There’s been much sound and fury over the latest twist in the tortuous and unbearable cliff-hanger, Stuffing the British People over Brexit, and no wonder.
Theresa May yesterday performed a volte face by agreeing that, in the event of Parliament voting against her “renegotiated” withdrawal deal that she will put to the Commons by March 12, MPs will then be able to vote on whether they agree to the UK leaving with no deal and that this will not happen without their consent. If the Commons duly votes against no-deal, it will then be able to vote to delay Brexit by a “short, limited extension”.
This U-turn was performed under pressure from three Remainer Cabinet ministers who threatened to resign unless Mrs May ruled out no-deal, with the threat of other ministerial resignations to follow. This was also the substance of a Commons Remainer manoeuvre to rule out no-deal being cooked up by Labour MP Yvette Cooper and Tory MP Nick Boles – a ploy masterminded by Sir Oliver Letwin, the Tory grandee who will always be remembered for cheering up the nation by allowing into his house before dawn a thief who asked to use the lavatory and then promptly made off with Letwin’s credit cards and other valuables.
Mrs May’s U-turn directly repudiates the promise she has given many times that the UK will leave the EU on March 29.
It means she has agreed that MPs can ignore the Act that they themselves put onto the statute book that states as a matter of law that the UK will leave on March 29, which will happen regardless of whether or not a deal with the EU has been agreed. People are rightly railing against the economic damage that will be done to the UK by the further uncertainty produced by any such delay, not to mention the betrayal of democracy that this involves (and the upending of Parliament’s own constitutional procedures in permitting certain such Remainer moves for which the Speaker of the Commons, John Bercow, is being blamed).
There are many different ways to interpret the implications of all this, and none of us can predict what will happen over the following 24 hours let alone by March 29; but here’s my take on how things stand.
There are three things that should be understood from the start. The first is this.
Mrs May, herself a tepid Remainer during the referendum campaign, understands and accepts that she has a moral duty to take the UK out of the EU in order to keep faith with the referendum result, her own party’s general election manifesto and the decision made by Parliament to leave the EU on March 29.
She also understands the political necessity of doing so, since the conservatives who voted Leave will never forgive the Conservative party if Mrs May betrays democracy by kicking them in the teeth; the party itself may break apart under the resulting strain.
The second thing is that Mrs May genuinely believes that the withdrawal deal she negotiated with the EU does indeed deliver Brexit.
The third thing is that it does not. Whatever Mrs May has told herself, her deal is Brexit-in-name-only or Remain-by-stealth. It will keep Britain under EU control, but this time with no say or influence over it whatsoever, for at least two years after Britain has left. You can read details of the concerns about her deal here, here, here, here and here.
Given all that, Mrs May is said to be deeply unhappy about making this U-turn. No wonder. It totally destroys her strategy, the single-minded aim of which is to get Parliament to accept her withdrawal deal.
It totally undermines her negotiating strategy with the EU, since it destroys her ability to get it to agree to any meaningful compromises. These were never going to amount to more than cosmetic changes anyway. But now, as anyone can see, the EU has zero incentive to compromise since it will conclude that, if Parliament votes down the deal, MPs will be able to kick the whole Brexit issue into the long grass.
And it totally destroys Mrs May’s plan to bounce MPs into agreeing to her deal on the basis that the only alternative is the dreaded no-deal (the disadvantages of which, although real, have been hugely exaggerated). As a result, she now fears her deal is a dead duck. She is almost certainly right.
So let’s think this through a bit. Let’s assume MPs do indeed vote against Mrs May’s deal. They will then be able to vote on ruling out leaving with no deal on March 29. Let’s assume they vote against leaving with no deal on March 29, and then vote to delay Brexit by some unspecified amount of time.
What then follows (assuming, of course that the EU agrees to such a delay, which is itself by no means certain)? For this delay would change nothing. Some MPs talk of using it to produce a compromise Brexit on which Parliament can agree, but no such compromise is possible. As I wrote here, all proposed “compromises” are in fact forms of Remain.
The EU would have no reason to offer any compromises. Mrs May’s deal would remain unchanged. No-deal would still be the default option. At the end of this hiatus, MPs would face exactly the same choice that they are facing now.
Meanwhile, over in the Labour party Jeremy Corbyn has agreed to support a second referendum. This has produced fury in his own ranks, of course, where many MPs are all too aware that Labour Brexit voters will regard this with fury as a cynical ploy to reverse their democratic referendum decision. Such voters understand very well the shallow and meretricious nature of the Remainer claim that it can’t be undemocratic to give people another say on Brexit. They understand that the principle behind a second referendum is to get the people to vote again and again until they return the “correct” decision to Remain.
After all, what what would be the question in a second referendum? Another straight choice between Remain and Leave? Leaving on WTO terms or Mrs May’s withdrawal terms – regardless of the fact that much may change and the actual terms of the UK’s departure cannot be foretold? The potential from such conundrums for skewing the result is why the only valid referendum question can be one of fundamental constitutional principle, Remain or Leave – on which the British people have already given their answer.
And just look at what Labour’s shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry says – that no-deal wouldn’t be an option at all in a second referendum, where the choice would be between Mrs May’s deal and Remain. In other words, the choice Labour would offer would be rigged between Remain-by-stealth and Remain.
Wow. Just watch that Labour party vote now disintegrate.
The main point is that this Remainer-dominated Parliament is absolutely determined to stop Britain leaving the EU. As things stand, leaving with no deal is the only way it can do so. Parliament intends to stop that – thus spitting in the eye of democracy and the British people.
Remainer MPs are too blinkered to see it, but the fury this is producing among the public is boiling over. It’s Parliament versus the people; and this will have lasting consequences not just for Britain’s current party structure but for what’s left of faith in the government by the governed, and for democracy itself.