Whole new ball game
The government insists that it will stick to its Brexit timetable come hell or high water, writes Eddie Ford
As widely expected, the supreme court on January 24 decided by eight votes to three that the government could not use its royal prerogative powers to trigger article 50 - MPs and peers must get a vote. Explaining the decision, Lord Neuberger, president of the supreme court, said that, whilst “generally” the government can use prerogative powers to change treaties, it cannot do so if that will affect people’s rights - and by ceasing to be party to the various EU treaties, those of UK residents would be affected. Therefore the rights embedded in the law by the 1972 European Communities Act, which took the UK into what was then the European Community, cannot be removed by the government.
More cheerfully for the prime minister, the court also ruled unanimously that on devolution issues UK ministers are not legally compelled to consult the devolved governments before triggering article 50. Neuberger stated that relations with the EU and other foreign affairs matters “are reserved to UK government and parliament, not to the devolved institutions”, and concluded that “the devolved legislatures do not have a veto on the UK’s decision to withdraw from the EU”. Obviously, if the decision on this issue had gone the other way, that could have scuppered Theresa May’s Brexit timetable, which sees her triggering article 50 by the end of March at the latest.
David Davies, the Brexit minister, immediately declared that he would be introducing a “straightforward” bill on leaving the EU “within days” - stating that the “point of no return” for Brexit had already been passed: no ifs, no buts, the UK will be leaving the EU. The legislation, we also heard, would be “narrow” - focusing only on the question of triggering article 50, with Davis warning that it must not be used as a “vehicle for attempts to thwart the will of the people”. The government will be sticking to the March timetable, come hell or high water. The bill itself could be as short as one line, it seems - or in the words of Iain Duncan Smith, the bill and its passage through parliament must be “short, simple and swift”.
According to the Financial Times (January 25), May ideally wants to get the bill through both houses of parliament by the middle of March, as she “will want to avoid provoking” Britain’s EU partners by triggering article 50 too close to March 25 - the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, the European project’s founding text. The timetable is now being discussed by party whips through the “usual channels” (the clerks of the Commons and the speaker), with some MPs floating the idea of sitting over the weekend if the bill needs to be passed urgently to meet May’s deadline.
The supreme court’s ruling is not entirely the end of Brexit legal action. British Influence, the foreign policy think-tank, wants London’s high court to rule that an act of parliament is needed to take the UK from the European Economic Area. And tax barrister Jolyon Maugham and others have called on the Irish courts to make a referral to the European Court of Justice on whether article 50 is reversible or not, once it has been invoked. Additionally, the government has been advised by some of its lawyers that drawing up a single-clause bill could store up trouble for the future - resulting in further legal challenges, and so on.
As for Labour, it has promised to engage in “hand-to-hand combat” in parliament to ensure that the process of leaving the EU is fully scrutinised, so as to “make sure that we get the best deal on behalf of the whole country”. Keith Starmer, the shadow Brexit minister, said that the party will be seeking to lay amendments to ensure “proper accountability” - though Labour, it almost goes without saying, has no intention of “frustrating the will of the people” or voting against the triggering of article 50. Amendments likely to have cross-party appeal are a requirement for ministers to report back to MPs several times during negotiations, with votes to approve the government’s stance each time; and an attempt to introduce a greater range of options to the parliamentary vote on the terms of the final deal.
Of course, Labour is totally divided on the issue of Brexit - but anything else would have been a miracle. As reported in this paper, we now have the interesting phenomenon of Corbynites like Diane Abbott aligning themselves with Blairites and neoliberals on the right of the party in demanding access to the single market - hence by default accepting free movement of people. Trouble brewing, about 60 Labour MPs including “remoaner-in-chief” Owen Smith1, Chris Leslie, Liz Kendall and Yvette Cooper - not to mention shadow ministers Clive Lewis and Catherine West - may be prepared to defy a party order to vote in favour of triggering article 50, Jeremy Corbyn hinting at one point that a three-line whip would be enforced. But in typical dithering fashion, he appears to have climbed down - merely telling Sky News that Labour MPs “will be asked to vote in that direction”. As for John McDonnell, he told the BBC’s Andrew Marrshow that Labour would be fighting for a “traditional British compromise” - saying that at the moment the debate was unfortunately “polarised” between, on the one hand, those who wanted to overturn the referendum result and, on the other, those who backed ‘hard’ Brexit and saw the UK’s post-EU future as a virtual tax haven. He also claimed that Corbyn has taken a “rather courageous position” in recognising that “you have to bring the country together at some stage”.
In a further sign of Labour tensions over Brexit, 43 of its MPs have bypassed Corbyn and written directly to the prime minister in a move coordinated by Vote Leave Watch - a “grassroots campaign” set up by former shadow business secretary and brief leadership contender Chuka Umunna, which is “dedicated to holding the Vote Leave campaign and their allies to account for the overblown, misleading claims” they made during last year’s referendum.2 The letter, which has been signed by two current Labour frontbenchers, eight former shadow cabinet ministers and ex-deputy leader Harriet Harman, protests at May’s plans to take the UK out of the single market and customs union - which would be “devastating”, as it would impose tariffs of “10% on cars, 12% on many items of clothing, and 40% on lamb”. While she has a mandate to take the UK out of the EU, they write, she has no equivalent endorsement for plans that would “sail the UK economy onto the rocks”, with manufacturers and farmers being priced out of their most important market that buys 44% of all British exports.
