Henry Newman is Director of Open Europe.
Without a breakthrough on Brexit over the next few days, there may be no November summit, and the prospect of a deal will slip back to December. It will still be possible to get something through Parliament if one is agreed pre-Christmas – and perhaps even into the New Year. But the delay means that some of the Government’s No Deal plans will need to be switched on. I’m told that these are more advanced than is often believed, and that Dominic Raab has taken a particular interest in ramping up preparations since his appointment.
Senior figures in the European Commission are concerned that as No Deal plans are activated (on both sides), there’s a danger that we get set on a slippery path towards such an outcome. No Deal could become self-fulfilling. But many of the mitigation measures for No Deal simply can’t be turned on at the last second.
At this point, it is hard to be definitive about what will happen over the next few weeks. A deal is almost done between the negotiators, with just the backstop left to resolve. The draft Political Declaration is largely agreed, ready and waiting in a Whitehall cupboard. Agreement seems within grasp – as briefings from Brussels to the Financial Times yesterday suggest. But although the Prime Minister is determined to secure a deal, she hasn’t yet been able to get the negotiating teams over the line. On Sunday, the talks reportedly continued until close to 3am, yet left “substantial issues still to overcome”.
It may just not be possible to find a way through. Some have assumed that Theresa May would ultimately cave in. But as Damian Green put it a few weeks ago, a bad version of the backstop would be “worse than no deal”.
There are few MPs advocating No Deal as a preference. And there’s certainly no majority demanding that the Prime Minister just pick up her papers and walking away from the table. But what if May stood up in Parliament and explained how she had sought compromise and considered unpalatable options, but that she simply could not agree to a backstop which divided the UK? Some MPs clearly prefer any deal to no deal, but it’s not clear how Parliament would actually act in a circumstance where a Unionist Prime Minister refused to agree to something she described as unacceptable, particularly if it created new internal barriers.
Overall, Brussels has consistently said that if there’s no agreement on the backstop, there can be no so-called side deals. The Commission say it’s Deal or No Deal. All paths to a deal, they insist, come via a backstop. If we don’t agree to the backstop there can be no other agreements in areas such as aviation, data, or citizen’s rights. Nor can there be a No Deal Plus option unless the EU changes its mind on side deals.
A “No Deal No Deal” – exit without any side agreements – would mean that the EU was willing to treat the UK in a manner akin to North Korea, rather than as a partner and close ally. It’s hard to see this situation lasting, with Ireland in particular in line for a huge economic shock, and an enormous hole blown in the Commission’s budget. Open Europe’s research has shown that over the medium term, No Deal would have a limited effect on the UK’s growth rate, especially if the Government took mitigatory steps. But the extent of the short-term disruption of No Deal, for both the UK and EU, will depend on whether Brussels holds to its no-side-deals mantra.
Although a deal isn’t certain, it’s within grasp. And if it is agreed, and passes Cabinet with the Government still broadly intact, then my hunch is that it will ultimately pass Parliament. Despite Keir Starmer’s insistence on his impossible six tests, the Labour leadership shows little real interest in trying to reverse Brexit. And if the EU (and with them the Irish Government) are happy that the backstop protects Northern Ireland – which by definition they would be if they sign off on a deal – would Labour really turn round and say they disagreed with them? Voting down the deal would also mean attacking jeopardising citizen’s rights and the transition which Labour claim they called for in the first place. We now expect that a Brexit deal will mean a UK customs union for as long as it takes to negotiate a new relationship, which addresses another of Labour’s objections.
It’s always seemed possible to me that Labour ultimately won’t stand in the way of a deal in Parliament. Of course oppositions like to oppose, and there are examples of how in the past Labour was willing to use Europe as a stick with which to beat a Conservative Government. But voting against the Maastricht Treaty didn’t risk imploding our relationship with Europe. And Maastricht hadn’t just been backed by the public in a referendum.
Some MPs like to think that Parliament will step in and control the process both in the event of No Deal and if a deal fails to pass the “meaningful vote”. But can the legislature really force the executive to pursue a path to which it is implacably opposed? Anyway, Article 50 means the UK leaves the EU, deal or not, at the end of March.
That’s not to say that things in Westminster won’t get bumpy – potentially very bumpy – over the coming weeks. It’s likely that if a deal is reached, endless amendments will be attached to the Withdrawal Agreement Implementation Bill. It’s also possible that Parliament initially votes the deal down.
But I believe that if a deal passes Cabinet with the Government broadly intact, it’s likely to pass Parliament eventually, perhaps with rebels on both sides of the chamber. After all, that wouldn’t be too unprecedented: the European Communities Act in 1972 only passed second reading by 309-301 with 39 Conservatives voting against the Government, and 68 Labour MPs backing the Government. The Opposition leader, Harold Wilson, accused the Prime Minister of failing to secure the “full-hearted consent of Parliament” and of not getting “through on Tory votes in a majority of this House”. Heath pressed ahead nonetheless.