In the current murky confusion that envelops us, there are signs of hope for Brexit-supporters to cling to.
It’s easy to imagine, after the victory of the Morgan/Cooper amendment to the Finance Bill on Tuesday evening, that leaving with No Deal is now ruled out. In fact there was little substance in the amendment and the majority of seven in its favour was below what its promoters had hoped for. It will have little effect on the most immediate challenge facing the Government: getting its Withdrawal Agreement through the House of Commons.
Barring surprises, within a matter of days, that Withdrawal Agreement will have suffered a major blow, rejected by the Commons with a large majority. But it will not be dead. It will remain on the table until late in March, an option that the UK can take up until pretty well the last minute.
And that possibility is not at all negligible. It is possible that the Conservative MPs who voted against it could crack, especially those who could be won over by a modest and largely cosmetic amendment that the Government might yet secure during February or even March. It is possible that sufficient Labour MPs, appalled as a No Deal exit nears, might reach out a saving hand to Theresa May in what they would see as the national interest. It is possible that the EU could give in, agreeing the wholesale removal of the Irish backstop from the text in exchange for the money on which they have so desperately counted. None of these seems likely, but they – or a combination of them – cannot be ruled out. Since she really does seem to believe in her deal, Mrs May will wish to keep it alive as an option right until 11pm on 29th March.
But she needs to do more than that. Within a short space of time following the defeat of the Withdrawal Agreement, she will face the House of Commons, as required by statute, and set out the Government’s plan. For Brexiteers, the content of her statement will be the most crucial development between now and our exit from the EU.
That is because, for all the talk of Parliament’s being in control and for all the effort put into calculating how some 640 or so volatile MPs might vote on various combinations of options, in this country the Government remains the linchpin of effective decision-making. Only the Government has executive power; only the Government has authority over the civil service; only the Government can make things happen. So what Mrs May says she thinks should happen must be a leading contender for what will in fact come to pass.
So what will she say? She could say she has no plan – that the only course she can recommend to Parliament is to keep voting on the Withdrawal Agreement until they decide that it is better than any alternative. She meanwhile will continue to seek improvements to the text from the stony Commission and Chancellor Merkel. But this would leave the Government very exposed to the charge of recklessness in the face of a more rapid and comprehensive Brexit than the nation has been prepared for.
Much more likely is that, while still talking up the Withdrawal Agreement, she will pivot to one of the only two remaining options. She herself has correctly identified these as No Deal and No Brexit. Of these, the work being put by the civil service and, behind the scenes, by Ministers into No Deal preparation indicates that her “fallback” will be the former. She will set out a twin-track plan of preparing more vigorously and publicly for No Deal while keeping talks on the Withdrawal Agreement going so that a further vote that might adopt it can still be held.
If she does not say that, Brexit-supporters should be very worried.
But this is surely a dead end. We have been assured that there is a solid majority against No Deal in the Commons. 200 MPs have written to the Prime Minister to tell her this. Tuesday evening’s vote showed 20 Conservative MPs willing to defy the whip to make just this point. But being against No Deal isn’t quite enough. Given that our exit on 29th March is enshrined in domestic statute and international law, there needs to be a majority, a bare majority, for an alternative. And the fact is that there is not.
What’s more, many MPs and the country at large are beginning to realise that a No Deal exit is probably now the most likely course – and that it can be managed. As the Government starts to lay the necessary Statutory Instruments and bring forward other No Deal legislation – always carefully saying that it is only a contingency measure, since the hope of having the Withdrawal Agreement improved has not been abandoned – MPs and businesses will start to adjust to the reality. Not all of them of course – not even a majority – but enough to take some of the pressure off the Government.
That process will be assisted by the tactics of the hard Remainers. Now that we have it from the European Court of Justice that it lies in the UK’s power to revoke Article 50, there is nothing to stop these people proposing a motion in the Commons that the Government should be “instructed” to do that. They don’t do so for the simple reason that such a motion would fail: that’s why they need to work through the device of a second referendum in order to give them at least a chance of attaining their goal.
