The Prime Minister’s run-out-the-clock strategy on Brexit helps Corbyn too

The Labour leader is under mounting pressure to support a second referendum – but time is against one, and he knows it.

Whilst the internal battle waging in the Conservative Party over Brexit is making all the headlines at the moment, the struggle in the Labour Party should not be overlooked.

It’s unusual because it cuts across the usual split in the Opposition, which is between the leadership and membership on the one hand and the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) on the other.

On Brexit, however, the membership is much more in tune with Labour’s overwhelmingly Europhile MPs. This means that whilst those around Jeremy Corbyn might want Brexit – and it’s clear many of them do, not least because it will end a lot of legal restrictions on a hard-left economic programme – they can’t say so openly.

The result has been a campaign of misdirection and procrastination, chronicled so well by Tim Shipman in All Out War, and waged so effectively during the campaign that our editor named Seumas Milne as ‘The Sixth Person who Made Brexit Happen’.

As March 29th looms and the battle for Brexit enters its final stages, Corbyn is coming under mounting pressure to endorse a second referendum. John McDonnell, his close ally and the more adept politician of the pair, has been signalling a willingness to rethink.

But the Labour leader has good reason to hesitate, and not just because he might personally support Brexit. There is also the fact that any clarification of Labour’s Brexit position risks undercutting its electoral coalition just before a snap general election which would almost certainly have to precede any re-run of the referendum.

Yes, a majority of Labour voters back Remain. But a substantial portion are not, and one of the few bright points for the Tories in the 2017 election was the emerging evidence that Labour-inclined Leave voters can be persuaded to vote for the Conservatives as ‘the party of Brexit’.

Until now, Labour has been luxuriating in the ability, as the opposition, to avoid having to be precise about what its Brexit position is. This was made plain earlier this week in Channel 4’s TV debate, when James Cleverly skewered Barry Gardiner over the latter’s contradictory, almost utopian account of how the negotiations on the future relationship would go if only Jeremy Corbyn, and not Theresa May, were pressing the flesh in Brussels and Salzburg.

The evidence suggests that Corbyn’s strategy, which is perfectly sensible if somewhat cynical, is simply to allow Brexit to happen without having to dirty his hands in the process. If this is the case then the Prime Minister’s “run out the clock” strategy – playing for time until the only options are her deal or none – actually suits him. By avoiding a reckoning on the Withdrawal Agreement the Government has postponed the hard questions about what to do next, both for themselves and for him.

All this might explain why the Labour leader is proving so reluctant to table a vote of no confidence. It’s true that at present Labour would lose it – the Democratic Unionists look set to vote with the Government unless the deal passes – but unlike the Conservatives’ internal rules there’s nothing to stop the Opposition (or any other party) tabling another one, and then another. James Callaghan’s administration fought of several before famously succumbing in 1979.

But if a vote of no confidence failed then Labour’s current line, that they want a general election first and foremost, would be weakened. “You can’t secure an election”, their activists could rightly point out, “so what now?”.

Here’s how to solve the Irish border issue and make the Withdrawal Agreement acceptable

It is now clear that there is very little support in Parliament for the Prime Minister’s Withdrawal Agreement. The most important objection is the so-called Irish backstop in Protocol 9 which essentially keeps Northern Ireland in the EU indefinitely and binds the UK into a customs union from which there is no release unless the […]

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It is now clear that there is very little support in Parliament for the Prime Minister’s Withdrawal Agreement. The most important objection is the so-called Irish backstop in Protocol 9 which essentially keeps Northern Ireland in the EU indefinitely and binds the UK into a customs union from which there is no release unless the EU says so – which it would have little incentive to do. Even under our present terms, we can leave if we choose.

Other options such as another referendum, or some version of “Norway” are for various reasons unworkable. It is equally clear that neither side wants a “no deal” scenario. However, if a solution could be found that preserves the transition period and most of the Withdrawal Agreement, it must be considered, for the sake of continuity, good relations with the EU and the island of Ireland.

This week, I – along with Robert MacLean and Hans Maessen – have laid before policy-makers an alternative that we believe would remove those aspects of the Withdrawal Agreement which are unacceptable, and yet retain the genuine progress achieved to date. This is not to say that there is nothing else in the Withdrawal Agreement which is objectionable, including its one-sided structure. However, in the spirit of compromise, we do not pursue those matters, but offer a solution to the heart of the problem. This, we believe, solves the Irish border issue on a permanent basis, enables a backstop to exist on a basis acceptable to all reasonable stakeholders and builds on the EU’s offer to the UK of an advanced Free Trade Agreement with regulatory cooperation, customs facilitations and Irish border facilitations. This is part of a bigger project to propose the real legal text of a Free Trade Agreement between the UK and EU.

