Hitting the reset button?
Now that Theresa May’s deal has been defeated for a second time and MPs have voted against ‘no deal’, Eddie Ford says almost anything can happen in the short term. But in the longer term the expectations of the Brexiteers will surely be betrayed
British politics is now in a state of chaos, after Theresa May suffered yet another humiliating defeat on March 12. When it came to the second ‘meaningful vote’, MPs roundly rejected her “revised” Brexit deal by 391 to 242 - losing by 149 votes, with 75 Tory MPs voting against her. Then the next day a withdrawal from the European Union with no deal was also rejected - this time by 321 votes to 278.
May’s pleading got her nowhere, and neither did her 11th-hour ‘mercy dash’ to Strasbourg on March 11 to secure supposedly “legally binding” changes to the Irish backstop. As predicted, she was greeted with lots of warms words and came back with documents full of legalistic verbiage - but nowhere near enough to win over a majority of MPs.
The pretence that the Strasbourg documents represented a breakthrough lasted less than 12 hours. After agonising into the early hours of the morning, attorney general Sir Geoffrey Cox announced that, while the backstop risk had indeed been “reduced”, the actual legal situation remained “unchanged”. That is, under the withdrawal agreement the UK could be trapped “indefinitely” within the Irish backstop with “no internationally lawful means of exiting the protocol’s arrangements”.
Of course, this put the final kibosh on things - the game was up. The Democratic Unionist Party came out against it as did the Brexiteer ultras of the European Research Group. Of course, the ERG would have been quite happy with no deal - allowing the ‘great’ to be put back into Great Britain, of course.
If she wants, Theresa May can perhaps take a small slither of comfort from the fact that the margin of defeat on March 12 was smaller than the historic 230 kicking she got back in January. But a humiliation is a humiliation and her torturously negotiated withdrawal agreement with the EU is now dead, even if she does get a third bite of the cherry - which seems unlikely, as events are spiralling out of her control.
Immediately after her defeat May announced that MPs would be given a free vote the next day on blocking a no-deal exit on March 29 - which is quite extraordinary in some respects, given that that we are talking about a key plank of governmental policy (indeed, Boris Johnson called the decision “absurd”). But despite that the result was inevitable, as must also be the case for the March 14 vote on an extension to article 50. Then again, even if a miracle had occurred on March 12 and Theresa May had managed to scrape her deal through, an extension would still have been needed, as time is so impossibly short in regards to passing all the necessary legislation.
Of course, the motion submitted by the government for the free vote was typically slippery - adding a caveat effectively meaning no deal would still be left on the table. But a cross-party amendment deleting this, drawn-up by Caroline Spelman and Jack Dromey, was narrowly accepted by 312 votes to 308, while the motion as amended was rather more comfortably accepted. Obviously, May had been attempting to please both sides of the debate, but ended up pleasing neither.
Now that almost anything can happen, many are saying it is time to hit the Brexit ‘reset’ button. A significant number of MPs want a series of “indicative votes” on possible ways out of the deadlock in order to see if there is a parliamentary majority for any of them - Canada plus, second referendum (or ‘People’s Vote’), general election, Norway plus (‘Common Market 2.0’), permanent customs union, etc.
However, frustrating as it must be for some, there does not - as things stand right now - appear to be a clear parliamentary majority for any of these options, especially a second referendum or general election. Jeremy Corbyn, as widely pointed out in the media, did not mention a referendum once during the March 12 debate - some finding this “incredible”. Instead, as usual, he called rather forlornly for a general election. If there is a majority - or potential majority - for anything, then it might be for something in the territory of a Common Market 2.0-cum-customs union arrangement, with some sort of relationship to the single market. But to secure this possible parliamentary majority, of course, May must drop her ‘red lines’ and reach across to Labour and the other opposition parties - a course of action urged on by publications like the Financial Times. And under the pressure of fast-moving events, what now seems unlikely or even unthinkable could become eminently sensible or inevitable. For example, on March 13 an executive member of the Tory 1922 committee said that if MPs voted to reject no deal then things could not carry on as they are and a general election would be necessary.
An extension of article 50 surely became inevitable. But is it more than likely that the EU will grant such a request? The UK government can only ask for an extension once, or so it seems, and very recently the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, emphasised again that there needs to be a “credible justification” for a possible extension and its duration. Playing hardball, Guy Verhofstadt, the European parliament’s lead Brexit spokesman, said on March 13 he would oppose even a 24-hour extension to article 50 “if it is not based on a clear opinion of the House of Commons for something” - the EU has to know “what they want”. But at the moment the plain fact is that there is not a strong and stable majority for anything in parliament: just various expressions - sometimes contradictory - of what it is against.
However, while it is not entirely impossible that the EU will turn down an extension request, the odds are that it will be granted. But there are widely differing views on its duration. Some think it should be very short and limited, whilst others think quite the opposite - up to 21 months has been mooted. Maybe even an open-ended extension, which needs to be renewed at regular intervals, should be approved - the argument being that if parliament is gridlocked then very little can be achieved within a couple of months: just further disagreements and more attempts at renegotiating the treaty or backstop. An extension would have to be for at least a year in order to allow time for some real movement or breakthrough in parliament - say am emergent majority for ‘Common Market 2.0’ or another referendum and/or general election (or some form of national government).
Before it was rejected, a worried Michel Barnier said in a speech to the European parliament that the risk of a no-deal Brexit “has never been higher”. In anticipation of such an outcome, with the clock ticking ever louder, almost a trillion pounds in assets and investments has been moved out of the City to the EU. The Confederation of British Industry described the prospect of no deal as a “sledgehammer for the economy” - it would represent the imposition of the biggest change in terms of trade this country had faced since the mid-19th century. Yet there had been “no consultation with business” and “no time to prepare”. That is “no way to run a country”, concluded the CBI.
Thanks to Theresa May’s handling of Brexit, the so-called “party of business” is not very popular with business at all. And, of course, it is not only May - it was David Cameron who dreamt up the whole idea of a referendum. For him, it was not really about the EU at all, but about seeing off the threat from the Tory right and sidelining the UK Independence Party. He never for a moment thought he would lose the referendum and the verdict would be ‘leave’.
As for communists, we are not in favour of a withdrawal from the EU, but neither are we in favour of the EU as it is now. That is why we called for an active boycott of the 2016 referendum. Our aim is for a workers’ Europe - not one run quasi-democratically in the interests of big capital. The left needs to get its act together and start working towards what we really need, as displayed on the front page of every issue of the Weekly Worker: “For a Communist Party of the European Union”.