I have set out previously the insuperable objections to conducting a second referendum at this stage on any basis that would give it even a shard of legitimacy. But the biggest obstacle to one is that it doesn’t command sufficient support in Parliament. And even the majority of those who would vote for it know that it is a flag to wave rather than an outcome to be wished for: once the rhetorical bloodbath started, no-one would thank Parliament for having unleashed this democratic catastrophe upon the country. MPs by and large know this.
So what is the determined Remainer to do? Blocked in all paths forward, they feel the ground tilting under them as they slide down the well greased funnel that leads to a No Deal Brexit, casting about manically for a handhold. Inevitably the expedients they reach for will rise up and ebb as each is first promoted by the Remainer press and then discarded as its unworkability becomes apparent.
This is what happened to “Norway” in November. What started as “Norway for Now” got huge publicity, then became “Norway then Canada” and finally “Norway forever” as its various weaknesses were exposed. “Norway” looked dead by Christmas. But the New Year brought its ghost back to life, with a new plan from Robert Halfon that looked remarkably like “Norway”. By the next day it had slipped back into obscurity.
With Christmas out of the way and the clock ticking, the second referendum shows signs of similarly fading, especially as the Labour Party leadership appears unmoved by the many calls from its members to change tack and support one.
Now we have frantic Tory Remainers banding together with Opposition parties to make tax collection awkward if a No Deal Brexit goes ahead – or to cut Ministers’ salaries. They are bitterly determined and they reckon they have many cards still up their sleeve.
There should be no doubt that these manoeuvres, if done with full Opposition support, will threaten to bring the Government down. A Government that can’t effectively carry its flagship policy through has little purpose. The likelihood of a General Election would rise significantly.
That in itself will help to solidify the moderate Tory vote and make a No Deal exit more acceptable, however reluctantly. There can be little criticism of the Labour Party for seeking a General Election: it’s in the Opposition’s job description. But are there really enough Tory MPs sufficiently enraged by Brexit to want to assist them to their goal? I can imagine a few. But I can also imagine a few occupants of the Opposition benches who might cancel them out.
There will be lots of other ways in which Remainers may seek to frustrate a No Deal Brexit in the Commons (and no doubt the Speaker will continue to assist them). They could seek to amend the swathe of Statutory Instruments now sitting in Whitehall waiting to be laid. They could try to block or amend the primary legislation the Government might need to be ready for leaving on 29th March without a deal.
But Labour has to be careful here. It’s one thing to vote so as to stop a No Deal Brexit. It’s quite another to mess up preparations for a No Deal Brexit so as to make it chaotic when it happens. It will not be a good look to be seen preventing the Government from building lorry parks or ensuring the supply of medicines. And those still hoping for a last-minute significant concession from the EU on the Withdrawal Agreement will see it as undermining the chance of that.
So it’s apparent what Brexit-supporters must be working for:
- first, to secure the largest possible vote against the Withdrawal Agreement, to make its return to the Commons less and less likely
- next, to contrive that the Prime Minister and the Cabinet fully embrace No Deal as the fallback plan and prepare for it vigorously – this may see a few long-serving Cabinet Ministers resign, which will be sad, but will only balance the several losses at the other end of the plank
- third, to help accustom MPs and the country at large to the prospect of a No Deal Brexit – and it’s good to see the cross-party GO WTO campaign just launched to this end
- and finally, to hope that the Government’s Whips really can count and that the wilder Tory Remainers currently canvassing dangerous expedients are confined to an irreducible handful
And at some point in this timeline, or shortly after it, a General Election cannot be ruled out. Secure your postal vote now!
Most important of all is to keep one’s nerve. A No deal Brexit was never the ideal outcome. A good, sensible and fair Withdrawal Agreement was always desirable. But it was refused by the European Commission and the result accepted by the Government is intolerable. So No Deal it is and fortunately that’s the course we are set on by statute.
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