First, the proposed backstop needs to be replaced, with an alternative based on a basic Free Trade Agreement in goods and agri-food, with a chapter on Customs and Trade Facilitation, and Irish Border Facilitations, which would in due course become part of the ultimate comprehensive Free Trade Agreement which the UK and EU will seek to negotiate, with some additional provisions for regulatory cooperation, and stand-alone dispute settlement mechanisms. Our proposed backstop could last for a fixed period, say ten years – on any view long enough for a comprehensive Free Trade Agreement to be negotiated between the UK and EU. In other words, our backstop can function as a front-stop, should the need arise, unlike the EU’s, which gives them no incentive to release the UK from de facto EU control. Since the backstop is the ultimate permanent arrangement, there is no loss of negotiating leverage for the UK to remain in it, nor is it a threat.

Contrary to what the Government has claimed, this does not involve the use of “magical” new technology but existing customs facilitation procedures already in use across the world. It avoids a hard border – which in any event all sides have pledged to do – respects the Good Friday Agreement and removes the challenge to the territorial integrity of the UK posed by the creation of “UKNI” in the existing Withdrawal Agreement, aptly described as “a new country”. From the EU point of view, it enables a smooth UK withdrawal and avoids an attempt to exercise jurisdiction in the territory of a non-Member State.

We also believe that, if the current flawed and legalistic process is allowed to hit the buffers, there is an opening for a more political solution driven by European heads of state, since neither side wants a no-deal outcome. Naturally, the UK Government must prepare for no deal, since there is always the possibility of no deal, through no fault of the UK. The UK Parliament cannot control the actions of the EU and therefore for the UK Parliament to decree that there shall be no deal is pointless; it is also extremely damaging, as it tells the EU that the UK will accept any deal. We must become serious negotiators and understand that being prepared for no deal is a way of ensuring a better deal for both the UK and the EU.

We must also be prepared to push back against the fear and risk-aversion, and ask for what we want, presenting a draft Withdrawal Agreement to back it up. We have done altogether too much negotiating with ourselves.

From an EU point of view, any failure by the EU to reach a deal acceptable to its nearest neighbour, closest ally and largest third-country market will have enormously adverse political and economic consequences, within the EU and around the world. There are significant and powerful economic forces at play, and not all are in the EU’s favour. For example, one aspect of the EU’s very large favourable balance of trade with the UK – now seriously at risk – is the EU’s need to maintain its high market share in UK markets for its agricultural exports. The farm lobby is the most powerful in Brussels, and in Member States. The EU must know that no responsible UK government could, or would need to, allow no deal to mean food price inflation, and that we would have to either apply a third-country tariff of zero for certain agri-foods, or open the relevant trade quotas to other countries (on a first come, first served basis). Irish beef farmers, French beef and dairy, and Bavarian dairy farmers would lose market share almost instantly and this will have a massive impact on them. For the UK, lower food prices could well be the unexpected bonus of the rejection of the present Withdrawal Agreement.

While there will no doubt be those who say that what we are offering is not enough to save a very bad deal, there will also be those who say it is too much for the EU to accept. But our aims are straightforward: to put on the table the necessary changes to the Withdrawal Agreement, a concrete future framework for a trade agreement that builds on their offer to us and, shortly, the full text of such an agreement, specifically noting what the EU has already agreed in other contexts. Let us lift our eyes to a higher vision of what this relationship should look like, instead of the myopic approach all sides have adopted thus far. Let us also recognise that it is impossible to determine the full conditions of our withdrawal, without knowing much more about the future relationship. Indeed, that is the inherent illogic of the EU’s negotiating mandate, which is partly responsible for the current predicament, but that cannot politically bind us at this late stage.

Nonetheless, we have produced a concept of what the Alternative to the Withdrawal Agreement might look like. We strongly advise the Government to present this to the EU immediately, along with a clear framework of a Trade Agreement, the full legal text of which we will also shortly table. Since this builds on what has already been offered, there is very little reason for the EU to reject it. We badly need to show our peoples on both sides of the Channel and the Irish Sea that we have momentum and are moving towards a good resolution. We have a huge responsibility: future generations will not forgive us if we fail them.

