It is crunch time for Britain as MPs prepare to vote on Theresa May’s Brexit deal. May has warned that the public’s faith in democracy will be undermined if they reject her deal but, as Peter Bale writes, that seems almost certain as 100 Tory MPs line up to vote against it.
A New Zealander asked me about what he called the Brexit “clusterf..k” with an underlying assumption that it is exactly that.
Recently-deceased former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown called the decision to leave the European Union “an act of monumental self-harm”. As the negotiations and legislative machinery have ground on, and the evidence accrued of the likely damage, that seems to understate just how serious a crisis Britain faces.
However, it’s also true that there are points of light in the long tunnel Britain and its politicians have been in since the referendum two years ago ended in a 52 to 48 percent vote to leave. The Mother of Parliaments has proven its ability to confound the executive and, as it were, “take back control” – frustrating the Prime Minister and the executive and perhaps – just perhaps – making it likely Britain may not leave the EU at all on March 29.
It may look like an unholy mess but the grinding gears and screaming brakes of Westminster arguably demonstrate democracy at work and a determination not to leave Britons worse off than they would have been had former Prime Minister David Cameron not rashly called a plebiscite to settle what was essentially an internal Conservative Party schism.
There is no majority in Parliament for a “no-deal” Brexit.
There may also be no majority for the 600-odd page agreement Prime Minister Theresa May was effectively forced to negotiate on her own after two years of alleged work by three Brexit enthusiasts who proved themselves to be almost literal wastes of space: Brexit Secretary “lazy as a toad” David Davis, Trade Secretary Liam Fox (who once said a post-Brexit trade deal with the EU would be the “easiest in human history”) and Foreign Secretary “no new ideas” Boris Johnson.
The May plan is characteristically pragmatic and would allow at least continued access or British physical goods into the EU, if not the perhaps far more valuable services of the City of London financial district. However, it also entails a so-called “backstop” over Northern Ireland designed to prevent the recreation of physical border posts and checks on traffic between the north and south of the island of Ireland. That border with its history of sectarian bloodshed was always going to be a crunch point in Brexit.
If May cannot get her plan through Parliament, which is as good as certain, and Parliament won’t cut the nation’s figurative throat with a “no-deal” Brexit, what’s next?
As the months have gone on and the misinformation and probably illegal tactics of the Leave campaign have been exposed, there’s been a revival of a once marginal idea of a second referendum – somewhat redundantly called a ‘People’s Vote’.
Polling suggests a majority – though not yet overwhelming – now in favour of staying in the EU over accepting the May deal. There’s little doubt that given the lies on which key triggers for Leave were based, such as £350 million a week for the National Health Service, have been exposed, and the truth of what was called “Project Fear” on the economic damage, that we have a much better-informed electorate than before the 2016 vote.
May could also opt to cancel the decision to leave the EU – the Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty – decision. The European Court of Justice recently made clear it can be lifted unilaterally. That too would be difficult but perhaps not impossible to get through Parliament, resetting the clock and staying in the EU with all the risks to the political legitimacy inherent in the referendum and the will of the people that would represent.
She could and perhaps is highly likely to seek a delay on implementing Article 50 – extending the deadline to leave beyond March 29 and prolonging the uncertainty probably without gaining any negotiating advantage with Brussels. Delay would require the unanimous agreement of the 27 other EU members. Cancellation does not.
May, who campaigned without passion to stay in the European Union back in 2016, is a pragmatic person with an evident sense of personal duty that is far stronger than any charisma or ideology. In that she is reminiscent of John Major about whom then-New Zealand Prime Minister Jim Bolger once unguardedly said to me something along the lines of: “He’s great, he’s completely without ideology.”
That pragmatism suggests she would do almost anything – perhaps going so far as staying in the EU with or without a second vote – to avoid the damage she knows is in store for the British economy and voters if the country crashes out of the EU without an agreement. She is also clearly determined to avoid the election which opposition Labour Party leader and unreconstructed Marxist Jeremy Corbyn wants but struggles to provoke.
“All she needs to decide is that a referendum is her only way out of the current impasse,” columnist Jonathan Freedland wrote in The Guardian recently.
It is also true that these kind of eleventh-hour, one-second-to-midnight crises is what the EU – or at least the executive Commission in Brussels – specialises in. Only by pushing critical decisions to the last moment – sometimes literally stopping the clock – can the Commission and its interlocutors demonstrate that they exhausted all options.
One of the elements of the Brexit negotiations has also been the professionalism of Brussels relative to Westminster, such as the production of nearly 600 pages of agreement within a couple of months of May personally taking over negotiations.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose adoption of the word “shitstorm (grossen Shitstorm)” could have applied to Brexit as much as the row it did apply to, complained this time last year how lame May’s negotiating strategy was, telling German reporters she had asked May privately what she wanted from the EU only for the British PM to reply: “Make me an offer”. That left them trapped in a loop where Merkel could only explain: “but you’re leaving – we don’t have to make you an offer. Come on what do you want?”, May replied again, “Make me an offer.”
The deal May ultimately got is the one that is likely to be defeated, leaving her with nothing and in a “grossen Shitstorm” of her own but maybe saving Britain from a tragic Brexit by its very failure.