The last minute dash to Strasbourg…the bear hug with Jean-Claude Juncker…the Brexit Secretary hovering in the background…the breathless claim of a breakthrough…the witching hour press conference, statement and documents…the claims of solemn binding legal changes…the Commons vote less than 24 hours later…the pressure on Conservative MPs to change their minds, back the deal, and get it all over with…the phone calls from the whips…from senior Ministers…pleas…threats…tears (sometimes all at once)…an oped piece for ConservativeHome…most of the Tory press lined up…Michael Gove on the Today programme. Bounced!
The Great Squeeze is on. Some will smell a rat, if not a conspiracy.
We doubt Downing Street’s capacity for organising a meticulously timetabled squeeze on the Commons. None the less, the dramatic midnight hour deal is an EU speciality. And to what degree the choreography was planned is beside the point, since the effect on MPs is the same regardless.
Each doubter is a wavering householder being pressed by a frantic insurance salesman. Don’t wait! Sign now! Last chance! In this case, the salesman will deploy inducements as well as menaces (“your talents, dear boy, are wasted on the backbenches”).
ConservativeHome’s snap take is as follows. The Government says that legally binding changes have been made to the deal. There are two main documents in relation to the Withdrawal Agreement itself and the backstop – a joint instrument and a unilateral declaration. There is a target date for the backstop to end. There will be an arbitration mechanism for the backstop.
Let us assume that all of these carry some legal weight – even the unilateral declaration, which the Irish Government is apparently dismissing as “the Brits talking to themselves”. Such a claim should not be dismissed automatically. Henry Newman and Guglielmo Verdirame have argued on this site that even the exchange of letters in January between the UK and the EU is of some legal significance.
The question that follows in each case is: how much legal weight?
After all, not a word of the Withdrawal Agreement has been changed. The joint instrument and the arbitration mechanism are meant to do the heavy lifting: to empower the UK unilaterally to leave the backstop if necessary. In very crude terms, the suggestion is the Withdrawal Agreement alone doesn’t give us that right; but that the Agreement, considered together with these new instruments, does. We are very doubtful that they are fit for this purpose.
Others will be in the same state of mind – although it must be added that, in these circumstances, people tend to believe what they want to believe. Those desperate for Theresa May’s deal to pass send for their favourite lawyers. Those opposed to it – and not only because of the backstop – call for theirs. Geoffrey Cox has yet to publish new legal advice. We haven’t heard from Martin Howe. The Brexiteering group of eight lawyers-come-politicians hasn’t pronounced. Where is Nigel Dodds? At any rate, one has has vanished, before one knows it, into a Euro-version of Jarndyce and Jarndyce.
Amidst all these doubts, however, there is a certainty.
Namely, that MPs asked to make their minds up today are being put in the same position as Cabinet Ministers were about the original Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration texts. Just as the Cabinet had less than a day to consider these, so the Commons will have less than a day to scrutinise their successor – scores of pages of unscrutinised documentation.
This timetable is clearly inadequate, whatever prejudice you may come to the new documents with; whether you are a Remainer or a Leaver; whether your instincts favour Norway Plus or a Second Referendum or No Deal or a revised agreement whether you are Peter Bone or Dominic Grieve.
So the 118 Conservative MPs who voted against the Government last time round – and others – should push back against the Great Squeeze and refuse to be bounced. They should support moves to bring the Attorney-General to the Commons this morning. The mere publication of new advice is not enough. He must be quizzed about it, and at length. Happily, the Speaker will doubtless oblige an Urgent Question if necessary.
But even the most scrupulous and exacting interrogation of Cox will not give the Commons the time it requires. Yesterday evening, Lidington was clinging to a Commons timetable set out before the revised deal was agreed. This is absurd.
The vote this evening should be pulled, and MPs given, say, a couple of days to read the documents, summon Ministers for statements, weigh the mood of their Associations and constituents, and weigh up what to do. The House could vote on Thursday evening.
Until or unless the business is changed, Tory MPs should withhold their support from May, the Government and the deal. Abstention is in order. That would pave the way for May’s revised deal to be brought back a third time – if they conclude, after a day or two’s deliberation, that “something has changed”. But if Downing Street digs in, they must presume that the Prime Minister’s better-known formulation still applies.