As explained, the text we will shortly circulate essentially replaces the proposed common customs territory with a Free Trade Agreement and comprehensive customs and trade arrangements that can serve as the backstop, or if you prefer, front stop, in Ireland. Some changes may be necessary to the Political Declaration, in order to conform to our changes to the Withdrawal Agreement, but most of it can stand, as can much of the Withdrawal Agreement, for example citizens’ rights and financial matters, subject to the money being based on benchmarks and milestones related to progress on the free trade agreement. Some issues, such as Geographical Indications, belong in the future trading arrangements, rather than the Withdrawal Agreement. The UK must also be able to negotiate its WTO modification by itself without having to consult with the EU, and then be free to operate in the WTO as an independent player. We have also turned the non-regression clauses into the sorts of mutual disciplines you would see in a typical Free Trade Agreement and ensured that they are mutual. We have provided that the transition period may be extended by agreement but there is no need to provide for extension now. Deadlines in trade negotiations are important, and concentrate negotiators’ minds. We see no reason to prolong business uncertainty for years.

The changes we have outlined allow a deal to the benefit of all European citizens to be reached before 29th March 2019.

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Two pledges to MPs helped May over the line yesterday – but now she must fulfil them

A guarantee of a legally binding change to the backstop, and a more vague promise not to go on and on as leader, both present challenges.

The crucial context for yesterday’s confidence vote was that it came after a day of sustained and intensive effort by the Government to secure as many votes as it could. Emails were sent out to Party members from the Chairman, the Whip was restored to suspended MPs, and, most importantly, two controversial promises were made by the Prime Minister, then reiterated at the meeting of the 1922 Committee.

That those steps were felt necessary was a sign that Downing Street was evidently more concerned about the ballot than was widely assumed – something borne out by the higher than expected number of No Confidence votes.

Particularly telling are the two pledges that Theresa May gave to her MPs, both because they reveal the issues that she and her team implicitly acknowledge to be the most serious weaknesses in her position, and because each immediately raises vexed questions about whether she can actually abide by them and keep her word.

Limiting the backstop

The Prime Minister is reported to have promised MPs and ministers who are concerned about the risk of being trapped eternally in the backstop that she will secure a “legally binding” change which would make it temporary. There are other issues with the Withdrawal Agreement, of course, but such a change would certainly help to address the primary concern cited by many of her colleagues about the aspect of the agreement that they find most objectionable.

It’s notable that Downing Street has evidently realised that anything as unreliable as a mere promise, or as presentationally awkward as “I have in my hand a piece of paper…”, would not be sufficient to reassure MPs. The UK has recent experience of a supposedly “black and white” promise made to Cameron and Osborne about us being exempt from Eurozone bailouts being disregarded by the EU a couple of years later. So May knows that at minimum any change on the backstop must be indisputably, immovably, legally binding, or else it would be no use to her at all.

The difficulty is that the EU appears to have no intention of granting such a condition. Indeed, they argue that time-limiting the backstop (or allowing the UK a sovereign right to escape it) would defeat its purpose. Before yesterday, that was essentially Downing Street’s explanation for why it had conceded the full backstop in the first place, too.

May is right to seek such a change, but we’ve yet to hear an explanation of how she intends to fulfil her promise to secure it.

Not leading the Party into the next election

“In my heart, I would love to be able to lead the Conservative Party into the next General Election” are words that may inspire a bit of foreboding among many Tory MPs, candidates and activists after last time. The Prime Minister implicitly conceded that fact when she went on to promise that “…the next general election is in 2022 and I think it’s right another party leader takes us into that general election.”

It’s a peculiar pledge, in that she is promising something her audience already assumed to be the case, but even then it bears a bit of detailed examination. For a start, it is uncomfortably specific about departing before the 2022 election, and allows for the possibility that she might want to stay on right up to the threshold of that campaign. That is not a prospect all of her MPs would find very appealing, given the current state of affairs.

Furthermore, while the reports are headlined “Theresa May confirms she will not lead Tories into next election”, that isn’t quite what she has actually said. The Prime Minister’s promise appears to relate only to the 2022 election, on the assumption that there won’t be an election before then. Except she – and we – cannot reliably make that assumption. May’s 2017 gamble showed that it is possible to hold a snap election under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, and the hung Parliament which it produced means she does not have the power to promise that there will be no election before 2022. If there is an election before 2022, potentially at short notice and against her will, there seems every prospect she would try to lead her party into it, and the timescale might leave no opportunity for a replacement.

