, contrary to their declamations, not have automatic membership of the WTO and would, as noted previously in these pieces, have to negotiate that quite separately.
Feeling in the wider British community has been growing in favour of a second Referendum, the reason being that Parliament has or will fail and that the people should be allowed the chance to decide. While there may be a majority for a second Referendum it is far from certain that this would provide a clear-cut result, and may if anything widen the deepening divisions existing throughout the country – with social consequences, that some say, may not be altogether different to those experienced in the 17th century Civil War. The Scots for their part would in any event be suing (again) for their independence.
The Britain/Europe issue has, as well known, festered in Britain ever since the Second War War. At no time has the population been reconciled to one or another relationship with Europe. This to some extent can be blamed on government, particularly Tory governments which as a whole have not been ardent or consistent advocates for Europe (with some notable exceptions). By the same token much the same could be said about certain other EU members who, to lesser or greater degrees, have sought to have the Union on their own national terms. The EU, longer term, remains an open issue still.
A further and major opaque factor in the Parliamentary scene is Mr Corbyn and his MPs. The majority of these are Remainers but out in the sticks the position is different. Corbyn appears to have calculated that if he were to support a second Referendum he would lose wider party support just when he might hope to force Mrs May’s government to a General Election which, in such circumstances, he would hope to win. So he is saying nothing at this stage about a second Referendum and concentrating his forthright attacks on Mrs May personally. Not nice to watch when the national interest is at a point of being seriously damaged through disunity.
At the time of writing the Withdrawal Agreement, is being debated again, and is expected to be voted on next Tuesday, 16th January. Mr Corbyn has demanded that there be no further postponement. Mrs May would not give this assurance to the BBC’s Andrew Marr when interviewed on the Sunday morning program. She was not present in the House of Commons the following Monday when Mr Corbyn made his demand, being out of London that day and leaving it to a junior Minister to fend questions.
It is speculated that if that vote fails a first time it will be taken again, and then again if necessary, as the 29th of March approaches, placing more and more pressure on both the Parliament and the EU to reconcile differences. Mrs May herself has acknowledged that all would be in uncharted waters in that event and that no one, while standing positions remain, could predict an outcome other than that failure would have the UK out of the EU without a deal on the due date. My guess is that Parliament will not allow that.
A last resort would be to seek the revocation or extension of the Article 50 process. The European Court of Justice has given an opinion that either would be possible – that is, a unilateral closure of the process which would imply remaining in the EU; or a time extension on the condition that this was not being done to prolong negotiations but to allow for a substantial change of political circumstances in the UK, such as the calling of a General Election or a decision to conduct a second Referendum. Neither seems very likely at this stage, so the threat of a no-deal Brexit continues unless Mrs May’s Withdrawal Agreement is agreed well before 29th March.
What many objectors don’t appear to fully appreciate is that the future of the UK’s relations with Europe – whether it be an EEA Norway plus,, or a Canadian-style FTA, or a variant of a Free Trade/Common Market arrangement – will remain open for negotiation over the following transitional period as long as there is a deal, and that in this respect nothing is precluded by the Withdrawal Agreement in and of itself..
Andrew Farran is a former Australian diplomat, law academic and trade adviser. He will be returning to London on Tuesday the 16th – the date scheduled for the Commons’ vote on the Withdrawal Agreement and plans to provide further comment from there on this amazing, fascinating, and unprecedented on-going political spectacle as it develops.