The recent series of procedural votes in the British Parliament did not provide the hoped for route through the impasse for an unruffled Brexit. The hustle and bustle over the next few weeks will be more theatre than substance, deliberately, as Britain moves inexorably out the EU door, facilitated not surprisingly by Prime Minister May’s much maligned Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration.
Why would a government keep going to and fro to Brussels asking over and over for something they know they can’t get and looking stupid in the process?
Simple: Prime Minister May has larger parochial concerns than Brexit per se over which she is risking the national interest. Her concern is to keep the Tory party intact in order to hold it together for the next General Election – which although not due until 2022 could be held anytime soon if the impasse continues.
The Labour Party Leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is likewise preoccupied with a possible early General Election and has shown little interest is taking a clear stance on the Brexit issue. By encouraging divisions among the Tories he sees Parliament coming to such astate that a General Election would be unavoidable, for which the Tory party would be in weakened stateand Labour would take the prize.
Mind you, there is many a subplot in this mix. Those with a serious interest in a successful outcome for Brexit are constantly frustrated by the numerous blind alleys being pursued and exploited as distractions. For the government’s part it has only one date in mind, 29th March. It has put up its Withdrawal Agreement with its many sensible features, features that do not avoid the Irish Border issue and deals with the inevitable incompatibility of two separate but adjoining economies leaving a gate wide open for anything that’s going.
The obvious solution, apart from a hard border, is to bring those economies into alignment over tariffs and regulations. The obvious means is a customs union and single market for goods and services. Those terms, customs union and single market, are anathema to the Tory hard right, and to them would seem as bad as remaining in the EU. Technically they are quite wrong about that but they and their supporters on the Leave side don’t want to listen and are blithe as to the consequences of a hard exit.
Prime Minister May has had to play along with this and appear to demonstrate that she can square a circle which means going back and forth to Brussels, as she is now about to do yet again, and engage in a negotiating charade (on both sides) to trim or tweak the one and only Withdrawal Agreement on the table –the some 560 page document with a Political Declaration that was so thoroughly trounced the other day in the Parliament. But the hard fact is that if there is no agreed deal well before and certainly by 29th March the UK will be out of the EU and into legal limbo land – a consequence which those on the Tory hard right may view as a clean break and a brilliant Brexit.
But that, of course, would not be a happy outcome for everyone else.
So what to do when faced with a very obstinate group in your party, as is the case for Mrs May? You string things along for as long as you can until you reach a point when a hard exit looks inevitable, meanwhile keeping your hard right on-side. By that time, because there will be no time to attend to a multitude of statutory prerequisites, the choice facing Parliament would be no choice at all: between a very hard exit on the one hand and the comprehensive Withdrawal Agreement that has been on the table all this time on the other. Too late to avail of Article 50 of the EU Treaty as there wouldhave been no significant change of political circumstances meanwhile to justify a time extension.
The only sensible course for a sensible Parliament would be to adopt the agreement as it is and proceed with a smooth, seamless exit on 29th March. The Tory right will get a Brexit but not on their destructive terms. Mrs May’s party will still be intact. A General Election will still be a years away. And the Labour Party and Mr Corbyn will be left just as they were at the start.
Keep this mind as news of further hectic diplomatic doings and Parliamentary manoeuvres preoccupy the media over the next few weeks.
Andrew Farran is a former diplomat, law academic and trade policy adviser. He is currently in the UK.