13 June 2018

Another nail in the coffin for a meaningful Brexit


On Tuesday afternoon the government appears to have conceded key aspects of the “meaningful vote” amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill.

There is some dispute over how much has been promised, but some claim the government has accepted parts A and B of the Grieve Amendment, which require the government to seek Parliamentary approval of any deal done with the EU and if no deal has been agreed by the end of November, to seek Parliamentary approval for its next course of action.

It’s not altogether clear how binding the requirement to seek such approval would be and what would happen if the government tried to carry on with a strategy of which Parliament did not approve, but the understanding of the pro-“meaningful vote” rebels is that such votes would be binding in political practice.

Perhaps the rebels have been conned and will not, ultimately, get their way on a “meaningful vote”. But let us assume, for the purposes of this argument, that the rebels are right.

In principle, having Parliament vote is not all one way. As well as raising the possibility that Parliament could reject a deal on the grounds it was too limited (not “soft Brexit” enough), there is the possibility that Parliament could reject a deal because it was too extensive (too “soft Brexit”) or didn’t contain enough “pro quo” for the “quid” (35 to 40 billion quid, to be precise).

But given the make-up of Parliament and the shenanigans up to this point, it’s pretty obvious that the idea is to try to force May into giving way to more EU demands. Any deal she agrees that is not sufficiently supine and concessionary will be rejected by Parliament and she’ll be asked to try again and ultimately instructed by Parliament what to do.

The Parliamentary last-ditch Remainers are be getting greedy. After all, May’s team themselves seem intent on achieving a post-Brexit deal that reconstructs EU membership in all but name except for having a bit more control of immigration. Their Northern Ireland “backstop” proposal (prior to the Davis addition of an “expected” timescale) was merely the latest instance of that, building on previous proposals for the UK to stay in the European Arrest Warrant and European Investigative Order — as Brexit In Name Only as it gets, in terms of security — and failure after failure to secure Cabinet agreement that we shall leave the EU’s customs union.

Perhaps they hope to stiffen the government’s capitulatory sinews, in case there were some Brexiteer backlash that sought to resuscitate the idea of actually leaving the EU from the current departure-choking miasma? Because we couldn’t have that, could we.

Whether through Parliament, through the Cabinet or through May’s officials, it’s been pretty clear since last March that there is no genuine intention to leave the EU other than, perhaps on even worse terms than if we’d stayed. It is also clear that the will of the Brexiteers is broken. They’ve given up believing there is a way to actually secure a meaningful departure-in-substance at this stage. Otherwise they would have surely acted against May months ago.

Defeat on the “meaningful vote” means that even replacing May would be far from sufficient. Given the need to win a Parliamentary vote on any deal or non-deal, we’d probably have to risk another general election (and the terrifying spectre of a Corbyn government) to change the Parliamentary arithmetic enough to get any form of practical departure through. We’d probably also have to risk a last-minute “no deal” with no more than a month or two’s preparation. I and others may prefer that route, but there seems no realistic way that the resolutely and overwhelmingly anti-Brexit Parliament will accept late no-deal risks or that Conservative MPs will accept fighting Corbyn with no deal hanging over them.

We lost. There isn’t going to be any meaningful Brexit at this stage. Worse than that — the government is going to agree (probably by choosing it as its own preference, but if not then because forced by Parliament to do so) to a deal with the EU that is worse than if we’d Remained.

Maybe there will yet be some miraculous turnaround. Perhaps it will turn out that the British diplomats have had some cunning plan all along and tricked the EU and UK Remainers. Maybe no deal preparations have been done in secret and are greatly advanced. Maybe Conservative Brexiteers will topple May and force a general election returning a majority stoutly pro-Brexit Parliament. But it all seems pretty implausible.

This isn’t something the EU has done to us. The EU would have done a perfectly sensible Canada++ free trade deal and accepted a reasonable financial settlement with a sensible and pragmatic transition period. The problem is not the EU. It is the implacable unwillingness of the British political system to accept and implement the result of the EU referendum, despite overwhelmingly voting to hold that referendum.

There will be four main consequences of this. First, public confidence in British democracy will be shattered. In Britain, up to now, it has been unthinkable that a government could lose an election but the opposition would be denied the fruits of democratic victory. But no longer. If Corbyn wins a future General Election, will he be permitted to become Prime Minister? I think no-one can say for certain, any more.

Second, there will now be a significant new Brexit 2.0 movement to undo the final surrender-deal. It will not succeed quickly. There won’t be the will to extend such intensely EU-focused political debate much longer. Everyone has been heartily sick of it now for at least a year. We just want to move on to other things. But it will probably eventually succeed at least in putting the issue back on the agenda — perhaps in ten years’ time or so.

Third, the Conservative Party is at risk of being finished over the medium term, for three reasons.

Its shambolic failure to implement Brexit may make it untrustworthy for any profound task in the foreseeable future. When once it was Conservatives one leaned on in a time of economic or political crisis, they will not be seen as a safe pair of hands next time.

The rise of the Brexit 2.0 movement could irretrievably split the party, especially if it eventually involved large numbers of MPs (dozens) and even larger numbers of activists (thousands or tens of thousands) departing to join a new party.

The constitutional Britain and British mission-to-the-world that Conservatism existed to defend may well be gone, and with it the Conservative Party’s rationale.

Finally, some of those who favoured Brexit because they believed Britain to have unique constitutional virtues and that the genuine choice was between departure, being dominated by the EU, or joining the euro and the Single European State, may think again.

Is the British system worthy of the trust and admiration Brexiteers have given it? If not, maybe the coalitions in the Brexit 2.0 fight might be very different and support for a fuller pro-EU engagement, euro, Schengen, elected President and all might come right back onto the agenda.

Some, even amongst formerly keen Brexiteers, may declare that if Britain is not worthy of Brexit, we should become fully part of Europe instead.

Andrew Lilico is an economist and political writer.