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Mrs May’s Chamberlain moment

This morning, Theresa May was reported to be talking up as a breakthrough the concessions she has obtained from the EU on the Irish backstop, saying MPs should therefore vote tonight for her Brexit withdrawal deal. At time of writing, she is expected shortly to address parliament.

The UK’s requirement was that it should never find itself bound by the backstop with no means of escape unless the EU gives it permission – which by definition, in the event of a breakdown in the future negotiations over the UK/EU relationship, it would not do.

It seems to me the concessions aren’t worth the paper they’re written on. And now the Attorney-General, Geoffrey Cox, has said that while there’s now a lower risk that the UK could be “ indefinitely and involuntarily detained” in the backstop if talks on the future relationship broke down due to “bad faith” by the EU, “the legal risk remains unchanged that if through no such demonstrable failure of either party, but simply because of intractable differences, that situation does arise, the United Kingdom would have, at least while the fundamental circumstances remained the same, no internationally lawful means of exiting the Protocol’s arrangements, save by agreement” (my emphasis).

The Attorney has now almost certainly killed Mrs May’s deal, and quite right too. The UK wanted a legally binding escape clause. It hasn’t got it.

What the EU has offered instead, and Mrs May has accepted, is an undertaking that, in the event of the EU failing to negotiate a new free-trade deal in good faith, there will merely be an “arbitration” by an “independent panel” (who, what?) – after which the UK could be allowed “proportionately” to suspend its obligations under the backstop (my emphasis).

The UK wanted a declaration that it could unilaterally decide to leave the backstop. The unilateral declaration it has actually secured is instead an insulting travesty. It notes first that

“The preamble to the Protocol further recalls that the Withdrawal Agreement, which is based on Article 50 TEU, does not aim at establishing a permanent future relationship between the Union and the United Kingdom”

and then states:

“The United Kingdom wishes to record its understanding of the effect of this provision if, contrary to the intentions of the parties, it is not possible for them to conclude an agreement which supersedes the Protocol in whole or in part due to a breach of Article 5 of the Withdrawal Agreement by the Union. The United Kingdom would not consider its application to be temporary in these circumstances, as in its view the Protocol would then constitute a permanent relationship between the Union and the United Kingdom. Article 1(4) makes clear this is not the Parties’ intention. If under these circumstances it proves not to be possible to negotiate a subsequent agreement as envisaged in Article 2 of the Protocol, the United Kingdom records its understanding that nothing in the Withdrawal Agreement would prevent it from instigating measures that could ultimately lead to disapplication of obligations under the Protocol, in accordance with Part Six, Title III of the Withdrawal Agreement or Article 20 of the Protocol, and under the proviso that the UK will uphold its obligations under the 1998 Agreement in all its dimensions and under all circumstances and to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.”

Translation: Britain has asserted unilaterally that it understands that nothing could stop it from asking to leave the backstop.

That’s it? That’s it. This is not a concession. This is a farce.

Wags have referred contemptuously to Mrs May’s declaration of “Brexit in our time”. If she does talk up this pathetic non-concession as a Brexit deal for which MPs should vote, it will indeed be her Neville Chamberlain moment.

So which way will MPs jump tonight? Will they vote for this utterly appalling deal – which would in any event stay appalling even if the backstop threat was removed, which patently it has not been?

As ever in this saga, absolutely anything could happen. What is clear, though, is that a number of MPs, including some lily-livered Brexiteers, are so spooked by the legal default of leaving with no deal that they are reportedly thinking of voting for the deal they have denounced for threatening to render the UK even worse off than if it remained in the EU. And — get this — they say they’re so worried Brexit won’t actually happen (as a result of Remainer-wrecker tactics) that they will now vote for Mrs May’s deal — under which Brexit will not actually happen. Duh! Elementary thinking skills are clearly not these MPs’ forte.

