Brexit: Why Monday will be our Moment of Truth
On Friday, for the third time, Theresa May tried and failed to get her Brexit deal approved by the House of Commons — losing by 58 votes.
Unless an extension to Article 50 is approved by the E.U. before 12th April (which would require British participation in May’s European elections), the U.K will crash out of the bloc — if not on 12th April itself — then certainly no later than 1st July 2019. This is believed to be the latest date — legally — that the UK can remain a member of the E.U. without having participated in those European elections.
On Monday, Parliament will aim to whittle down the indicative votes it debated on Wednesday to coalesce around a way forward that it can support. Two proposals currently seem to be the strongest contenders. The first proposes that a permanent customs union is ‘bolted on’ to the Political Declaration: the joint non-legally binding document that describes the future U.K./E.U relationship. The second most popular is for a ‘confirmatory referendum’ to ask the public to either back the revised Brexit deal or to stay in the E.U. after all (at which point we’d all shout SURPRISE! and tell Europe we were having them on all along, in an endearingly boorish display of British ‘bantz’).
On Saturday morning, a whinging Brandon Lewis (Chairman of the ruling Conservative Party) was shoved onto the Today Programme — by some undoubtedly incredibly tired Government communications aide - to moan that Parliament had said what it is ‘against’ but hadn’t said what it was ‘for’.
When it was put to him that on Monday the Commons could coalesce around a permanent customs union as a way forward, he promptly replied that the government couldn’t possibly enact that.
In an unusual display of doing their job, the Today Programme presenter asked a challenging follow-up question in response to what Brandon Lewis had just said, pointing out that he couldn’t — on the one hand — say that Parliament was being indecisive, but then — on the other — say that the government would ignore whatever they did decide.
At this point Lewis sniffled that a lot of leave voters would feel betrayed if we formed a customs union with the E.U. To be fair, he has a point: I’m sure that the main reason why people voted for Brexit was fury over those damned common external tariffs and adherence to WTO Rules of Origin: the trigger for many a pub-brawl during the referendum campaign.
Then Lewis went on to say that joining a customs union with the E.U. would be an outrage because it would be contrary to the Conservative Party’s last election manifesto… you know, that manifesto that it lost the last election on, and that manifesto that led to the Conservatives losing their parliamentary majority. Sometimes I genuinely wonder whether Brandon — and Theresa for that matter — ever got the memo?
Last Wednesday, when Parliament failed to find a majority for any of the eight pathways out of the Brexit-impasse, the whole media — including relatively sane publications like ‘The Guardian’ — joyfully shrieked from the rooftops that Parliament had failed to find a consensus and we were all doomed. This was nonsense.
Conservative Oliver Letwin, who proposed these ‘indicative votes’, and who, as I write this sentence it dawns on me I find myself — terrifyingly — on the same side of the argument as, had already explained that he never expected Parliament to find a majority for a way forward in the first round of voting.
It would be a second round of voting — happening this coming Monday — which would whittle down the options to something that Parliament could agree on.
A customs union only goes so far to solve the issue of the Northern Irish border. It only goes so far to support frictionless trade with our closest trading partner. As leave-supporting blogger Oliver Norgrove has expertly pointed out, it is regulatory checks that pose the greatest threat to these, rather than customs.
However, if Parliament could coalesce around a customs union, it would be a vital first step in stopping Jacob Rees-Mogg, Boris Johnson and chums from converting the British economy into a disaster-capitalist lab experiment dreamed up on an Etonian playing field.
And if Parliament can find a majority for a Brexit that goes further than a customs union and supports British membership of the Single Market and even — hells bells — a confirmatory referendum… then bring it on.
But there is a problem.
Because as Lewis pointed out on the Today Programme, the Government are unlikely to support a Brexit position that includes joining a customs union or triggering a confirmatory referendum. They could just ignore Parliament’s instructions, and the constitutional stand-off could mean we stumble into a ‘no-deal’ departure in as little as two weeks.
This is the point at which Parliament will truly have to take control.
I’ve written before about how I believe a successful no-confidence vote in the Government could lead to a Government of national unity and a way out of the mess. But I admit this would be a very difficult feat to pull off.
The customs union proposal put forward last Wednesday included a process (which would require Parliament to once again seize the business agenda from the government) to expedite a bill through Parliament that enshrined this negotiating position into U.K. law. This could work, but the government would throw every trick in the book at the process to thwart and filibuster it as it made its way through the legislative process.
I think the more interesting prospect is that the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, may not allow the government’s deal to come back for a fourth vote unless — as he ruled after the second ‘meaningful vote’ — the motion that is being voted on is substantially different from those that have already been voted on and decided by the House.
Last week, his interpretation of this rule was noted as being particularly strict, when he indicated that the addition — by the E.U — of the deadlines to the process made at the summit on 22nd March wouldn’t constitute enough of a ‘change’ to allow the deal to return for a vote. Most commentators had assumed it would. On Friday, this led the government to hold a Commons vote on just the legally-binding Withdrawal Agreement — and not the accompanying ‘political declaration’ — to make the proposition substantially ‘different’. Of course, they still lost, by 58 votes.
So how does May bring her deal back for a fourth time?
Well if Parliament can agree a way forward — whether that’s a ‘softer’ Brexit, and/or a referendum to ratify the amended deal — that could constitute enough of a change to the proposition on offer that would lead to John Bercow happily awarding another vote.
Not only that, but if the government refused to put this amended deal to another vote (which they most likely would, due to their objections to a customs union and/or a second referendum), then by using the same process as Oliver Letwin used to allow the ‘indicative votes’, Parliament could — in the most bizarre of ironies — force such a vote to take place.
So May’s deal could come back a fourth time — only this time she wouldn’t particularly want it to.
Firstly though, Parliament has to come to a consensus. This is why it is so imperative that MPs can agree on a sensible way forward on Monday. For if not, I fear we could be screwed. Brandon Lewis will have been proved right. Parliament won’t have been able to find an alternative. It really will be Theresa May’s deal — as it stands — or ‘no deal’.
Sadly, in my view, ‘no deal’ will then become the most likely outcome.
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