Lastly, this promise obviously isn’t binding. Particularly in the next 12 months, there can now be no further confidence ballot to unseat her. The best questioners get when they ask for more detailed assurance on this front is a sub-promise to underpin it, that the Prime Minister will not call a snap election. Except, of course, her MPs have heard that before – and the decision is not fully in her gift.

Expectations

The outcome of the ballot leaves a tense stand-off, in which those MPs who supported May on the strength of these pledges and those MPs who did not now both expect her to demonstrate that she is both willing and able to fulfil them. The latter is sufficiently amorphous and medium-term that it may be possible to fudge it for a while yet, but the former is clearly testable and urgent, in that she must secure the promised concession from Brussels in the next few weeks. Quite what MPs would – or could – do if she fails to do so remains to be seen.

WATCH: May – “I’ve heard loud and clear the concerns of those who didn’t feel they were able to support me”

The Prime Minister is meeting EU leaders to seek the “legal and political assurances” on the backstop she promised MPs yesterday.

Henry Hill: The strange Scottish Conservative rebellion against the Withdrawal Agreement

If you’d had to guess which of their MPs would rebel on the deal, Lamont and Ross wouldn’t have made the top six.

Readers of this column will be aware that the Scottish Conservatives have shown signs of strategic confusion in the run-up to the (now postponed) ‘meaningful vote’ on Theresa May’s withdrawal deal.

This culminated in David Mundell and Ruth Davidson both threatening to resign if the Prime Minister gave way on the EU’s demands for differential treatment for Northern Ireland… only to perform a screeching u-turn when she did, in fact, give way after all.

Aside from a nasty barb about ‘carpet baggers’, the justifications offered to support this shift (to the extent that it was acknowledged as a shift at all) were deeply unconvincing. Whilst talk of a ‘union state’ might have served as a reason not to worry about the backstop in the first place, it doesn’t justify dramatically changing one’s mind on it in the space of a month.

Given the paucity of plausible reasons for the change of heart, and the sheer unexpectedness of their initial threats to resign, one possible explanation does suggest itself: pitch-rolling.

By putting down markers about their staunch opposition to the deal on unionist grounds, and then backing it, Mundell and Davidson could use their unionist bona fides to shield May and shut down her unionist critics.

That’s only conjecture, of course, but it is worth bearing in mind as we consider the next strange development in this story: the surprise rebellions of John Lamont and Douglas Ross against the Withdrawal Agreement.

Why is this a surprise? Because both MPs are on the ‘Davidsonite’ wing of the party. Lamont used to be her chief whip in the Scottish Parliament, and was one of the architects behind the Scottish Tories’ now-disintegrating pooled-staffing arrangement at Westminster. Ross, meanwhile, has been talked about in some quarters as her preferred successor, at least before he got into Parliament.

All the evidence suggests that this tendency is backing the withdrawal deal. Adam Tomkins MSP, a constitutional law professor and close ally of Davidson, has been sent out to claim that the unionist case against the backstop has been ‘destroyed’ (spoiler: no it hasn’t) and Paul Masterton, another ally and the MP who helped coordinate the Holyrood powers-grab during the passage of the Withdrawal Act, has joined in Mundell’s attacks on “English nationalists” playing at unionism.

Yet all of a sudden Ross Thomson, who had until now been ploughing a very lonely furrow as the sole Scottish Conservative rebel on the Withdrawal Agreement, finds himself joined not by any of his colleagues who have previously supported European Research Group manoeuvres (Colin Clark, Alister Jack, and Stephen Kerr to name but three) but by these two loyalists.

If you subscribe to the ‘cock-up’ view of the Mundell u-turn, this is evidence that this wing of the Scottish Tories is losing its strategic cohesion in a really remarkable way.

But there are also a couple of reasons not to discount the ‘conspiracy’ version: that this is a second round of pitch-rolling, with Lamont and Ross preparing to ‘do a Mundell’ in order to give whatever form of words the Prime Minister comes back with some credibility. Neither declared their hand until after the Government had pulled the ‘meaningful vote’ on Monday morning, nor has either been explicit about what changes they would need to see in order to support the deal.

Whatever the truth of it, however, this decision poses sharp questions for their colleagues. Opposition to the deal on unionist grounds can no longer be presented as a mere flag of convenience for committed Brexiteers.

