Why Martin Howe’s advice should be rejected

Another week, another final-endgame-crunch-crisis-make-or-break-nailbiting-cliff-edge Brexit moment for Britain’s prime minister Theresa May.

I fear more such moments are yet to come.

As throughout this never-ending crisis, no-one knows what will happen by the end of the day let alone by March 29 when the UK is due to leave the EU regardless of whether or not the terms of its departure have been agreed with Brussels.

What we can see is that even some of the so-called “hard” Brexiteers are having a distinct wobble. They seem to have been spooked by the threats from Remainer MPs, who are in the majority the Commons, that if Mrs May’s withdrawal deal is voted down next week Parliament will, as The Times reports (£) this morning, “wrest control” of the Brexit process from her. In other words, kill it stone dead.

Some Brexiteers apparently believe that, if Mrs May’s deal is voted down and MPs then vote for Brexit to be delayed, they can live with that because ultimately Brexit will still happen even after such a delay.

This view is based in large measure on this analysis by Martin Howe QC. As he has been doing throughout this saga, he once again makes many very sound points. However, his insouciance towards a delay is surely misplaced.

He writes: “A long extension of 21 months would have the same practical result as the ‘implementation’ period in the deal, except the UK would be much better off than under the deal because we would still have a vote and representation in EU institutions and the European Parliament”.

While he is right to say that a delayed exit would be far preferable to the implementation period in Mrs May’s deal, he is wrong to say that it is therefore acceptable. It is not. Here’s why.

First, it would open the possibility for 21 months of yet more wrecking manoeuvres by Remainers who will bend every sinew, as they’re doing now, to stop Brexit.

Second, it would put the UK in a weakened negotiating position. Howe writes that during such a delay: “We would be able to negotiate for a trade deal with the EU with a strong hand”. No. The precise opposite would be the case. Having been seen to have played desperately for time because of the opposition to Brexit by a Remainer Parliament, the UK would be viewed as weak and paralysed and – even more than it has shown itself to be so far – an easy pushover in any trade deal.

Third, and more fundamentally, a 21 month delay would mean the UK would remain for another 21 months as part of the EU. Howe writes: “… at least we would still have political influence and representation on the Commission”. Once again, this is absurdly naive. Does anyone really believe that a weak and paralysed UK (see above) would have any influence on the Commission in such circumstances?

Howe is absolutely correct to say that Mrs May’s deal is terrible and must be voted down. Even if the Irish backstop issue is resolved (unlikely, but possible) the deal would remain a real stinker. That’s not just because during the transition period the UK would remain bound by EU rules and ECJ rulings. Much more important than the withdrawal deal is the long term relationship the UK will still have to agree with the EU. And Mrs May’s deal seems to commit the UK, in such a future arrangement, to remaining trapped in some kind of customs union.

Like many others, some Brexiteers have also been badly spooked by the apocalyptic warnings of the consequences of leaving without a withdrawal deal. While there would inevitably be some problems and disruption, these have surely been hugely exaggerated. As Allister Heath writes in the Telegraph:

“As matters stand, a so-called no-deal (in reality, we’ve already agreed lots of mini-deals) would be our least bad option. It wouldn’t be pretty, especially for one or two industries, but would probably cost just 1-2 per cent of GDP.

Ifo, the German think tank, is even more optimistic: it believes the cost of a no-deal accompanied by radical tariff cuts would be only 0.48 per cent of GDP. Indeed, the Government’s reported plan to eliminate 80-90 cent of tariffs, maintaining protection in only a handful of sectors, would dramatically reduce the net costs of departure.

…Even the Bank of England believes the side-agreements it has signed and other preparations have halved the cost of no deal compared to three months ago (and that is before tariff cuts and other, as yet unannounced, palliative measures). The downsides of a clean Brexit have been massively exaggerated, as have the benefits of single market and customs union membership.”

As Conservative MPs decide how to proceed, this above all else is what they need to realise. The British people voted to leave the EU. They didn’t vote for or against any terms for leaving, nor did they vote for or against no deal. They voted simply to Leave.

If that doesn’t happen, if MPs dump their manifesto commitment to make it happen, if the Commons repudiates the act of parliament it passed under which the UK is to leave the EU on March 29, if Brexit is somehow kicked into the long grass, the political backlash will be so great that the Conservative party may well split asunder and be destroyed as a political force.

The only way to avoid that catastrophic fall-out is for the UK to leave on March 29 with no deal.

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