Right to the cliff edge
Theresa May tells MPs to ‘hold their nerve’, writes Eddie Ford, but the EU will not blink. So will she risk a no-deal?
Everything seems to indicate that Theresa May is running the clock down on Brexit in an extraordinarily risky game of chicken. In her February 12 statement to parliament, the prime minister asked MPs to “hold their nerve” in order to “get the changes this house requires and deliver Brexit on time” - meaning, of course, legally binding changes to the Irish backstop, as ‘mandated’ by the passing of the Brady amendment calling for “alternative arrangements”.
May would have us believe that talks with the European Union are at a “crucial stage”, even though EU leaders have maintained a solid front - comprehensively rejecting the notion of rewriting the withdrawal agreement that they spent a torturous two years negotiating. Indeed, only a week ago Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, made his now legendary remark about there being a “special place in hell” for those who promoted Brexit without having a clue about how to make it a reality.
But despite admitting in the Commons that the EU has not budged on the withdrawal agreement, the prime minister is apparently determined to carry on as before - perhaps meeting the definition of madness of doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. The main thing we learned from her statement was confirmation that the amendable motion on Brexit to be debated on February 14 will reflect the Brady amendment and also that if no revised deal was ready to be voted on by February 27 - which looks increasingly likely - then a further amendable motion will be tabled. Afterwards she was asked an interesting question by the dogged former attorney general, Dominic Grieve, as to how a departure date of March 29 would actually work, given that the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act stipulates that treaties cannot be ratified without a waiting period of 21 Commons sitting days. May revealingly replied that, “where there’s insufficient time remaining”, the usual waiting period for international agreements could be potentially waived “with parliament’s consent” - obviously laying open the possibility that the ‘meaningful vote’ might not take place until well into March. This would mean going right up to the cliff edge and peeking at the jagged rocks below.
Responding to the prime minister’s comments, Jeremy Corbyn said she had offered MPs only “more excuses and more delays” - she was “deliberately” and “recklessly” running down the clock until as late as possible in the hope that MPs are “blackmailed” into backing her “deeply flawed deal”. Last week, as we know, Corbyn wrote to the prime minister making five demands in return for Labour support - although, significantly, the letter did not mention the previous Labour demand that any deal must deliver the “exact same benefits” as current EU membership - an impossible test to pass, of course.
Various rightwing ‘remainers’ in the Labour Party loudly protested against the letter, making out that Corbyn was ditching last year’s conference motion to “support all options remaining on the table, including campaigning for a public vote” - these MPs are dreaming of a second referendum that will overturn Brexit. But the Labour leader was saying nothing new, as right from the beginning it was clear that he wants some form of Brino (‘Brexit in name only’) - being perceived as an anti-Brexit party might seriously hinder Labour’s chances of winning a general election.
May has made appeals to potentially wobbly Labour MPs - especially in the north and north-east - by stressing her post-Brexit commitment to environmental and workers’ rights, and suggesting that parliament could vote on whether to match any future EU changes in these areas (ie, so-called ‘dynamic alignment’). But her half-hearted attempt to woo Labour MPs seems unlikely to succeed, particularly if she has ruled out custom union membership and is dicing with a hard Brexit.
Fitting in with the idea that Theresa May is going to take things right up to the wire, The Sun ran a fairly detailed story claiming that Brussels would help her “drag out Brexit negotiation” by making the March 21 EC summit a “make-or-break moment”, where a “last ditch compromise package will be sewn up” - designed to “heap pressure on parliament” (February 12). Don’t get too excited though, as these last-minute changes or revisions - if they happen at all - will be merely a “surgical keyhole operation” with extra wording added to the withdrawal agreement (perhaps in a codicil or addendum) promising that the backstop would be “reviewed” every six months. Needless to say, this falls short of the time limit or unilateral exit clause demanded by the hard Brexiteers of the European Research Group and others - therefore is unlikely to get their backing when the ‘meaningful vote’ finally happens.