We must intensify plans for trading on WTO terms and then negotiate a UK-EU trade deal on those sure foundations

Pulling the vote on its Withdrawal Agreement at the eleventh hour, the Government acknowledged what we already knew: the Backstop proposal is completely unacceptable and the Agreement stood no chance of winning the support of Parliament. But rather than simply seeking “reassurances” on this issue – which, though a central objective, is but one of […]

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Pulling the vote on its Withdrawal Agreement at the eleventh hour, the Government acknowledged what we already knew: the Backstop proposal is completely unacceptable and the Agreement stood no chance of winning the support of Parliament.

But rather than simply seeking “reassurances” on this issue – which, though a central objective, is but one of many – the Government needs to consider more boldly the possible alternative arrangements which might command Parliament’s support. The President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, offered just such an alternative in March: a wide-ranging, zero-tariff trade agreement.

That deal foundered on the question of the Northern Ireland border, but existing techniques and processes can resolve this.

This view is endorsed by the professional customs body, CLECAT. They recommend we acknowledge the present state of customs technology, using procedures based on intelligence and risk management available in current EU law. These are currently used to manage the border which already exists – for VAT, tax, currency, excise and security – and can form the foundation for continued seamless trade.

From my October meeting with Michel Barnier and senior officials, I know that a willingness exists on the EU side to explore these possibilities more fully. The meeting also confirmed that Tusk’s offer is still on the table.

Rather than cling hopelessly to the Withdrawal Agreement, the Government must return to that offer. By resolving the border question with existing techniques, we can immediately start negotiating an optimal, wide-ranging Free Trade Agreement. I have already presented the Government with a Trade Facilitation Chapter and new Border Protocol to catalyse this process.

In parallel, we must intensify our preparations for trading on WTO terms. This is no cause for alarm, and those doubting this should look to the UK’s booming exports – up by nearly £100bn since before the referendum. The latest ONS figures put exports to non-EU countries at £342bn, compared to exports to EU countries of £274bn.

Much of that boom is through expansion into new markets. Since 1998, UK goods exports to non-EU countries have grown 16 times faster than its exports to the EU.

Yet scaremongering has clouded our perception of WTO rules. We are told that just-in-time supply chains will be unable to continue across customs borders. But in reality the operation of these chains is as dependent upon non-EU goods as on those from the EU. 21% of UK automotive manufacturers’ bought-in supply chain comes from outside the EU – compared to 36% from the EU and 43% from the UK – yet the customs procedures required for that sizeable proportion do not pose an insurmountable problem.

We are told that even minor customs delays will cause unprecedented queues on the M20 and economic disaster. But Operation Stack – limiting access to the Channel Tunnel and the Port of Dover – was activated for seven months in total between 1998 and 2015, without any of the “catastrophes” now imagined.

Responding to these Project Fear claims, we must always ask: why? Why would a rules-based organisation like the EU suddenly start behaving illegally, to the detriment of its people and in defiance of international agreements? As Xavier Bertrand, President of the Hauts-de-France region, has said in dismissing fears of major disruption between Dover and Calais: “Who could believe such a thing? We have to do everything to guarantee fluidity.”

It is true that the EU has trade deals with around 70 countries, which the UK will have to novate. This process has already begun and no country has signalled an unwillingness to co-operate. But remember that many of these agreements are very small. Switzerland alone accounts for half of UK exports to these 70 countries and it, Norway, Turkey and South Korea account for over 75%. Renegotiating a small number of agreements to cover the vast majority of this trade should not be a prohibitive task.

Though not an optimal arrangement, there is thus nothing to fear from WTO rules. Its 164 members represent 98% of world trade. We must be ready to trade on those terms to smooth the transition and demonstrate that we are serious.

That way, we shall be negotiating a Free Trade Agreement with the EU on sure foundations. Realistically, of course, a full agreement will not be reached by March, but this need not pose a problem. So long as progress has been made towards an agreement by then, the EU and the UK can jointly notify the WTO as soon as possible after our exit date of our intent to negotiate an FTA. Under Article XXIV of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, after notification of a sufficiently detailed FTA with an appropriate plan and schedule, we could maintain zero tariffs and no quantitative restrictions for a “reasonable length of time” (exceeding “10 years only in exceptional cases”) without violating the bar on discriminating against other nations under WTO rules.

So, rather than the Withdrawal Agreement’s choice of a transition period ending in “20XX” or a potentially permanent and definitely intolerable backstop, this proposal would provide stability and clarity for the time-limited negotiating period, delivering a zero-tariff, mutually beneficial trade agreement. That would surely command a majority in Parliament. That is the alternative. That is the way ahead.

