Conservative MPs have been here recently, though not over Brexit trade negotiations.  On Coronavirus restrictions and regulations, Labour has either voted with the Governent or abstained.  Consequently, these have passed through Parliament.

On the agreement that Boris Johnson will announce this morning (barring a last-minute talks collapse over mackerel, herring and other pelagic fish), Labour is set either to abstain or vote with the Government.  So the deal will pass through Parliament too.

Those Tory backbenchers should want to support the Prime Minister, without whom many of them would not be in the Commons at all.  And they will recognise that, in gaining an agreement, Johnson has confounded the critics who first argued that he preferred No Deal to a Withdrawal Agreement, and were proved wrong, and then maintained that he preferred No Deal to a trade agreement, and have been proved wrong yet again.  We will have more to say about that later today.

Nonetheless, that the deal will surely pass through Parliament gives them a certain freedom of manouevre.  Before it is recalled, they will hear bewilderingly different claims about it.

Nigel Farage will say that the EU has won.*  So, we can reasonably presume, will the likes of Dominic Grieve.  Committed No Dealers and dedicated former Remainers will unite in a veritable Ribbentrop-Molotov pact to scrag a Prime Minister they hate – a loathing intensified by him having beaten them before, as he is now beating them again.  We will have Johnson as Chamberlain.

On the record, Johnson himself will suggest today that Britain has won and, off the record, Downing Street will afterwards crank up the rhetoric to that effect.  We will all read that the Prime Minister has “played a blinder”, “hit Macron for six” and “shot the ERG’s fox”.  We will have the Prime Minister as Churchill.

All we can add to both takes is, as Mandy Rice-Davies almost put it: “they would say that, wouldn’t they?”  Does anyone mind us pointing out that few of these fans and foes will actually read what we are told is some two thousand pages of text – chapters, protocols, appendices, the lot?  And none will have done so this morning.

The ERG is to re-form its “star chamber” of “wise men” to read the Treaty, and it is right to say that the text should be released as soon as possible.

But with all due respect to Martin Howe and his merry men, what it contains is not the only important consideration here – or even the main one.  The site understands that Parliament may have three days in which to consider the Bill that will propose the enactment of the Treaty.  We repeat, Parliament – not the Commons.  That’s three days for Commons, Lords and Royal Assent together, presumably beginning on December 29th and ending on December 31st.

We are well aware that many MPs, taking their cue from Ken Clarke’s artless admission that he never read the Maastricht Treaty, won’t read this one either, and simply follow the crowd instead.

Solidarity with the Government one was elected to support is a good thing, but actually reading what one’s voting on is an even better one (especially on a matter of this importance).

As we write, we can’t see that four days to read the treaty – plus the learned commentary of the ERG and that of many others – and less than three days to consider it is adequate.  Especially when Commons’ proceedings will presumably be cramped further by London now being in Tier Four.  And with the EU institutions and member states operating to a more leisurely timetable.

We don’t believe for a moment that the Government or the EU, either separately or together, have worked to bounce Parliament over the treaty.  Rather, last minute-ism is in the nature of EU negotiations. Nonetheless, both nearly ran out of time for an agreement, and have already run out of time for consideration – properly done, anyway.

Maybe our understanding of the timetable is wrong.  And we can’t blame Tory MPs for itching to be off to drinking in the New Year and drinking to the Prime Minister – for getting Brexit Done, and in spades.  But as matters stand, they will have no basis for voting on a Bill at all, because they will scarcely have had time to have read it, let alone properly to consider it.

  • 10.30am Update: Molotov – or is it Ribbentrop? – isn’t joining up.  Farage has tweeted that “the war is over”, and is set not to oppose the deal.  UKIP will have to provide instead.
  • 5.15pm Update: Two day’s debate only for the Bill to clear both houses of Parliament and then gain Royal Assent as the Speaker encourages MPs to stay away: over 75 per cent of them have a proxy vote.