There are many people who believe that May will never go down the path of a no-deal Brexit. Sir Keir Starmer, for one, seems to have endorsed this view in private conversations - the shadow Brexit secretary believing that the calamitous impact of a no-deal scenario on Britain’s security relationship with Europe, to name just one issue, means it is a non-starter. Similarly, plenty of senior figures in the government - doubtlessly including cabinet ministers - think that a no-deal Brexit could precipitate the break-up of the United Kingdom, with the Scottish government demanding and winning a second referendum on independence. You would think that a staunch unionist politician like Theresa May would never countenance such an outcome.
On the other hand, however, she could split her party if she pivoted towards a softer Brexit dependent on Labour support. An unnamed cabinet minister told a journalist from the Politico website that “for most of us, the Conservative Party is a means to an end” - but it is different for May, as she has “an attitude to the Conservative Party which is more in common with a lot of Labour MPs”1. Meaning, we read, “it is something closer to love, to family” - that for Theresa May: “It goes back to childhood. It’s what she does at weekends. She doesn’t really have anything else”. In other words, the implication is that her first duty or loyalty is towards the Tory Party rather than wider national economic-political interests.
Going with a similar theme, Paul Waugh of the Huffington Post wrote a relatively lengthy article on May’s possible thinking - concluding after having spoken to a raft of Tory MPs and ministers that she is indeed actively contemplating the idea of no deal.2 In fact, Waugh reports, there is a “growing fear” among some MPs that May is preparing to do “something crazy” and allow the UK to “crash out of the European Union without a Brexit agreement”. The central reason for the prime minister’s hard-nosed approach, according to the Huffington journalist, are the stark warnings from the Tory chief whip, Julian Smith - telling her that “your party is fucked if you do anything other than hold strong”.
Robert Peston also thinks that the prime minister might do something “crazy”.3 As the EU will not blink on the fundamentals, a no-deal Brexit looks the most likely outcome - “theprobability is low” that May will secure substantial enough changes to the Irish backstop to win a vote for her deal. Equally, the probability is also low of the prime minister risking the break-up of her party “by pursuing all the way to a formal agreement”.
Then again, the media is full of stories about May’s chief Brexit negotiator, Olly Robbins, being overheard by a reporter saying MPs will be given a last-minute choice between her deal and a lengthy delay to article 50 - a tactic aimed squarely at ERG members, who fear that any delay could mean that Brexit is ultimately cancelled altogether.
Apart from a ‘technical extension’ to provide further time to pass the necessary legislation in the event of May’s deal being approved in the upcoming ‘meaningful vote’, most in the EU cannot see the point of a short extension of only a few months. That simply would not be enough time to sort out the major political problems confronting parliament - it would just prolong the agony and crippling uncertainty (the UK has just suffered its worst year for GDP growth since 2012). No, much better a year or more, so that things can be properly sorted out. Of course, such an extension would mean that there was also time to hold a second referendum and/or a general election - as a result almost anything could happen.
But, adding to the confusion, the current Brexit secretary, Stephen Barclay, told the Today programme that extending article 50 was not government policy, as it would be “disruptive” to both the British and European parliaments - Britain would be leaving the EU on March 29. Brexit still means Brexit. Who to believe?
However, on February 12 Yvette Cooper published her amended bill to delay article 50, seeming to win the support of previously non-committal Tory ‘remainers’ like Caroline Spelman. Though we have heard it all before, the Daily Mail reported that 15 ‘remainer’ ministers are ready to quit at the end of this month to help get Cooper’s bill over the finishing line. But this writer will not be betting the farm on a mass display of courage from Tory ministers any time soon.
The political logic for both the Labour rebels and Conservative loyalists is the same: if May is going to seek an extension, as Robbins seemed to confirm, why bother upsetting your ‘leave’-voting constituents - and possibly sink your career too - for something that is going to happen anyway? Just play it safe instead.
All of which brings us back to where we started: a hard Brexit could happen just because almost everyone is convinced that a no-deal situation is so obviously catastrophic. But, until someone plucks up the courage to go over the top, no deal remains a real possibility. We certainly live in interesting times.