Theresa May panics easily. A tide has started to run against Brexit. It has to be stopped.
The date on which the UK leaves the European Union will be “enshrined” in law, according to an amendment the Prime Minister proposed ten days ago. It is to be 11 pm on 29 March 2019. The shrine is a bit off kilter because everyone assumed it would be midnight, but it can’t be because it has to be midnight in Brussels as well, and on 29 March Britain will still be on GMT. This neatly encapsulates the power relationship between Britain and the EU, but in the Commons nobody cared about that except Frank Field, who made a valiant attempt to bring back unicorns by suggesting we postpone the time of departure by an hour, by which time it would be the next day, but only in Europe.
The Commons took no notice: it had the entire EU Withdrawal Bill to chew its way through. Nevertheless, the PM’s unexpected bit of law-making caused a furious Tory rebellion. Harsh words were spoken: “Utterly foolish” – Kenneth Clarke; “pointless” – Tom Tugendhat; “incoherent and thoroughly stupid” – former attorney general Dominic Grieve. Grieve announced his intention of voting against the Government whatever was done to him. Goodness knows what he thought might be done to him, but the Daily Telegraph was in a nasty mood, plastering the photographs of Tory rebels across its front page as if inviting readers to get up a posse.
The obvious fear, shared across parties, is that the amendment could force the country out of the EU before it is ready to leave. It tied the Government’s hands, said numerous speakers; it would leave no room for last-minute manoeuvre; it might “come back to haunt us.” That it would leave no room for last-minute manoeuvre was of course the point. Keir Starmer was right to call it “a desperate gimmick.” It has a whiff of the suicide bomb about it. But May perhaps does not see that. Who knows what she sees?
Starmer pointed out that it could stand in the way of an orderly transition. Others connected it with another of May’s bright ideas, that the final deal, having been voted on by Parliament, should also be enshrined in statute. They said this offer would be made meaningless by fixing the date of the UK’s departure, because there would probably not be enough time to pass the legislation before the date elapsed.
The matter of the parliamentary vote on the deal is sunk in as deep a morass of confusion as anything else to do with Brexit, which is saying a great deal. The confusion became heated when David Davis a few weeks ago informed a Parliamentary select committee that, because the EU negotiations might go to the wire, there might not be time for Parliament to vote on the deal, and had to be contradicted first by the Prime Minister and then by his own department before he had the sense to contradict himself and thereby restore the illusion that this is a democracy. The question was not satisfactorily laid to rest, and Wednesday’s stormy debate resurrected it. Nor has anyone explained how negotiations could “go to the wire” on 29 March 2019 when they are supposed to be concluded by next October.
The Prime Minister’s proposal to put the final deal which Parliament had accepted into law was an attempt to reassure the country that there would be a vote, and that it would be “meaningful” in that it would be taken before Britain left.
However, it would not be meaningful in any other sense, because it would give MPs only the choice of accepting whatever terms the Government had negotiated or leaving the EU without a deal. This is what the Government has always intended, ever since, under pressure, it deigned to allow a parliamentary vote at all. Anna Soubry described this “concession” (yes, that is what the Government is calling it) as “insulting.”
Roughly half the Commons seems disinclined to worship at the shrine. The Government has been warned it must rewrite the date amendment or face defeat in a Commons vote in December.
This unlooked-for defiance has set the Government running in dazed circles. One source said that a “possible solution was for the Government to fix the date but make it clear it would try to extend Article 50 if an act of parliament approving the withdrawal agreement was not passed in time for that date” (Guardian 17 November).
In which case, what is meant by “fixing the date”?
David Davis dropped shrouded hints that the Government might abandon its amendment. The Government denied it was thinking of any such thing. It said, in the tones we have come to know and love, “What this amendment does is provide certainty over our position that we are leaving the EU on 29 March 2019.”
Just before it issued this statement, a source in Whitehall divulged that the Government was “trying to think of a way of watering down its amendment without taking out its reference to 11 pm on 29 March 2019” (Guardian, 17 November. My italics).
Fortunately, sanity still rules in the EU. The 27 have sought a legal opinion from the European Commission on the possible extension of the two years allowed for talks under Article 50. The 27 do not envision a lengthy extension: one diplomat explained, “This extension would only be if we are near striking a deal and need a few extra weeks or months” (Guardian, 17 November.)
Another thing the EU is doing is preparing for a no-deal Brexit.
The drumbeat in Westminster for no deal has been growing louder in the past weeks. May continues to say it is not what she wants, while seeming clueless about how to prevent it. To get a Brexit deal, she has to do the second stage of talks. To do the second stage of talks, she has to get through the first stage. To get through the first stage, she has to resolve the budget contribution, citizens’ rights and the border.
The budget, as I write, is being discussed at an urgent meeting of the Cabinet; more must be offered (more is owed!), but an increase in the contribution will be politically explosive. An agreement on citizens’ rights may be within sight; nothing of the kind is in sight on the Irish border, a conundrum May cannot resolve because she has blocked herself in by refusing to stay in the single market or customs union. The Taoiseach has threatened to block progress to second-stage talks unless Britain commits itself in writing (don’t they trust us?) to no hard border and a continuation of the Common Travel Area.
It doesn’t look possible without a radical shift in thinking at the top. This is why, despite a mounting chorus of alarm from business and the direst warnings of what will happen, we are heading, it seems inexorably, for a no-deal Brexit.
Will it really be so bad? Yes, it will be an absolute disaster. I will talk about this in another post; meanwhile there’s a manageable summary on the BBC website by Chris Morris, 14 October. Even the BBC thinks it’s not a terribly good idea. Who could possibly want this near-doomsday scenario?
Well, some people do and they have their reasons. They don’t talk about most of them, but they will point with satisfaction to the House of Lords judgement in March that, if Britain leaves the EU without a deal, it will probably have no legal obligation to pay into the budget. The judgement adds that not paying would “antagonise the rest of the EU and further sour relations. Legal action … could not be ruled out.” But I can’t see no-dealers being bothered by a spot of French colère.
These are the people pulling May’s strings, and the amendment seeking to fix the date of Brexit is intended to reassure them. In spite of her constant reiteration that there can be no monkeying about with Article 50, Theresa May isn’t so sure. She is said to have taken legal advice on whether Brexit can be revoked; she is not telling anyone what answer came back. There is for her an unnerving possibility that negotiations might stretch out, the EU might prove inconveniently accommodating over the date and Brexit may vanish in the tangled grass. Fixing the date both removes that danger – it’s a guillotine – and puts enormous pressure on those innocent souls who are still striving to make negotiations work.
May’s puppeteers don’t want a good deal, they want no deal, and they presumably welcome the increasing evidence that a good deal can’t be negotiated. Closing off a genuinely free vote solves half their problem; fixing the date solves the other half because it provides cover. They don’t want time. Time will make the Government’s failure more apparent. It is not really a failure, of course: it’s a betrayal.
And afterwards, when there are a million pieces to be picked up, the Government can disclaim responsibility. It was constrained by the law, which the House of Commons voted for.
This monstrous trap is quite simply dealt with.
If there is no alternative to “no deal”, then the alternative to no deal is no Brexit.