“Is it not the case that four fifths of Members voted to trigger Article 50, and that in doing so, they consciously—or perhaps semi-consciously in some cases—accepted that no deal would be the default option if we did not leave with a deal? If hon. Members have now changed their mind, should they not be open about that and say that they now want a second referendum or to ditch Brexit altogether?”
ConservativeHome can’t improve on this lucid pointer, offered to the Commons yesterday by Nick Herbert, to why No Deal cannot be “taken off the table”. Let’s follow the train of thought of those of those who deploy the phrase. Were No Deal to be ruled out, it follows that the UK might remain in the EU, contrary to the referendum result, if no deal between the two negotiating parties can be agreed.
And it can only be ruled out by MPs voting to revoke the same Article – Article 50 – that they voted to deploy less than two years ago. (It is sometimes claimed that the Government could unilaterally revoke the article, but this would be dubious legally and impracticable politically.) Every single Conservative MP voted to move Article 50, bar Ken Clarke – yes, including Dominic Grieve, Anna Soubry and all the rest of them. So every Tory MP who votes for revocation, should the opportunity arise, will have to explain to their voters and Associations why they have changed their minds – in defiance, too, of the election manifesto on which they presumably stood.
You may counter that Herbert was only half-right – since not all those who want to take No Deal “off the table” want No Brexit. Some, rather, want a different kind of Brexit to the one proposed in Theresa May’s deal – such as Norway Plus or Common Market 2.0 or whatever its supporters are calling it this morning. Our columnist Henry Newman, writing on ConservativeHome today, says that the plan could “leave us as essentially as a non-voting member of the EU”. Be that as it may, Norway Plus would none the less represent a form of Brexit – de jure if not de facto. And it would be achieved via extension, not revocation.
But, if you think about it, extension would not actually take No Deal “off the table”. It would merely set a new deadline for Brexit – and, therefore, leave open the possibility that Britain could still leave the EU with No Deal when it ends. You may argue that the practical effect of extension would be to pave the way for revocation – and you might well be right: the proponents of Norway Plus, in the event of extension, risk losing out to the supporters of a Second Referendum. None the less, the possibility of No Deal would still be there. It would remain “on the table”. Or, to put it another way, the table, like the proverbial can, would simply be kicked down the road.
Herbert concluded by asking his colleagues to agree that if they “want an orderly Brexit and to prevent no deal, is not the only course open to them to agree a deal?” This now appears to be the direction that a big chunk of the European Research Group, including Jacob Rees-Mogg, is willing to take if (and it’s a very big if) meaningful change can be agreed to the Northern Ireland backstop.
At any rate, No Deal cannot be “taken off the table”. As it was put recently, No Deal is the table – in other words, it’s a form of Brexit. If MPs want to stop No Deal, they must take away the table they asked for – Brexit – and put another one its place: No Brexit. They’re entitled to make the attempt, though such a move would dynamite what’s left of Theresa May’s negotiating strategy,and spit in the face of the verdict of the British people. But can they please come clean about it?