Moving the cliff edge
Theresa May has kicked the can down the road yet again. Eddie Ford looks at the latest twists and turns
Surprising nobody, Theresa May did not get her “deal in the desert” with the European Council. European leaders show no sign at all of budging on the Brexit withdrawal agreement, insisting that they will not reopen or rewrite the deal struck with the British government in November last year - and that nothing could be formally agreed anyway before the next EC summit on March 21, just a week before Britain is due to leave the European Union. So the Irish backstop remains.
Meanwhile, the extraordinarily fragile peace, which has just about been keeping the Tory Party together after the passing of the Brady amendment on ‘alternative arrangements’, appeared to be on the verge of busting apart - with May facing a major revolt within her own party. Under the hothouse pressure of events, the government has been busily giving ground. First, it agreed to protect EU citizens’ rights in Britain. Then it caved in before the Cooper-Letwin amendment. The result was a stunning 502-20 in favour of pinning down the government to parliamentary votes in the event of a no-deal scenario (badly splitting the European Research Group hard Brexiteers). May had already pre-empted this on February 27 with her statement - in effect she conceded to an extension of article 50 and meanwhile painted Labour as reneging on its manifesto pledge to accept the result of the 2016 referendum (the defeat of the Labour amendment means that the Parliamentary Labour Party will now commit itself to campaigning for a second referendum).
The pressure on May has been enormous. There had been talk of mass resignations from the cabinet. Three cabinet ministers wrote a joint open letter to the Daily Mail at the weekend saying Brexit should be delayed if parliament does not approve a deal in the coming days - thus defying government policy (February 23). Greg Clark, Amber Rudd and David Gauke wrote that “there simply will not be time to agree a deal and complete all the necessary legislation” before March 29 - only unicorns believe it will be possible. A crash-out Brexit, they continued, would leave Britain “poorer, less secure and potentially splitting up”. They also warned the ERG that, if there is a delay, “they will have no-one to blame but themselves”.
Following suit two days later in another joint letter, once again in the Mail, ministers Richard Harrington, Claire Perry and Margot James said the prime minister must “promise” that she will rule out no deal, adding that the UK risked being “swept over the precipice” in that event. But, if Theresa May did not give this promise, it would be in the “national interest” for them to resign and back any move to force a delay upon her. We also discover in the Mail that a group of 23 Tory dissidents “met secretly” in the Commons to discuss how to prevent Britain leaving the EU without a deal. On the same day, James, the digital minister, told the BBC’s Today programme that she has been “very concerned” about the way that the prime minister’s deal is “continuously frustrated” by parliament - but, if it is not possible to persuade “enough colleagues” to get behind that deal, then the “only option” is to extend article 50. Equally, she thought, we must rule out the “catastrophe” of a no-deal Brexit and, taking a swipe at the ERG, she added: “For us to leave with the biggest trade deal we have got in pursuit of other trade deals that might take 10 years to negotiate with far smaller countries is madness.”
May bowed to the inevitable. By all accounts there was a stormy cabinet meeting on the morning before May’s statement. Apparentlyboth Philip Hammond and Amber Rudd have said that any extension of the Brexit talks must be used “to find a new coalition in parliament” (The Guardian February 27). This is an extremely interesting choice of words, hinting at some form of national government - something this paper has been warning about for some time. At the same cabinet meeting, it seems, Andrea ‘Loathsome’ Leadsom, the Commons leader, was especially angered by the decision to offer MPs a vote on an extension and darkly suggested some cabinet ministers had “undermined” May - heaven forbid. Losing her cool somewhat, treasury secretary Liz Truss branded those who expressed their critical views in the Mail as “kamikaze” ministers. Capturing the mood, a cabinet source admitted the delay offer was a “bitter pill to swallow” - but “ultimately we felt like we had been left with no other option”, as just letting people resign in droves “causes its own party problems too”.
Anyhow, May’s statement to parliament unquestionably represents a shift in the government’s position over the handling of Brexit, but by how much is a moot point - plus it raises more questions than answers. Principally, what if MPs voted against both no deal and an article 50 extension - then what? Most importantly of all, what if there is an extension to article 50, but we end up in the same impasse at the end of that period? In which case, as pointed out forcefully by Kenneth Clarke, the cliff edge is just being moved from March 29 to late May or early June - Theresa May is merely kicking the can down the road again.
The defeat of the Labour amendment is significant (Clarke alone supported it from the Tory side). Not because anybody expected it to pass, but because it puts Labour in the camp of those demanding a second referendum and thus opening up the party to coalition deals with remainers in other parties (including the Conservatives). Hence the call in the Financial Times for “sensible voices” to come together and do a deal between themselves that produces “a new coalition in parliament”, to use the reported words of Phillip Hammond and Amber Rudd. A centre-left/centre-right alliance that would put nation before party.
Theresa May’s strategy still appears to be taking it right to the wire in the hope that enough MPs will blink at the very last minute and go for her deal in desperation. Meanwhile, another plan that has been floated is the Kylie-Wilson amendment - which seems to have broad support ranging from the new Independent Group to Keir Starmer and John McDonnell. This would be submitted when the second ‘meaningful vote’ finally happens and would allow May’s deal to pass in the Commons, conditional upon a second referendum - where presumably the choice will be between the prime minister’s deal and remaining within the EU.
But who knows what the result will be of any such referendum? ‘Remain’ might not win and then what? And would business welcome six more months or so of uncertainty? Yet again, if May’s deal was to win out in a referendum, or even in parliament at the next ‘meaningful ‘vote’, you still have not Brexited in any proper sense, as we will not be voting on the final deal - that is a long way away, if it ever happens at all. Will it be Brino (‘Brexit-in-name-only’), Norway, Norway-plus, Canada-plus-plus, no deal or something else altogether?
Nobody knows at this point, and, that being the case, would there have to be a third referendum on the final deal? That would have a certain logic, albeit a crazy one. But that is the fundamental problem with referendums, which are a means of circumventing representative democracy. After all, the Commons had a two-thirds or more ‘remain’ majority, yet is supposed to push through ‘leave’ legislation. The inevitable result is that many people will not get the Brexit they wanted. The ERG and Nigel Farage are never going to be happy and are always going to cry ‘Betrayal!’ Having said that, at the end of the day Farage is telling the truth - they are going to get betrayed whatever happens. Brexit will not mean Brexit.