28 March 2019

What Brexit means without May

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In last night’s indicative votes, 250 MPs voted for at least one of the four forms of negotiated Brexit on offer, having voted against Theresa May’s deal on the two occasions it has been put to the House of Commons. Add that figure to the 242 MPs who voted for May’s deal at the second time of asking and it means that 492 out of 650 MPs have voted in favour of an orderly exit from the European Union. (Thanks to Open Europe’s Dominic Walsh for crunching the numbers.)

MPs may be hopelessly divided on all sorts of Brexit questions, but on the issue of whether or not the British government should deliver Brexit, and do so with a deal, the will of the Commons is overwhelming.

May’s deal and the negotiated versions of Brexit on offer last night all share one thing: the Withdrawal Agreement, the only legally binding part of the offer on the table from the EU. Where they differ is on the future relationship, something which is yet to be negotiated and which is outlined in the broad, non-binding and open-ended Political Declaration.

In other words, we could be spared the current brouhaha — the reason some of us find ourselves having to watch a red-faced John Bercow late at night on BBC Parliament and the reason Brexit has been delayed, and may well be delayed again – were it not for a row over a piece of paper worth very little. Of course, party politics and personal animus complicate matters considerably.

But it remains true that, for all the ink that has been spilled over the backstop – which there are plenty of good reasons to be worried about – more than two-thirds of MPs technically support a version of Brexit that includes this flawed insurance policy.

Some point out that the law and politics are different things. A clear expression of Parliament’s will that forced changes to the political declaration would be notable even if it created no new obligations for either the UK or the EU. And to think that opposition to May’s deal, including from a Labour Party that acknowledge they would not attempt to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement, was all part of a good faith argument about the pros and cons of Britain’s Brexit plan would – sadly – be naive.

But those MPs sincerely holding out in hope of a softer Brexit being enshrined in the (again, nonbinding) political declaration are also getting the politics of the present moment badly wrong.

In the frenzied atmosphere that followed Theresa May’s promise yesterday to step aside if her deal is passed, her stated reason for doing so was largely overlooked.

“I know there is a desire for a new approach – and new leadership – in the second phase of the Brexit negotiations – and I won’t stand in the way of that,” she told her Conservative colleagues yesterday. “I know some people are worried that if you vote for the Withdrawal Agreement, I will take that as a mandate to rush on into phase two without the debate we need to have. I won’t – I hear what you are saying.”

In effect, the Prime Minister has conceded that her answer to the question ‘What does Brexit mean?’ is not one for which there is sufficient support, and is therefore not a vision for Britain’s future for which there is a mandate.

In other words, the meaning of Brexit is a more open question this morning that at any time since Theresa May and Nick Timothy sat down to draft her Lancaster House speech at the start of 2017.

Today, there were reports that the government would try and reflect this in the Brexit legislation, by decoupling the Withdrawal Agreement from the Political Declaration. Whether or not that plan would work is, at this stage, unclear.

You might think all this should embolden MPs eager to wrest control of Brexit from the executive. In reality, however, rows in the Commons about our future relationship with the European Union have never been less important.

A new Conservative leader, and Prime Minister, is around the corner. With his or her arrival will come a new vision for Britain’s future relationship and, hopefully, a plan for how to achieve it. By the autumn, vague expressions of the will of the House of Commons in March will seem ancient history.

As a Conservative leadership contender once said, Brexit means Brexit. And, fittingly, Theresa May’s premiership looks likely to end where it started: with the simplest interpretation of the vote to leave the EU possible. For now, leaving the EU means leaving the EU. No more and no less.

And a vote in favour of the Withdrawal Agreement would do exactly that  – no more and no less.

At this stage, I realise I am at risk of sounding Panglossian about where Britain finds itself the day before it was supposed to be leaving the EU.

Many of the most committed Brexiteers in the European Research Group, as well as the all-important Democratic Unionists, do not think that Brexit via the Withdrawal Agreement is a Brexit worth having. Circumventing the rebels on her own side is made harder by the fact that a vote for Theresa May’s deal is now effectively a vote for an orderly transition from one Conservative leader to the next. That only disincentivises Labour MPs from coming on board.

But these hurdles do not change the basic truth that, more so than ever before, every single Member of Parliament has a three-way choice to make: Brexit with a deal, Brexit without a deal or no Brexit at all. Comforting as indicative votes on a customs union and the single market may be, there is no escaping the trilemma.

Strangely, again, we are back where we started. The EU’s insistence on the sequencing of the Brexit negotiations – get out, then negotiate the future relationship – has been the source of much consternation in the UK. But, such an approach now appears to mirror the logic of the referendum: we have learnt the hard way that Britons voted for Brexit, not for one particular Brexit plan. A mandate for the latter has to come from somewhere else, and when Theresa May sought one via a General Election in 2017, she failed.

Whatever that means for the chances of this or that version of Brexit, it should be welcomed as a much-needed return to constitutional business as usual. Aspiring Tory leaders can set out their stall on Brexit and hope to win the support of their party. That vision then needs the support of the House of Commons. And, given that May’s successor will inherit a minority from her, that may – at some stage – mean seeking a fresh mandate for his or her version of Brexit in a general election.

The end of the sentence “Brexit means…” is, once again, up in the air. But MPs should not fool themselves into thinking that, with a change of leadership looming, they are the ones that can fill in the blank.

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Oliver Wiseman is Editor of CapX.