Thinking the unthinkable
With time running out, Theresa May is surely approaching the end game, writes Eddie Ford
Theresa May seems to be running out of options as parliament resumes the debate on Brexit. The ‘meaningful vote’ is now scheduled for January 15, after the prime minister ran scared on December 11, when a heavy defeat looked certain. But nothing has changed since then vis-à-vis the EU - except that at home things have got worse for her. The 308:297 vote in favour of Dominic Grieve’s amendment will force her to come up with a plan B within a mere three days - if, as is widely expected, the government suffers defeat on January 15.
Meantime, ministers are expected to behave as if the prime minister’s transition deal will sail through parliament (except they don’t). Junior Brexit minister Kwasi Kwarteng told the BBC’s Today programme thatthe“plan and the focus and the objective is to win the vote”. However, in the same interview Kwarteng bumblingly referred to the January 15 vote or “whenever it comes” - triggering febrile speculation that May will delay it once again. The Mail on Sundaycarried a story that Tory whips are plotting a “backup plan” which would involve a backbench amendment forcing the government to delay the vote once more in order to allow more time for negotiations with Brussels - a ‘trick’ that would be deployed if it looked like the government was heading for a triple-digit defeat, as could well be the case (January 5).
Getting on his unicorn, David Davis - the laughably useless former Brexit secretary - claimed in The Daily Telegraph that putting the vote back again would increase the odds of Brussels offering a better deal, as it would convince European Union leaders that Britain is “serious” about quitting, no matter what the consequences (January 2). In fact, he continues with the logic of a madman, “anybody who really understands how negotiations work understands that time is our friend”. One more big push and the enemy will collapse like putty, it seems - a pathetic fantasy peddled by quite a number of Brexiteers.
Of course, Downing Street has been insisting that the vote will go ahead on January 15. Then again, that is what they said last time. Revealingly or not, when May was repeatedly asked on the Andrew Marr show whether she would bring back the ‘meaningful vote’ to parliament “again and again and again”, she ignored the question - saying instead that it is for those who oppose the deal “to say what the alternative is”. But staging multiple repeat votes on May’s deal until parliament surrenders is in reality a non-starter.
Discussing this issue on Sky News, Chuka Umunna, de facto leader of the ‘remain’ campaign and figurehead of the Labour right, said the parliamentary rules and procedures were perfectly clear: “You cannot simply bring the same motion again and again and again”, even if you change the odd word - that is the nature of current Commons convention.
There appears to be no way forward for the prime minister, with every avenue blocked off or seemingly impassable. Meanwhile, the ultra-Brexiteers are beginning to circle. In the pages of the Telegraph, Jacob Rees-Mogg wrote that the public’s mood has “hardened” against the deal - pointing out the ruthless parliamentary arithmetic that sees many ‘leavers’, ‘remainers’ and the Democratic Unionist Party intending to vote against the government. He also remarked that “there is a quotation often attributed to Einstein that the definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results” - who could he possibly be referring to?
As for Boris Johnson, he did his bit for the hard Brexit cause - arguing that crashing out of the EU with no deal is “closest to what people actually voted for” in the 2016 referendum. This is a very dubious claim, but the ex-foreign secretary has never been on speaking terms with veracity: like everyone else he just wants to see May’s deal junked.
After delaying the vote in December, of course, she scuttled off to Brussels seeking “political and legal reassurances” about the Irish backstop - hoping against hope that at the last minute EU leaders would come out with some formulation to buy off enough of her parliamentary critics and win the vote on January 15.
As I write, May is still phoning around in search of those reassuring words - the prime minister’s official spokesperson saying that she had spoken to Jean-Claude Juncker, Emmanuel Macron, Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte, Angela Merkel and Donald Tusk, president of the European Council. She was also in regular contact with the Irish prime minister, Leo Varadkar, we learned. As most of our readers will know, the EU is fundamentally opposed to any statement that undermines the backstop - which is enshrined in what would be a legally binding withdrawal treaty - and refuses to renegotiate the 585-page document. That was reaffirmed on January 8 by Irish deputy prime minister Simon Coveney, who told MPs planning to vote against May’s deal to stop their “wishful thinking”. Pointing to an obvious reality, Coveney declared that “there is no alternative 585-page agreement waiting to be dusted off” and it was also wishful thinking to “ignore the default outcome if nothing else is agreed”: meaning a crash-out Brexit. MPs have to be realistic, he concluded, and stop holding on to the notion - as expressed by David Davis - that the EU was “playing negotiating games”. They mean it.
Anyhow, at the moment, May’s hoped-for “reassurances” are likely to include proposals to minimise any regulatory differences between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, plans to give Stormont a role in deciding whether the backstop should come into force, with MPs perhaps being given a vote before the UK enters into it. She also wants the EU to specify that the backstop is only ‘temporary’ (leading to a slightly odd debate about the definition of that word). It almost goes without saying that Brussels would not accept any proposal to let British MPs unilaterally decide to end the backstop, as that by definition would make it a nonsense. Either you have a backstop, or you don’t.
