Henry Newman is Director of Open Europe.
A counterfactual thought experiment: on 29th March, the Conservative Party almost all voted together for the Prime Minister’s deal. Despite their heart-felt concerns, the remaining members of the ERG were persuaded by Jacob Rees-Mogg to back the Government. On the other end of the Brexit divide, Conservative critics on the Remain side accepted that the indicative votes had shown no majority for a second referendum, and agreed to allow the country to move on. With a few additional Labour rebels, the Withdrawal Agreement just scraped a Commons majority.
Speaking in Downing Street on Friday evening, the Prime Minister set out a timetable for her departure. She reassured MPs that there was no need to hold European elections, to the delight of Daniel Hannan. The weekend’s papers showed a poll bounce towards the Conservatives, putting them in a good position to hold council seats in forthcoming local elections.
At the European Council last week, the EU agreed a short technical extension to complete ratification of the Withdrawal Bill. Brexit day was set for Friday 24th May, with an extra bank holiday on Tuesday. All European Ambassadors were invited to a service in Westminster Abbey to mark the end of 46 years of British membership. German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, and Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, are guests of honour at a gala dinner.
With Brexit secured, the People’s Vote campaign collapsed. Formal negotiations with the EU will resume after the summer, following the formation of a new European Commission and with a new British Prime Minister in place. The Labour Party has continued to press for a softer Brexit deal, but has yet to clarify its policy. Meanwhile, Heidi Allen’s Change UK advocates British re-accession to the European Union, and a new referendum. Several new defectors have joined the party from the Liberal Democrats, who had not yet committed to re-joining the EU.
The ‘Alternative Arrangements’ UK-EU Irish border working group has set out an ambitious timetable of fortnightly meetings, with an expanded cast list of relevant experts. Meanwhile, an anonymous philanthropist has donated a £100,000 prize for the most creative approach to resolving the border question. Several Californian tech companies are also hard at work on possible solutions.
Sajid Javid, the Home Secretary, has published his proposed post-Brexit immigration system. With Free Movement ending by 2021, the new policy will prioritise those coming to work in education, universities or the health service, and those likely to contribute the most to our economy or society. A fast-track work visa scheme will help ensure British companies access to necessary foreign labour, but those companies doing so will need to pay a levy to support UK skills training.
The Fisheries Bill is due back in the Commons shortly. The Environment Secretary has already announced that from 2021 the UK’s Exclusive Economic Zone, extending across around a third of a million square miles of sea, will be under British control. Michael Gove has invited fishing ministers from European coastal states to a new annual fishing summit, to be held on Tyneside in early 2020. The French are threatening to boycott the summit in protest at the British refusal to grant them continued access to our fishing waters on the same basis as before.
Liam Fox spent Easter week jetting across the Pacific. Australia and New Zealand have launched working groups to develop a series of trade deals with the UK which they hope to fast-track over coming months. At a joint press conference, ministers announced they will prioritise a services trade deal, which provides unprecedented access for financial services, including retail banking and insurance, as well as new agreements on investor protection. This is designed to come into effect in 2021, whether or not the UK enters the backstop, but can be upgraded to a fuller comprehensive trade deal.
Also on the plane was Matt Hancock. The Health Secretary is pressing for a new mutual recognition of qualifications deal. The proposal is to allow Australian and New Zealand doctors and nurses to work in Britain, without having to re-qualify. At present, only doctors qualifying in the European Economic Area – from Latvia to Lichtenstein – have that automatic right.
The DUP were concerned by the passage of the Withdrawal Agreement, which they had voted against. However, they have agreed to work with the Government to implement a Stormont Lock which will come into effect if the UK enters the backstop. The Prime Minister has confirmed that the existing goods rules will be maintained in Great Britain, as well as in the Northern Ireland, for the foreseeable future. As a result, the Business Secretary has confirmed that there will be no regulatory checks required on industrial or manufactured goods moving across the Irish Sea. The Brexit Secretary has also informed Michel Barnier that, if the UK enters the backstop, the UK will by default veto all new goods regulations, only accepting those new rules it determines are in its core national interest. There was some significant protest at this decision, but the Commission’s legal team reluctantly admitted that this was the UK’s right under the Treaty.
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Unfortunately this happy picture is a fantasy. What actually happened (of course) is that, although around 90 per cent of Tory MPs voted for the Withdrawal Agreement, about three dozen Conservatives refused to do so. As a result Brexit is profoundly at risk, and the Conservatives are taking an acute hammering in the opinion polls.
Some of the Prime Minister’s critics continue to believe they can reach their No Deal nirvana. But the last few months have shown how elusive that mirage can be. The plan seems to entail forcing the Prime Minister out, and then securing a new Conservative Leader committed to scrapping the backstop.
Advocates of this path tend to argue that Theresa May has never really tried to scrap the backstop, and if somehow [insert name of a potential Brexity party leader] just went to Brussels and told them we would not have the backstop, the EU would agree to take it out. Sadly, this is as fantastical as my thought experiment above.
Anyone promising to scrap the backstop might as well promise to take the country to No Deal. With this Parliament certain to try to block No Deal, a new leader would need to win a general election. But even assuming that the Conservatives could secure a narrow majority – which seems a stretch at present – it’s not clear that No Deal would then be plausible. At least a couple of dozen Conservative MPs, and possibly considerably more, would resist No Deal at almost any cost.
Unless a path through can be found for the Withdrawal Agreement in the coming weeks and months, the chances of Brexit being lost entirely will only rise. So the best option, barring a rethink from the Prime Minister’s backbench critics, seems to be to broker some agreement with Labour, however unpalatable that is for many Conservatives.