Toast

22 March 2019

To simplify matters, it is now 10-to-1 on that May will be toast by the end of next week. It is a signal of where we are that her defenestration should be but an incidental of the helter-skelter upon which we find ourselves. Kwasi Kwarteng has told the Commons that May is to attempt her third meaningful vote (MV3) next week. Meanwhile, her deputy, David Lidington, is canvassing indicative votes. Let us try to cut through the complications.

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Will MV3 qualify to come to the floor of the House? Tory MPs are telling each other yes, but this will be only if the Commons suspends the pertinent Standing Orders or the Speaker changes his stance. I regard the former as unlikely. MPs are constitutionally agin’ anything diminishing their prerogatives; Labour MPs will be uncooperative with a Tory manoeuvre; and Tory dissenters will be feeling their strength since they carried the party in the free vote on a delay last Thursday. As to the latter, the Speaker will have to balance his inclinations as a Remainer against his “truth to power” moment: perhaps he will find a fig-leaf enabling him to reverse himself. Say it’s so and the vote is moved.

Can it be passed? All seem to agree that it cannot. The DUP will shift for themselves, but so far nothing is known to have come up to alter their steadfast opposition to the backstop. The ERG contains several dozen who are irrevocably against those aspects of the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) making for unconditional payment, prolonged authority of the ECJ, and of course the backstop. As noted, they will be invigorated by last week’s show of strength. May had hoped to shake loose sufficient Labour dissenters to offset ERG hold-outs, but it may no longer be a matter of hold-outs and Labour MPs were disgusted by her ungracious remarks about the Commons. So I join the consensus in saying almost certainly not. For what it’s worth, last night European leaders also weighed in, with Macron saying it’s a 95% chance that she will lose her vote and Tusk saying it’s 100%.

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The mysteries of the ’22 are held aloof from the uninitiated. Let us nonetheless take it that on Monday, Sir Graham Brady’s report of the collapse of May’s backbench support extended to some guidance as to the decent thing. I take that as meaning that once she loses her third vote, she will act accordingly. There will then presumably be some species of Tory coronation or caretaker, with the winner of what risks being a booby prize trying to assert leadership over the Commons’ future business on the topic. The European Council has sought to limit Parliament’s options. To remind us, from the point of view of the EU27, the matter formally before the UK is not medium-term future relations but narrowly the fate of the WA. If this is not passed, Brussels only entertains either no deal or a prolonged reset, embracing a new process to sort things out.

Now to indicative votes. David Lidington may be pushing them along today (Friday, 22 March), but they neglect the matter at hand: the impending failure of the WA for its own reasons. The Deputy PM seems to be putting the cart before the horse. He is making much of the concession of Parliamentary time to debate end-states by way of the old faithfuls of the Customs Union, the Single Market, or models taken from Brussels’ relations with Canada or Norway, not to say outright revocation. But this is to overlook the decision actually before the Commons, as set by the European Council. In the absence of the WA, Brussels has made it clear that it will only grant an extension beyond 12 April on two conditions: that the UK participates in the May elections for MEPs; and that the Commons commits to engineering an altogether new political settlement, by way of a referendum or election.

MEP elections will be a hard sell, smacking of the unilateral revocation from which the Commons rightly flinches, as violating the manifestos on which both major parties campaigned at the last election. This would add fuel to whatever kindling there is of popular disaffection. Such risks should not be overlooked, however clumsily treated by May a couple of days ago. They could turn out to be disabling. But let’s crack on.

Brussels also seeks a process to resolve matters by way of a referendum or a general election. The former faces challenges to which no solution can be seen. What is the question to be? It cannot embrace May’s deal as no-one will campaign for it. May herself will be toast and her (more fairly, Barnier’s) wretched scheme has no independent support in this country. A straightforward rerun of the last referendum - Leave or Remain - introduces an immobilising paradox. If the country changes its vote to Remain, it immediately elicits the delegitimising come-back: ”best of three, guv?” If voters confirm Leave, it may settle the policy domestically, but gives the EU no clarity as merely taking us back to where we are today.

Finally, we come to an election. This will only resolve matters if voters are offered palpable alternatives. This means that Parliamentary Tories would have fully to reconcile themselves to the Leave majority of their voters and activists. Save for several high-profile figures, they seem to be moving that way. Once on the campaign trail, however, they’d have to push for and make up their minds to abide by a more-or-less “Hard Brexit” policy in office or opposition. Contrariwise, Labour has to square the circle between its provincial Leave and metropolitan Remain voters, not to say a Leave leader and Remain activists and MPs.

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What with one thing and another, an election may be the least ineffective option, made all the more likely once May goes. Even so, creating conditions for a definitive national decision may take more than one electoral cycle, unless her successor shows political skills sadly lacking of late. But it does seem to be nine chances out of ten that May’s desolate ministry and her derelict deal are reaching the end of the line. At last.