Sources in Brussels have said that May islikely to be offered an “exchange of letters” confirming the EU’s “intention” to quickly conclude trade talks with the UK by the end of 2020, with the correspondence under discussion “fleshing out” the language already included in the withdrawal agreement - and the extra clarity, if it comes, might in theory persuade some MPs that the EU is genuine about doing everything possible to avoid triggering the Irish backstop. However, the target date cited in the mooted correspondence would not constitute a deadline for concluding the trade talks and EU officials - understandably enough - are sceptical as to whether the gambit will be sufficient to win over enough MPs to get May’s contentious deal through parliament. On the other hand, the British government wants Brussels to commit to a more legally binding target to finalise trade talks by the end of 2021 - believing this would force the EU to negotiate in good faith, allow a “realistic” amount of time to conclude the free-trade deal and, crucially, limit the backstop to a maximum of a year. In the words of a Whitehall official, “If we can’t get a free-trade deal agreed by the end of 2020, then what’s the next jumping off point? That’s the area we are poking about in.”
As part of this rather desperate strategy, it seems that No10 is working on a two-vote plan, under which the EU would firm up its offer in a final dramatic move - possibly at a special European Council - ahead of a second and presumably final Commons vote. But now we are beginning to see herds of unicorns on the horizon. In a separate development, Theresa May will be chairing a new cabinet committee to oversee no-deal Brexit preparations that would include members of the National Security Council advising on civil contingency planning.
Downing Street has also said that the sought-after “clarifications” would only be published just before next week’s ‘final vote’ - and so would not have informed the Commons Brexit debate that recommenced on January 9. Many see this as more evidence of skulduggery from the government - the suspicion is that the “clarifications” would not be anywhere near enough to appease those MPs opposed to the withdrawal agreement. This particularly applies to the DUP - which, if anything, appears more hostile to the deal than ever.
The government’s options are rapidly closing. On January 8 May suffered a Commons defeat when MPsvoted 303:296 in favour of an amendment tabled by Labour’s Yvette Cooper to the finance bill curbing the government’s tax administrative powers in the event of a no-deal Brexit. From now on, the government will need explicit parliamentary authorisation with regard to any financial or taxation matters relating to no-deal planning or implementation.Cooper’s amendment means that any new powers would only be allowed to come into force under three conditions - if there were a Brexit deal, a decision to extend article 50 or a vote in the Commons specifically approving a no-deal Brexit (which is about as likely as a snowball fight in hell). Naturally,Tory MPs were whipped to vote against the amendment despite rumours that the government would concede. In the end, 11 Tories rebelled - including usual suspects like former cabinet minister Nicky Morgan, select committee chair Sarah Wollaston, former minister Nick Boles and Sir Nicholas Soames.
Rather excitably, The Sunday Times suggested that this amendment could “derail a no-deal Brexit this week by starving the government of cash and creating a Donald Trump-style shutdown” (January 6). Actually, the amendment may have little practical effect on no-deal preparations, as conceded privately by those behind it. The Daily Mail quotes a treasury source saying the government is “pretty relaxed” about the amendment, because it would only “stop us doing some little things to make the tax system work better”.
What the amendment was really about, fairly obviously, was galvanising MPs across the house and using the victory as a springboard for further parliamentary action to prevent the UK crashing out of the EU - it is easy to imagine more amendments being tabled attaching these three conditions to a large range of bills, which could have a more significant impact on day-to-day government operations. Seven bills must be implemented in order to provide a smooth exit by March, including on trade, agriculture, healthcare, financial services, fisheries and immigration, as well as legislation for the withdrawal agreement itself. In other words, a concerted campaign of parliamentary guerrilla warfare from a cross-party alliance of MPs could inflict substantial damage on the government.
Amidst the gathering chaos, Stephen Barclay, the Brexit secretary, has totally discounted the possibility that the government might delay Brexit following widespread reports or rumours claiming that UK officials were actively exploring the possibility of the EU agreeing to extend article 50. When interviewed on the Today show, Barclay was adamant that he had not had any discussions with the EU about any such extension. Yes, Stephen, but Olly Robbins might have …
There would clearly be practical and political problems in this - like colliding with EU elections. Any extension to article 50 must be unanimously agreed by all member-states, which is far from guaranteed. EU officials have hinted in the past that the UK could be granted a “technical extension” in order to give time to enact legislation or complete a general election or referendum, but not to provide a little more time for renegotiations or “clarifications”.
Yet something big has to give soon - the unthinkable has to become thinkable and the unspeakable has to become speakable. Theresa May has told her cabinet that she would respond “swiftly” with a statement to the House if and when she loses the vote next week - but it remains a mystery what course she would then take, given that she is almost completely boxed in by her own ‘red lines’ and the cruel logic of parliamentary arithmetic.
A no-deal Brexit could still happen despite overwhelming opposition from MPs, at least in my opinion, because ultimately parliament has to positively agree on something to prevent the default position from kicking in - yet no sign of that has emerged. There is a total impasse, with the clock ticking ever louder, and the longer the stalemate goes on, the more likely it will end with a ‘no deal’ or no Brexit at all - both of which could lead to a profound political-constitutional crisis, the likes of which we have not seen since the outbreak of World War II.