This is an extended version of an article originally which appeared in the Daily Telegraph

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Fundamentally nothing has changed – my take on yesterday’s contemptuous shenanigans

Well, well, well. What a 24 hours it has been. On the one hand there’s so much to say, while on the other I am struggling to summon the words to express a whole range of feelings and emotions about yesterday’s events at Westminster: bemusement, anger, disappointment, confusion and, dare I say it, contempt. Yesterday […]

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Well, well, well. What a 24 hours it has been. On the one hand there’s so much to say, while on the other I am struggling to summon the words to express a whole range of feelings and emotions about yesterday’s events at Westminster: bemusement, anger, disappointment, confusion and, dare I say it, contempt.

Yesterday morning, Michael Gove was on Radio 4’s Today programme vigorously insisting that the meaningful vote on Theresa May’s Brexit deal would go ahead amidst rumours that tonight’s Commons division – following a fourth and fifth day of debate yesterday and today – would be pulled. “The vote is going ahead,” the Environment Secretary said. Even late yesterday morning, Downing Street continued spinning the same line to the media. “The vote is going ahead as planned,” said a No. 10 spokeswoman who, when asked if the Prime Minister was confident of winning the vote, replied: “Yes”.

And yet within minutes reports began to emerge that the vote was indeed being pulled, despite the Commons having already spent 24 hours over three days last week on the debate in which more than 160 MPs had already participated.

And so it was that just after 3.30pm, Theresa May rose to her feet at the Despatch Box to declare that the vote would be postponed, with the following explanation:

“I have listened very carefully to what has been said, in this chamber and out of it, by members from all sides. From listening to those views it is clear that while there is broad support for many of the key aspects of the deal, on one issue – the Northern Ireland backstop – there remains widespread and deep concern. As a result, if we went ahead and held the vote tomorrow the deal would be rejected by a significant margin.”

What struck me as particularly absurd about this statement was that it was clear to me and anyone else paying the slightest attention to current events that there was “widespread and deep concern” about the backstop as soon as the details of it emerged in November and certainly by the time of the debate beginning last Tuesday. Yet she stubbornly concluded:

“I am in absolutely no doubt that this deal is the right one. It honours the result of the referendum… But it also represents the very best deal that is actually negotiable with the EU. I believe in it – as do many Members of this House. And I still believe there is a majority to be won in this House in support of it, if I can secure additional reassurance on the question of the backstop. And that is what my focus will be in the days ahead.”

You can read her full statement here, but there you have it: the aim of the shuttle diplomacy on which she is now embarking and for which the debate and vote were abandoned is to “secure additional reassurance on the question of the backstop”.

As former Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers writes for us on BrexitCentral this morning, “even more disappointing than the cancellation of the vote was the announcement on what the Government plans to do next” since “Mrs May is not going to ask for the major rewrite of the withdrawal deal which is needed”. She explains the numerous aspects of the draft Withdrawal Agreement about which she has concerns – and on which the Prime Minister evidently has no intention of reopening negotiations.

Senior Labour backbencher Yvette Cooper perfectly summed up the feelings of many of us following proceedings in her intervention following the statement yesterday:

“Nothing has changed in the level of parliamentary concern about the Prime Minister’s deal since last week, but she still sent her Ministers and her official spokesperson out at 11 this morning to say that this vote was 100% going ahead, and yet we still, even now, do not know when she wants to bring this vote back, or even what she wants the deal to be. Does she not realise how chaotic and ridiculous this makes our country look? Given the importance of trust and credibility in this entire process, how can she possibly talk about duty and honour, and faith in politicians, when we cannot even trust the most basic things her Ministers are saying?”

May gave no answer to questions about the length of the postponement of the vote and while it was initially thought there might be a week’s delay, there was widespread speculation last night that it might not come until January.

The chamber was also treated to this astute observation from veteran left-winger Dennis Skinner yesterday afternoon:

“Does the Prime Minister realise that she has handed over power not to people in this House, but to the people she is going to negotiate with over there in Europe? She looks very weak, and she is. They want to be able to demonstrate their power to every other country that might be thinking about getting out of the EU, and she has handed them that power by demonstrating what Britain is doing. The British Prime Minister does not know whether she is on this earth or Fuller’s because of the actions she has taken. Mrs Thatcher had a word for what she has done today. F-R-I-T — she’s frit.”