If Mrs May’s deal is voted down tonight, the wreckers of Remain are indeed poised to force a further vote to bar leaving with no-deal – thus repudiating the very act of parliament they themselves put onto the statute book committing the UK to leave on March 29 regardless of whether the terms of departure have been agreed.

So let’s look at the no-deal option which so terrifies them that they intend to spit in the face of the voters and trash democracy. Let’s agree that no-deal isn’t a perfect option and that some problems will inevitably arise from it. However, despite the hitherto apocalyptic warnings about the dire consequences for the UK of leaving with no deal, there have been significant admissions over recent days to suggest that these terrifying scenarios have been grossly overstated.

The Bank of England has now halved its forecast cost of no deal from what it predicted three months ago. Having previously warned that the economic skies would fall in, the Bank’s governor, Mark Carney, now says the country’s borders and banks are increasingly well prepared for no deal, softening the blow to growth and avoiding the worst of the potential chaos if no transition is agreed.

“The Bank of England has agreed to let EU institutions continue operating in the UK, ensuring British families and firms will not lose access to funds and products from firms based over the Channel. On top of that HM Revenue and Customs plans to wave through more imports from EU nations after Brexit without imposing the full checks normally applied to goods from outside the EU, easing potential turmoil… “There has been progress in preparedness which reduces the level of the economic shock.”

Top German economists have concluded that leaving with no deal would actually give the UK an economic boost:

“Embracing free trade would limit the damage caused by a “no deal” Brexit, give a bounty of cheaper imports to consumers and strengthen Britain’s hand in EU negotiations, according to top German economists.

“Slashing all import tariffs after Brexit would cut costs for households and businesses, giving the economy a boost, the Ifo Institute said in a new report, calling this model a ‘hard but smart’ Brexit. At the same time it would rebalance the power around the negotiating table, which is currently based on a “no deal” Brexit harming the UK because it would involve Britain imposing WTO taxes on its own consumers.

“The EU has used this imbalance to its advantage. However, Britain is free to scrap these taxes across the board, freeing itself from this damaging trap, the Ifo said. ‘In the case of a hard Brexit, would the UK really apply the high EU external tariffs and carry out elaborate physical checks at the borders? Most studies on the economic effects of Brexit go away and come to the conclusion that hard Brexit is much more expensive for the UK than for the EU,’ said the report”.

You don’t say.

In Frankfurt and Paris, the flood of banking jobs predicted to arrive after Brexit is, for now, little more than a trickle, says Reuters. An analysis of job postings on eight of the world’s major investment bank websites show a modest push to recruit staff in other European cities but little to suggest London is set for a rapid demise as the region’s top banking hub.

Even the uber-Remainers at the Financial Times have concluded after an inquiry that “the analysis indicates that predictions of chaos are likely to prove an exaggeration”.

Meanwhile, remember those dire forecasts of lorry paralysis across the Channel caused by the sudden imposition of no-deal border controls? Well guess what – French Customs has designed “an innovative technological solution – the ‘smart border’”. It says:

“In the frame of the re-establishment of the border between the United Kingdom and the European Union, French Customs has developed an information system allowing businesses to automate the border crossing by HGV. This innovative solution will be applicable at all points of entry/exit to/from Calais region and more broadly of Channel-North Sea. It is based on 3 principles :

  • The early completion of customs procedures before arriving at the border by giving the bar code of the customs declaration to the driver.
  • The identification of the mean of transport and the bar code of customs declaration of transported goods.
  • The automatic sending of the crossing notifications to the customs declarant to avoid stopping the HGV”.

Hang on: weren’t we all told the Irish border issue was insoluble because the idea of a smart technological border was impossible? If there can be a smart technological border at Calais, why can’t there be one at the Irish border? And if there can be a smart technological Irish border, then what in heaven’s name was the Irish backstop issue all about?

You may well ask.

Will MPs finally have the courage and integrity to see things clearly? Will sanity finally emerge from this chaos? I really am holding my breath.

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