Henry Newman is Director of Open Europe.
Brexiteers wake up! Eurosceptics wake up! Conservatives wake up! The Brexit options have changed. But the furious circular debate in Britain has not caught up. Smell the coffee, face the facts and bite the bullet. Fast. Time is slipping away.
Within the next week, Parliament will have another chance to vote on Theresa May’s exit deal. If it’s rejected, again, then Brexit itself will be increasingly at risk. The outcome is likely a softer exit or even no Brexit at all.
Some critics suggest that the deal can’t get any worse, or couldn’t be any softer. This is ludicrous. If you don’t like being in a customs territory with the EU, which the backstop would require, try the Single Market. Yes, the backstop – if we got there – would mean keeping the stock of EU goods rules (at least in Northern Ireland). But it would also give us freedom to regulate our wider economy and turn off the tap for new EU rules.
Single Market membership, or as it’s re-branded Common Market 2.0, would mean letting the EU set rules on employment, environmental protections and for the whole of our services industry. Even Mark Carney (hardly famous for his pro-Brexit proselytising) argues we can’t be a rule taker on financial services. UK taxpayers shouldn’t have to underwrite the balance sheets of our banks, but look to Europe to determine the rules.
There is now little prospect of a No Deal at the end of March. And the possibility of a very long delay to Brexit is growing. The first rule of politics – according to Lyndon B Johnson – is that its “practitioners need to be able to count.” Nothing is more fundamental. If you can’t win a vote, you can have all the lofty ideal visions you like, but they won’t come to much. And while it remains true that the default is still No Deal on March 29, the reality is we now know that the Government will first put that to the Commons and seek an extension at Parliament’s behest.
The EU will reluctantly grant such an extension. What Brussels and EU member states such as France are desperate to avoid is a situation in which the UK repeatedly requests rolling extensions of Article 50 – kicking the can a bit further down the road each time.
So Brussels is now looking at a 21-month extension (something that I warned in a recent ConHome column was favoured by some in France). EU sources are now suggesting that this could replace the transition and allow time to negotiate the future relationship (so potentially avoiding the need for a backstop). Of course we would have no guarantees about what the deal at the end of that time would be.
This new Brussels demarche should raise serious alarms. You don’t have to be a total cynic to think that the EU is looking to a long extension to allow time for politics to shift in the UK. That is, to let pro-Remain voices regroup as a political force. And they are not mistaken in seeing a path to a new referendum. A few MPs are already complaining that the mandate from nearly three years ago is in danger of expiring. By the end of 2020, we would be almost five years since the referendum.
Some Eurosceptics imagine that a delay to Article 50 would allow them to prepare for a managed No Deal in 21 months. Martin Howe was advocating something similar just yesterday on this site. Yet this risks chasing a mirage and forgets Lyndon Johnson’s fundamental rule, as above. Changing the leadership of the party won’t shift this basic problem, and could instead exacerbate it.
The inescapable fact is the Conservatives have no outright majority. The profound implications of this still seems not to have registered fully all around Westminster and in local Conservative Associations. Brussels sees it clearly. One senior source said to me recently that the single biggest mistake Theresa May has made (in a hotly contested field) was losing her majority in the 2017 general election. In a flash, back in June 2017, Brussels could see her authority melt away. The ability really to threaten to walk away was severely reduced, and in the immediate aftermath of that election David Davis accepted the phasing of the talks – setting the path to agreeing a backstop.
Our position is now if anything even more vulnerable. Although TIG has medium-term potential to do more damage to Labour, the Conservatives have also taken a hit. Defections mean that the Government’s majority, with the DUP, is wafer-thin. Lose four more MPs and it’s gone. Of course it’s offensive and wrong to say that the Tory party is run by extremists for extremists. But that doesn’t mean the accusation is not damaging. And having more former MPs running around repeating that is hardly a good look.
All this means that the possibility of a general election is rising. No one should be blithe about the risks that poses. While TIG could help the Conservatives in 2022, at this point it has no infrastructure, no candidates and no national support base. And the public are growing tired of arguing about Brexit – even dedicated leavers can’t understand why it hasn’t been sorted yet (I can see their point). The last thing anyone wants is another election, especially one to discuss more Brexit. And of course many Conservative MPs would rather Theresa May didn’t lead the party into a snap election (as 117 reminded her in last year’s leadership challenge). So a general election offers no certain path.
And yet the Government’s hold over power is just wafer-thin. A few more defections and there’s no prospect of a stable Tory administration. If that doesn’t result in a general election, it could instead lead to a cross-party administration, backing a softer Brexit. Backbench MPs of both main parties are currently considering precisely how to bring a government of national unity into power, bypassing Eurosceptics on one side and Corbynites on the other. This would be a disaster for conservatism.
So, yes, the current deal is far from perfect. May’s Government has made a Dog’s Brexit of things. But the alternatives are far worse. Now we are approaching the crunch point, an event horizon beyond which the prospect of a decent, but not perfect, Brexit deal will slip away.
Shortly after the defeated coup against May in December last year, a senior Eurosceptic ex-Cabinet minister remarked that he would now have to vote for her deal as it was the “hardest Brexit” on the table. That reading is still true. If the first rule of politics really is the ability to count, the fundamental challenge of politics is the requirement to decide between choices all of which are (to use a euphemism) sub-optimal.
That’s the decision which MPs now face: back May’s imperfect Brexit deal or risk losing Brexit altogether, with all the public wrath that would inevitably entail. So if Geoffrey Cox can bring back a sharper backstop exit mechanism from Brussels, plus reassurances for Stormont, MPs should reluctantly give him the benefit of the doubt, even if he can’t quite secure everything for which some had hoped.