Frit is of course the Lincolnshire dialect word for frightened or scared that the Grantham-born former Prime Minister once let slip out in the Commons in reference to Neil Kinnock. Those interventions from Cooper and Skinner are both included in our video highlights of yesterday afternoon’s proceedings which I would recommend catching up with here.

What many found confusing over the turn of events is that May arguably missed the opportunity that losing a vote in the Commons would have provided in terms of strengthening her negotiating hand. As of today, there has been no formal rejection of the deal from parliamentarians that she could have used as a tangible bargaining chip in Brussels, where the EU is eager to secure a deal.

And it was a non-vote in advance of which we learnt yesterday that the Government had spent near enough £100,000 during the last week alone on Facebook adverts promoting May’s deal. That’s surely a grotesque abuse of hard-earned taxpayers’ money in anyone’s book.

There was also damning criticism of the procedural trick of pulling the debate three-fifths of the way through, with Tory backbencher Mark Francois offering the following scathing assessment:

“What the Government have done today is shameful. It is a complete abuse of this House. Having been found in contempt recently for the first time in living memory, they have now gone for a “buy one, get one free.” The whole House wanted to debate this. We wanted to vote on it. The people expected us to vote on it, and the Government have gone and run away and hidden in the toilets. People watching this on television will be confused and bemused, and very, very angry at the way their own Parliament has let them down. The Government Front Benchers should literally be ashamed of themselves.”

Also irate was the Speaker himself, John Bercow, who observed from the Speaker’s chair:

“Halting the debate, after no fewer than 164 colleagues have taken the trouble to contribute, will be thought by many Members of this House to be deeply discourteous… many colleagues from across the House have registered that view to me in the most forceful terms.”

A little later he agreed to the request for an emergency debate on the Government’s handling of the issue which came from Jeremy Corbyn and that three-hour debate will be the first main business after question time today at around 12.45pm – although there will not be a substantive motion on which MPs can vote.

In the meantime, Theresa May has headed off on her European travels, with a bilateral meeting taking place between her and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte over breakfast in The Hague this morning before she heads to Berlin for face-to-face talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Then will come talks in Brussels with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Council President Donald Tusk later this afternoon. The Cabinet meeting scheduled for this morning has been postponed until later in the week.

But what is she realistically going to achieve from a new round of talks? Tusk announced yesterday that he was calling a meeting of the EU27 leaders as part of the summit already taking place in Brussels this Thursday. But he was also clear that “we will not renegotiate the deal, including the backstop, but we are ready to discuss how to facilitate UK ratification”.

Meanwhile, Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar ruled out reopening negotiations around the Irish backstop and insisted the draft Withdrawal Agreement is “the only agreement on the table”.

So the Prime Minister may have bought herself a little more time, but right now it’s hard to see the House of Commons coming to anything other than the same conclusion as it would have done tonight whenever MPs are finally afforded the opportunity to vote on her deal. As someone once said: nothing has changed. But she has lost a whole heap of a rapidly diminishing supply of goodwill and trust as a result of yesterday’s shenanigans.

The above is the text of Jonathan Isaby’s Editor’s Letter in today’s BrexitCentral daily email briefing. To have it land in your inbox every morning, please click here.

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Lord Ashcroft: My new Brexit poll. People are tipping further away from the Prime Minister’s deal.

Meanwhile, there is little common ground in which to find a solution which would satisfy many Remainers and Leavers simultaneously.

The vote has been deferred while the Prime Minister seeks “reassurances” from the EU, but her message to the Commons yesterday was clear – this is the only Brexit deal on the table, and there is no realistic prospect of substantially changing it.

Theresa May’s campaign to sell the agreement to sceptical MPs and the public therefore continues. My last survey in late November found that the proposed deal had a cool reception, but with large numbers still to make up their minds. My latest 5,000-sample poll finds shows that more people now have an opinion – but with the balance tipping away from the deal, rather than in its favour.

The deal is done?

An unchanged 19 per cent say the deal honours the referendum result, while the proportion saying it does not has risen to 46 per cent – including six in ten Leave voters and a majority of Conservatives. The public as a whole says the agreement is better than leaving with no deal by 36 per cent to 30 per cent – and while Remain voters think this by a 33-point margin, Tory voters as a whole now say it is worse, and Conservative leavers think so by 49 per cent to 30 per cent.

Half of all voters now think the deal sounds worse than remaining in the EU on our current terms, with just under one in five saying it would be better. Even Conservative Leave voters are closely divided on this question, with 39 per cent saying the deal beats our current membership package and 38 per cent saying it does not.

