The phrase is John Kerr’s – or, to use his title, Baron Kerr of Kinlochard’s. Lord Kerr is a former Ambassador to the EU, as is the way of these things. He is also by his own account the author of Article 50 of the Treaty of European Union.
Kerr is so fond of the image that he used it twice, almost a year ago, during a debate in the Upper House. “We will huff and puff but, in the end, we will basically come to heel,” he said. He has been proved right about money (he said that the Government would agree to pay up) but wrong about a bespoke deal (which Theresa May has achieved, like it or not). He later applied the phrase to the prospect of No Deal, claiming that the Government will “come to heel in the end, probably quite quickly”, in order to avoid it. We will discover this year whether, on this third count, he is correct.
Implicit in his last claim was the assumption of a Withdrawal Agreement that is roughly the shape of the present one. It is imaginable that the EU will eventually offer a significant concession on the backstop rather than face the consequences of No Deal, which would impact both sides of the negotiation severely. But time is running out, and we doubt it.
If such a change is not forthcoming, the Commons may eventually swallow May’s deal none the less. However, it didn’t have enough support to pass last month – the Government didn’t dare even to put it to a vote – and there is no sign that anything much has changed since. So if MPs vote it down instead, the likelihood is that MPs will have to choose between No Deal, No Brexit or a compromise option such as Norway Plus. The spirit of Kerr’s remark animates the campaign for a second referendum, which has been striving to kill off Norway Plus first, before turning its attention to No Deal.
The stage is therefore set for a confrontation between perhaps five-sixths of the Commons, most of which was against Brexit and much of which abhors No Deal and…who exactly? Vote Leave wound itself up after the EU referendum. The Government is weak and under-prepared for No Deal – deliberately so, overall. The ERG and its allies are a minority.
Each New Year invites the claim that it will be different – even decisive, in a way that its predecessors were not. In one sense, this is unlikely to be true about 2019. Brexit may happen, and Britain none the less find itself back in the EU within ten years. Or it may not…and the long-anticipated Italian banking crisis take place later this year, leading to the reworking of the Union as we know it, with the UK in some new outer tier. There is no way of anticipating these known unknowns, let alone the unknown unknowns. Britain’s history of engagement with the European project stretches back over 50 years and may reach forward for another 50 – or more.
None the less, we must be ready for a face-off between the default setting, No Deal; the hostility of most MPs to it…and the ticking away of the clock. What may well prove decisive is Parliamentary procedure, and the precise means required to delay or obviate Brexit. (A second referendum would require an extension of Article 50, plus a Bill.)
We close our opening to 2019 by reflecting on Kerr’s favourite phrase. Into those mere three words is packed a universe of assumptions: about the supposed inevitability of Britain remaining in the EU – despite the British people deciding otherwise, in the biggest popular vote in our history; about the relationship between rulers and ruled; about the omniscience of an ascendancy class that crosses national boundaries, and so can’t be held accountable at all. Coming to heel means knowing your place. The implications for even a country as historically stable as Britain are baleful.
Kerr has whistled, clicked his fingers, and now expects us the rest of us to fall into line behind the class of which he is a member, conceding our place in the natural order of things. If we do so, we cannot simply blame the absence of Vote Leave, the ascendancy’s sense of ownership and entitlement, or even the Government’s failings (not to mention those of Jeremy Corbyn).
Ultimately, it’s up to those who believe that the referendum pledge must be honoured to ensure that it is, by every democratic means available. The mass of voters which is so minded includes many who voted Remain in 2016 as well as most of those who voted Leave. Are we lapdog, bulldog – or something else entirely? This year, we will find out.