Meanwhile, an extremely unhappy Nicola Sturgeon has said the supreme court ruling raises once again the question of independence. She thought it was “now crystal-clear that the promises made to Scotland by the UK government … were not worth the paper they were written on”. She then asked: “Is Scotland content for our future to be dictated by an increasingly rightwing Westminster government with just one MP here, or is it better that we take our future into our own hands?” For her, “it is becoming ever clearer that this is a choice that Scotland must make”. Sturgeon announced that her government would table its own legislative consent motion in Holyrood, regardless of the ruling.
Of course, the Scottish first minster hopes that the ruling and May’s seeming Brexit intransigence will boost support for independence and a snap referendum. Recent opinion polls by YouGov and BMG showed that only 38% of Scottish voters want another vote this year, with only 45% backing independence - but, once you include the ‘don’t knows’, support for independence fell to 38%. Another referendum appeared to be off the agenda. But by all accounts Sturgeon is under heavy pressure within the Scottish National Party, especially from her predecessor, Alex Salmond, to hold a vote soon. Salmond, currently the SNP’s foreign affairs spokesman in the Commons, greeted the supreme court’s decision by announcing that his party would table 50 “serious and substantive” amendments to the article 50 bill in an attempt to “thwart” Brexit.3 That would include a demand that May gets agreement from all three devolved governments before she triggers article 50.
Getting more militant, Salmond told BBC’s Newsnight that if the Scottish government’s “reasonable proposals” - such as continued access for Scottish firms to the single market - were not listened to, then there could be another independence referendum within two years. The former first minister argued that different arrangements were being proposed for the likes of Gibraltar and the Channel Islands, as well as sections of UK industry - hence Scotland needed its own deal too.
Similarly in Northern Ireland, especially with fresh elections due, Sinn Féin sees an opportunity to advance its agenda of a united Ireland. Gerry Adams has said that Brexit poses a threat to the Good Friday Agreement - an accusation that contains a certain kernel of truth - and he appealed to ‘remainers’ in the loyalist community to support SF’s defence of free movement north and south of the border. In that way, rather than resorting to low-level guerrilla warfare or the ‘demographic time-bomb’, Adams hopes to unify the country through the ballot box.
Yet it is quite clear that May’s hard Brexit approach carries danger for British capital as a whole. Yes, she can - with relative ease - divide the Labour Party over Brexit, take the Ukip vote and win an overwhelming general election victory - but at the expense of investment and jobs. For example, Carlos Ghosn, the head of the Japanese-based carmaker, Nissan, appeared to cast doubt over recent commitments to the long-term future of the company’s Sunderland plant. This had seemed assured after the firm committed to beginning production of more than 600,000 cars a year when it received a “letter of comfort” from business secretary Greg Clark in October - though so far the government has kept its contents secret (needless to say, all the other car companies demanded the same “support and assurances” from the government).
After listening to May’s Brexit speech, Ghosn said Nissan would have to “review” the competitiveness of its plans, once the UK’s future relationship with the EU is “settled”. Obviously Ghosn “trusted” the prime minister’s assurances, but - as reported by Reuters - he pointed out that “we are going to have to make decisions on investment within the next two to three years, so obviously, the faster the Brexit results come, the better it is”. In other words, Nissan might change its mind. The whole car operation is totally tied in with Europe especially with regards to sales - 70% of all Nissan cars sold in Europe originate from the Sunderland plant - so the imposition of EU tariffs, or whatever, would cripple the competitiveness of the business. What goes for Nissan goes for loads of other companies as well - they are nervously examining every government statement or ministerial speech.
As reaffirmed by her Brexit speech, Theresa May is all set up to go for an early general election - maybe in May after triggering article 50. Labour, at least with regards to Brexit, is in total disarray, taking all sorts of different positions - you hardly know what its ‘line’ will be tomorrow, let alone next month or next year. Something that might well lead to Labour being hammered at the election, which could possibly mean the end of Corbyn as leader, for all his fine fighting talk of staying on - who knows what would happen when trade union bureaucrats start having a word in his ear?
We previously argued in this paper that Brexit was actually unlikely to happen: rather it was all a matter of shadow boxing and elaborate manoeuvring, as Britain is “surely ordained to stay in the EU because of the hard realities of global politics”.4 It seemed likely that the new prime minister - whether Boris Johnson, Michael Gove or Theresa May - would be summoned to Washington, where ‘president Clinton’ would tell them what’s what in no uncertain terms: Britain needs to keep playing its essential, strategic role of blocking Franco-German aspirations for an “ever closer union” that would eventually result in a United States of Europe.
But the election of Donald Trump has changed everything, fundamentally rewriting the rules of the game. Here is a man who called his election victory “Brexit plus plus plus” and it was no accident that the first British politician he met was Nigel Farage - not Johnson or May. It is still more than possible that Brexit will not happen. Yet, when you have the United States, the global hegemon, actually encouraging the break-up of Europe - even Nato - it is a whole new ball game. We are in an absolutely unprecedented situation, with Trump likely to be a disaster for the establishment on both sides of the Atlantic. Their worst nightmare is coming true, with perhaps more terrible things to come - hello, president Le Pen?
We are descending into an unpredictable world, to the extent that it is now no longer unimaginable to have British troops back on the streets of Belfast ... or even Edinburgh and Glasgow.
3. The Daily Telegraph January 24.
4. ‘The in-out kabuki dance’ Weekly Worker April 14 2016.