The “meaningful vote” on the Government’s Brexit deal due tomorrow, promised by the Theresa May on February 26 and confirmed by Andrea Leadsom last Thursday, may not now take place at all. The Prime Minister could pull it, and substitute a motion which sets out a Brexit policy that the Commons will support.
A problem with such an approach is that it has been tried recently, and nothing came of it. The Government whipped Conservative MPs in favour of the Brady amendment at the end of January. That amendment went hand in hand with the Malthouse compromise. MPs involved in drawing up the latter complain that May didn’t take either seriously, and has pushed neither as hard at Brussels as her backing for Brady suggested she would.
In her column for this site a fortnight ago, Nicky Morgan wrote that “officials tried to make the tyres fall off [Malthouse], and couldn’t do so”. She was referring to the so-called “alternative arrangements” to the backstop, which include technological solutions to the Northern Ireland border question. One source close to the talks told ConservativeHome yesterday that these are now nailed down. If the EU still dismisses these as a unicorn, why is Barnier riding the same animal himself?
But whether the Government does or doesn’t pull the meaningful vote, it is worth thinking back to that Brady amendment. In whipping for it, the Prime Minister conceded that her deal, as it stands, requires radical change to the backstop. But as matters stand, no such alteration has been made. The deal that she is due to present to the Commons tomorrow is the same deal which the Commons rejected by a record margin in January, and against which Conservative MPs recorded a record rebellion.
So as someone or other once put it, nothing has changed. The legal advice of Geoffrey Cox, whose own reading of the Withdrawal Agreement is at odds with May’s, is the same as it was – that Britain, if it enters the backstop, will have no automatic right to leave it. This would have two main effects. First, England, Scotland and Wales would stay in the Customs Union informally, as it were: they would be members of a customs union. Second, Northern Ireland would remain in it formally, as a member of the Customs Union.
This would set up an economic, political and constitutional conflict between one part of the United Kingdom and the other three – between Euroscepticism and Unionism, if you like. England, Scotland and Wales would ultimately be able to leave their customs union and, under the terms of the Prime Minister’s deal, would have left the Single Market. Northern Ireland would remain in both the Customs Union and the Single Market to all practical effect.
So if the rest of the UK wanted to leave its customs union and diverge further from the EU regulation, it could – but Northern Ireland could not The regulatory and customs barriers between the two might be minor, but the constitutional implications of this arrangement would be profound. Think for a moment of the consequences for “our precious Union”. Why should Northern Ireland stay in the Single Market, Nicola Sturgeon would say, but not Scotland? The SNP would have a chance of reviving its flagging campaign to break up the UK.
The site is opposed to the Prime Minister’s deal because of the backstop only. The former has pluses as well as minuses. In our view, May has won on money and migration – taking back control of both – and fought the EU to a standstill on laws. As we put it, the deal almost works. But the backstop is a threat to the unity of the country. The EU’s last concession highlighted the problem. It offered to drop the customs union arrangement for the rest of the UK, but not Customs Union membership for Northern Ireland.
Our sense is that most Conservative MPs who voted against the deal are in much the same place as we are. This morning, they will be asking why the Prime Minister is due to bring it back to the Commons when, by supporting the Brady amendment, she has indicated that the deal is unacceptable to the House as it stands. But many of them are thinking now not so much about principle as practice – about consequences, rather than ideals.
If they vote against the deal again, the argument runs, they will ultimately get no Brexit – or Brexit in a softer form, at any rate. The Commons will vote for extension in the event of the deal going down tomorrow. If, during extension, the Government still cannot reach a deal with the EU, May will give it the opportunity to vote for a further extension, and will do so again. And again and again and again until there is a Second Referendum or Norway Plus – now rebranded as Common Market 2.0.
May’s chicken game has failed so far with the EU. It has made no significant concession on the backstop to date. But it could just succeed with her own MPs. They might conclude that Amber Rudd and company are more effective than, say, David Davis and company: that Leavers who disagree with Government policy honourably resign, while Remainers who do so unscrupulously don’t – and that the Prime Minister will always give way to the latter, as she did by announcing those potential No Deal and extension votes.
None the less, “taking No Deal off the table” is not now inevitable – however the Commons votes on Wednesday (if it votes at all). There is no guarantee that the EU will offer extension on terms that the Commons will necessarily accept. Neither the Conservatives nor Labour want to face a new protest party in June’s EU elections. And the local elections could be sticky for both parties. But the EU may well take the view that a short extension, designed to avoid an EU poll here, offers no prospect of a deal that the Commons would swallow.
Nor is it the case that the Government would necessarily fall apart in the event of No Deal. Yes, it might not survive a deliberate policy decision to go for that outcome. But that isn’t how No Deal would happen. Rather, that is now the default option, a repercussion of the EU Withdrawal Act carried by the votes of Rudd and friends, among others. They might well quit were the Prime Minister to announce that the Government is aiming for No Deal. But will they really give up their jobs, salaries and cars if Britain falls into it by accident?
It could just be that May will dash to Brussels today, and that some meaningful backstop concession may emerge. But whether it does or not, the chicken game will continue – with the Commons offered the dazzling prospect of higher spending and tax cuts by Philip Hammond later this week (though only if it votes for the deal). Tory MPs will be urged to ditch those dreamy ideals and focus on hard, real consequences. So for a few moments let’s all do exactly that.
Downing Street suggests that a consequence of the deal being passed as it stands is that the Government would then be able to move on – to deal with childcare, housing, jobs, the NHS and other issues close to the heart of so many voters. But the effect of the deal going through would be the very opposite. For trade talks would wake issues from their uneasy sleep that voters thought had been put to bed: fishing, market access, bits of Chequers, migration numbers and, yes, the backstop. Brexit would roll on in its all-consuming way.
So another consequence would be not a feelgood factor, but a feelbad one. This would underpin a story then spun by people far to the right of Nigel Farage: that the people voted for Brexit, and the politicians gave them two fingers. It might be unfair, at least in part, but it would carry. Amidst our post-crash, Trumpian, fake news age, this message would find many willing ears, not all of whom voted Leave in 2016 – or voted at all. Are MPs really willing to take the chance that it wouldn’t?
Faced by a choice between two evils, the conventional response is to take the least bad. But there is another way to think about such decisions, both a radical and (we believe in this case) a Conservative one. It is to refuse to make such a forced choice at all. If pro-Remain MPs are prepared to defy the result of the biggest vote in the country’s history, let them take responsibility for it. If they are willing to smother the Brexit baby, pro-Leave ones should not be implicated in the act.
To vary some words once said by Keith Joseph, Brexit is not enough. It must walk hand in and with trust. If tomorrow’s vote takes place, it won’t primarily be about Theresa May’s future, much as some seem to think otherwise. At its core will be the issue of trust in politics. This will shrink further if the Commons passes a deal that the Government itself has indicated now needs a sweeping overhaul.