A narrow path and a steep hill

23 April 2019 

The last three years have been a disagreeable voyage of discovery, leaving the nation sadder and wiser, in particular as to the failings of half-hearted negotiation. To repeat my last post, our diplomats set no test for the EU’s goodwill; never raised the stakes by walking out; rolled over for the EU’s sequencing and its separation of the Withdrawal Agreement from subsequent relations; did nothing to counter the principle and unconditionality of payments; neglected to make their case directly to EU member-states, industry or citizens - or to the world at large; and failed to prep the UK public or make adequate provision for failed negotiations. (Please forgive the self-serving comment, but all of these matters were flagged up well ahead of time, here and here.)

-o-

So we’re left with a pig in a poke: a negotiation outcome which offers five ways to kybosh the Brexit for which a majority voted three years ago

  • The Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration are passed by Parliament as they stand. This ensures that the apparatus of treaty obligations, domestic and foreign courts indefinitely prevents the arms-length relations with the EU which would make for regulatory and trade independence.
    This seems unlikely, as the Commons has declined to accept it three times and the Speaker has said he will not permit the question to be put again. His prohibition could be overcome if a new session of Parliament were called, but this is probably off the cards as further inflaming Tory opinion.
  • The Withdrawal Agreement and the Political Declaration are passed by Parliament, after adjustments in the latter to please Labour. This would further weaken an already insipid settlement.
    This also seems unlikely, as talks are reported to be failing to make progress and Corbyn is hamstrung by the “Peoples’“ or “Confirmatory Vote” camp in his own party, intended to dish Brexit without accepting Parliamentary responsibility.
  • The Withdrawal Agreement and the Political Declaration are passed by Parliament, after adjustments in the latter to reflect Commons sentiment in “indicative votes”. As previously, this further weakens the settlement. 
    This is May’s last desperate throw. It is impossible to predict how the Commons might vote but May’s career could well be truncated before she gets a chance to find out - see below.

  • A referendum takes place, in which the alternatives are (a) Revocation and (b) the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration - either as at present or as amended. 
    This is what much of the Labour Party would prefer, but their leader is unconvinced and they lack the votes in the current Commons to push it through.
  • Revocation is formally enacted, with or without a referendum.
    Many in the Commons might prefer this but dare not vote for it given the referendum outcome and the manifestos on which they campaigned in 2017. This means it could only occur after a new general election in which the winning party campaigned explicitly for it.

So five separate ways to dish Brexit, jointly or severally supported by the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, most political parties, a majority of MPs and the Lords, and much of the media, academia, industry and finance. They are not however, supported by the Cabinet, Commons or local Tories, or the country. Even collectively they still seem unlikely.

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But as best I understand it, the nation faces just one narrow path by which it might achieve what most would recognise as Brexit.

  • The Tories find a way to defenestrate May in short order – certainly by the summer.
    The ’22 and local associations are currently working away at this. At time of writing, the chances look less than 50%, but May’s opponents have come back from the Easter recess with the wind in their sails. Shortly we will see if grassroots fury can melt the superglue fastening May to the Number Ten railings.

  • The Tories choose a leader who can win an election, running on a platform that the outcome of negotiations - that is the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration (characterised for campaigning purposes as “Barnier’s deal”) - fails to deliver the referendum.
    Boris Johnson is the name that comes up, despite becoming a Marmite figure over the last three years: he remains the most generally attractive potential Tory leader but has come also to repel many.

  • The Tories win the election with a working majority. 
    This is the most problematic contingency. Two years ago, May failed at the ballot-box and she has conspicuously failed since. The Tory brand cannot but be contaminated by this, obliging a new leader to run against the record of the party, never a good look at the hustings and explaining why the Tories may plump for Marmite.

  • The new Government repeals or finds another way to overcome the Cooper-Letwin Act which seeks to prohibit “no deal”; and allows the balance of the Article 50 extension to expire, making domestic and international arrangements accordingly. 
    If a new Government has the votes and inclination, this can happen. If not, not.

So four separate contingencies, the third of which in particular looks like a real stretch.

-o-

My sense is that we are moving towards a general election in which the Tories rally to Leave and Labour to Remain. Both call for a change of leadership direction - probably of leader. The Tories seem to be heading that way, but I can’t see Labour doing so without an election defeat. And they may win, in which case Brexit will join the general chaos in prospect. It all depends on the next Tory leader who, heaven knows, will have a steep hill to climb. It might just be done.