When we asked in November what people thought MPs should do if they did not like the deal – accept an imperfect compromise and move on to other issues or reject the agreement even if the outcome was then unclear – people as a whole chose the latter by a 20-point margin. That has now widened to 29 points, with a majority now saying MPs unhappy with the deal should reject with unknown consequences. Conservative Remain voters, the only group to prefer compromise, now do so by a much smaller margin.

So now what?

While the alternatives to the draft agreement are not altogether clear, there are several possibilities: these include a delay while the Government seeks a new agreement with Brussels, leaving with no deal, various forms of second referendum, and a general election. We put these to our poll respondents in different combinations and asked them to choose their most and least preferred options each time (a technique called ‘max diff’ or ‘maximum difference’ which is used in the research industry to give the most comprehensive account of people’s preferences when faced with a list of choices).

For voters as a whole, there is very little to choose between the four most popular (or least unpopular) options which are, in order: a referendum to choose between the draft deal and remaining in the EU; a three-option referendum on the draft deal, no deal and remaining; delaying Brexit while the Government seeks a new agreement; and leaving with no deal. Accepting the current draft deal comes slightly further behind, followed by a general election and – least popular of all – a referendum to choose between the draft deal and no deal.

Unfortunately, this overall list masks wide disagreements between groups. For Conservatives and Leavers, the clear first choice is leaving with no deal, followed by a delay to seek a new agreement, with accepting the current draft agreement in third place. Conservative Remainers also put the Government’s deal third – but behind the rather different first choice of a referendum to choose between the draft deal and remain, and in second place, a three-option referendum to choose between the draft deal, no deal, and remain. Remain voters as a whole also put these two referendum options at the top of their list, but with a new deal, rather than the existing deal, in third place.

If there is no agreement as to the best next step, there is at least a consensus as to the most likely one if Parliament ultimately rejects the draft agreement, in whatever form it is finally presented to the House. This is a delay in Brexit while the Government seeks a new agreement with the EU, with a no-deal exit seen as the next most probable. A general election, though less favoured than a second referendum, is regarded as marginally more likely to happen.

Have you got it now?

If there were to be a second referendum of one kind or another, do people feel they are any better informed about the choice at hand than they were in June 2016?

According to my survey, only just over three in ten say they are – in fact a majority say either that they are no more or less clear about the implications and consequences of Brexit than they were during the referendum campaign (40 per cent), or that they are even less clear now than they were then (18 per cent).

Back to basics

With the Brexit debate now dominated by issues of process and procedure, we went back to first principles to ask again which potential outcomes from Brexit were ultimately the most important. Using the same process of asking people which options mattered to them most and least, we found little to choose between the three biggest priorities for voters as a whole: the UK being free to do its own free trade deals, continued free trade with the EU with no customs checks, and the UK making all its own laws without being subject to rulings from the European Court of Justice.

If the EU would protest that this amounts to an admissible combination of cake-having and cake-eating, there is also little agreement between groups: while Remain voters prioritise frictionless EU trade, UK citizens being allowed to move freely to other EU countries to live and work easily, and EU citizens already in the UK being allowed to stay, Leavers most want to see the UK making all its own laws with no ECJ jurisdiction, the UK making its own free trade deals, and the UK no longer paying money to the EU.

Using TURF analysis, a technique used in commercial market research designed to show which products and services would appeal to the greatest number of customers, we see that a deal combining the UK making its own laws and continued free trade with the EU would include at least one element that appealed to 45 per cent of all voters. Combined with an end to payments into the EU, this would extend its appeal to 61 per cent. As if this were not a tall enough order in itself, the competing priorities from different sides mean there is no deal that could please a majority of Remainers and Leavers at the same time.

Don’t panic

Meanwhile, how serious is the Brexit “crisis” in the great scheme of things, if indeed it is a crisis at all? I found a majority of voters thinking the state of affairs over Brexit was equally or more serious than the financial crisis of 2007-8, with nearly as many saying it is at least as serious as the miners’ strike of 1984-85, and the power cuts and three-day week of 1973-74.

Just over four in ten, but a majority of Remain voters, think the situation is at least as serious as the ‘winter of discontent’ in 1978-79. More than one in ten Remainers think things are comparable to the two world wars, and a quarter of them think there is little to choose between Brexit and the Cuban missile crisis, which could quite literally have brought about the end of the world. And to think some say that people are losing a sense of proportion.

> Full details of the research can be found at LordAshcroftPolls.com