29 January 2019

Parliamentary drama is a distraction from the real choice facing MPs

By Stephen Booth

As the clock ticks down to 29 March, it should be encouraging that the warring factions of the Conservative Party have at last concluded that they should try to talk to each other in search of compromise. Today’s great hope in overcoming the Brexit impasse in Parliament, the so-called “Malthouse compromise”, is a classic political gambit: if you don’t want to answer the question, try to change the question.

With just over eight weeks to go, the risk is that this is simply a major distraction from the genuine choices Parliament faces, which are between: No Deal, a variant of the draft UK-EU Deal (overwhelmingly likely to include the key tenets of the proposed Backstop), or No Brexit.

At the heart of the plan that has brought the European Research Group’s Jacob Rees-Mogg and ex-Remainer Nicky Morgan together is an attempt to alter the proposed Backstop. Essentially, the blueprint would strip out the UK-EU customs union as the basis of the Backstop, and proposes that a hard border on the island of Ireland be avoided by using technology and close cooperation within a free trade agreement instead. The plan’s concession to the EU would be that the UK would agree now that the standstill transition and UK net budget contributions could last until December 2021, pending agreement on a long-term deal. (Under the Government’s plan, the transition is due to end in December 2020, although this could be extended by joint UK-EU agreement to December 2022.)

The question is whether what has been branded a compromise between different wings of the Conservative Party would be considered a compromise in Brussels. This is doubtful, to say the least. The EU has long regarded the proposed Backstop arrangements as the only basis for an insurance policy against a hard border. It argues that the technical solutions previously proposed by the UK government to avoid a such a border are not yet available or proven (though some EU figures have conceded that they may do the job in future) and therefore cannot be an insurance policy against a hard border. This may or may not be reasonable but it is very likely to be Brussels’ continued position. UK and EU officials involved with the talks are already quoted as saying today’s compromise “is no plan at all”.

It is perhaps more important to view the Malthouse compromise in the context of the amendments the House of Commons’ is considering this evening and an attempt to restore a semblance of unity to the Conservative party’s policy on Brexit. If it allows Brexiteer and Remain Conservative and Democratic Unionist Party MPs to coalesce behind Sir Graham Brady’s amendment, which would compel the Government to return the negotiating table in Brussels and revisit the Backstop, then it could yet be an important step in bringing about a majority decision in Parliament.

While it is highly unlikely that the EU would accept a complete rewrite of the Backstop or ditching it altogether, it has suggested it is open to further discussions. There have been many suggestions made as to how the Backstop could be improved and MPs need to be realistic about what can be achieved. The most likely to receive a positive hearing in Brussels are those that concentrate on ensuring the Backstop’s compatibility with the Good Friday Agreement and further guarantees that it can only be a temporary arrangement.

At the same time, anti-No Deal MPs’ efforts to extend Article 50 may or may not succeed tonight. Labour MP Yvette Cooper’s amendment now has the backing of the party leadership but may yet fail to pass. Nevertheless, the Prime Minister confirmed this afternoon that MPs will have further opportunities to vote on whether the UK should leave without a deal or extend the Article 50 process. This prospect should focus minds amongst Brexiteer MPs and underline that No Deal is not necessarily the alternative to a negotiated withdrawal. No Brexit remains a distinct possibility.

The worst-case scenario is that the Brady amendment fails and the Cooper amendment passes. This would leave the Government without a mandate to return to Brussels and with MPs and the EU under less pressure to conclude a deal. With the parliamentary numbers as they are, the Prime Minister clearly needs a mandate to try again in Brussels. The exact details of the mandate are probably of less importance.

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Stephen Booth is Director of Policy and Research at Open Europe