My wife asked me this morning where I thought that we were heading with the Brexit process. I have tried to collect my thoughts in this short article. At the speed at which things are moving, it probably has a shelf-life of only 24 hours!
Are we moving into a Brexit end-game in which parliament will have the last word?
The big change since the New Year has been the growth in confidence within Westminster that it can and must take control of the Brexit process. This is a natural reaction by MPs to May’s clumsy pre-Christmas move to jam the breaks on a meaningful vote on her plan for withdrawal from the EU.
Also new is the knowledge, based on an ECJ ruling, that Britain can unilaterally signal its intent to remain in the EU under existing terms.
The crushing defeat of May’s withdrawal plan in mid-January showed that a cross party majority could be achieved when different factions in each of the main parties combined forces in spite of their contrasting goals.
The narrow defeat of the confidence motion against May showed her how much she owed to party loyalty and the deal with the DUP for her survival. But it also put her more in debt to her Brexiteers.
The next move is for May to seek parliamentary approval for her Plan B. As it will only be a rehash of her Plan A, with no changes in its substance, it seems certain to be defeated.
Corbyn’s plan also seems bound to be thrown out, whatever its merits, if only because most Tories want to keep Corbyn out of 10 Downing Street.
This suggests that, though alternative Brexit models may be proposed, none is likely to command a parliamentary majority and that, if it does, will be unacceptable to the EU.
If a suitable amendment is proposed and parliament votes in support of a motion to avoid a “no deal” situation, there is a high chance that this could be passed.
The recent indication that it is unlikely that MPs would endorse a proposal for a second referendum is hardly surprising because to do otherwise would be to admit their own inability to take decisions that lie within their power. It is helpful, at least for now, because it narrows down the realistic options to “no deal”, a deeply revised deal, or stay put.
This implies that, for now, the People’s Vote campaign should immediately throw its full weight into campaigning for MPs to outlaw “no deal”.
Barnier has said that ruling out “no deal” will not prevent an UK exit from the EU on 29th March, unless either a credible plan is put forward or the government revokes Article 50. It is unlikely that all 27 member countries would endorse a British request to extend the Article 50 period.
If the “no deal” option is excluded by parliament, then MPs will be up against the wall, faced with the stark binary choice between voting either for a new softened Brexit deal, rapidly put together by a cross party team, or to “stay”.
If MPs fail to deliver on preventing a “no deal” exit, then the People’s Vote campaign should renew its appeal for a second referendum.
The main argument that could defeat a soft Brexit proposal in parliament is that, while it may give us many of the benefits of EU membership it leaves us with no voice in making decisions that will have profound impacts on all aspects of our lives. Moreover, it is most doubtful that it would be approved by the EU.
The honest way out is to accept that we don’t know what we really want in terms of a new relationship with the EU and hence that we should “stay”.