Prime Minister May’s Brexit was on course to be delivered on 29th March as scheduled until the resubmission of the previously thwarted Withdrawal Agreement was blocked by the Speaker John Bercow, citing a 1604 convention last used in 1920 to the effect that legislation previously rejected cannot be resubmitted in the same Parliamentary session unless in a fundamentally different form.
No.10 has accused the Speaker of sabotaging Brexit more generally and the opportunity for a third ‘meaningful vote’ (MV3) on the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) in particular, which the government were expecting to have passed this week. To get around this procedural issue Parliament would need to be prorogued and reconvened in a new session. But how likely is it that the government could formulate a fundamentally different version of a withdrawal agreement, get it accepted by the EU, and passed by the Parliament – together with related legislative instruments – if not by 29th March then within a limited time frame thereafter, and thereby subsume all recent difficulties and bring about the necessary consensus?
Quandary or constitutional crisis? Unless a modified withdrawal agreement can be passed before 29th March the UK could be crashing out of the European Union on that date – an outcome that will please some Brexiteers who are seeking a clean break but which will otherwise cause social and economic chaos and disruption throughout Britain and much of the EU itself.
Given the latter, the EU Council of Ministers which meets at summit level on 21st March will have every incentive to avoid such a catastrophe by figuring out some modification to the previously unamendable WA or facilitating an extension of the negotiating period under Article 50 of the EU Treaty. Given also the chronic inability of the British Parliament to agree on a mode of withdrawal one way or another this extension could be for as long as two years.
If that were the case the UK would be obliged to participate in the forthcoming European Parliamentary elections, which would seem farcical in the face of the original decision to leave.
Paradoxically, should matters develop on those lines, the chances of the UK remaining in the EU after all would be much increased – an outcome that would be hugely resented by the European Research Group (ERG) – the hard-line Tory Brexiteers. They would only have themselves to blame having obstructed the passage of the Withdrawal Agreement over these past many months when a little sense and moderation on their part would have seen the withdrawal objective achieved – albeit, in their eyes, not in its most perfect, clean cut form.
Of course none of the above may turn out this way. Such is the uncertainty that is driving business and traders to distraction, unable to plan for more than a few weeks or take longer term decisions on investment and supply chains in a situation enforcing precipitate action replete with commercial risk.
Much has been written in recent months of the comings and goings of Prime Minister May’s negotiations in Brussels, of Parliamentary motions, amended and unamended, rejected one and all. Though it was almost a miracle that a motion last week for Parliament to take control of the process away from the Executive was defeated by just two votes in a legislature of well over 600 members.
Whether preventable or not Mrs May has been beholden to two sharply bladed pressure groups – the 10 member Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist Party (a Protestant group) on which she depends for confidence motions, and the above-mentioned ERG, led by Jacob Rees-Mogg from the depths of Victorian England. While the Irish border issue has been a key imperative and has not permitted an easy resolution, both these pincer movements have frustrated and effectively blocked any hope of a smooth passage for the withdrawal. Now it is a question of what pieces remain to put together a feasible path to the next step and whether that next step will be along a similar path or take a new direction altogether.
That would reopen the Tories’ leadership issue, particularly if something like a new start is a possibility. One can be sure that Boris Johnson will be very busy in the lobbies; but the probability is that new leadership will come from one of a half dozen more credible contenders.
Andrew Farran is a former diplomat, law academic and trade policy adviser who recently visited the UK