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People's Vote 5 December 2018 | 13:47

Brexit Deal-Watch 10: Everything has changed

05 December 2018 13:47

‘I think there is a real danger that the House of Commons, which has a natural remain majority may attempt to steal Brexit from the British people which I think would be a democratic affront.’ So said Liam Fox, the International Trade Secretary, at a Commons select committee hearing this morning.

Steal, Dr Fox? Were the stakes not so high, there would be something comic about a leading Brexiteer – notionally, a fierce defender of parliamentary sovereignty against the wicked Brussels tyranny – accusing MPs of constitutional theft. But, in the circumstances, it is no laughing matter: merely the latest evidence of the crass populism that has infected British politics since the 2016 EU referendum campaign.

The supposedly-thieving House of Commons is busily debating Theresa May’s deal with Brussels in preparation for its ‘meaningful vote’ on Tuesday. The working assumption on all sides is that MPs will reject the 585-page agreement – which means that everyone in Westminster is peering beyond December 11 and trying desperately to work out how this multi-dimensional game of chess might resolve itself (or not):

 

  1. Parliament is in the driving seat: Not thanks to theft, but a perfectly legitimate motion proposed by Dominic Grieve, the former Tory Attorney General, that has given MPs the right to amend any new plans that the PM comes up with (assuming the existing deal fails). This is a huge development: it means that anything is possible. If the Commons rejects the agreement with Brussels on December 11, the PM has 21 days to come up with a new plan. MPs will now be able to amend this new blueprint – whatever it is – to their hearts’ content. The ‘Norway’ option (membership of the European Economic Area and the European Free Trade Association); the People’s Vote; a Citizen’s Assembly; a Canada-style free trade deal; and any other permutation that creative parliamentarians can dream up. Whether any of these could conceivably command a Commons majority is another matter. But the debate has now shifted definitively from May’s preferred framing – take-it-or-leave-it, deal or no deal – to what amounts to a constitutional open mic.
  2. No wonder the Government wanted its full legal advice kept confidential: having been forced to release the comprehensive document after yesterday’s unprecedented parliamentary motion holding the Government in contempt, the Attorney General, Geoffrey Cox, is now in a desperately precarious position. In furious thespian mode, Cox had insisted that he could not disclose the full text because to do so would jeopardise the national interest. But what that text reveals is something quite different: that Cox was concealing his advice to ministers that the proposed ‘backstop’ – the proposal whereby the UK will stay in the EU Customs Union till the Irish border issue is resolved – ‘would endure indefinitely until a superseding agreement’ and that the existing deal does not provide the ‘legal means of compelling’ Brussels to terminate such an arrangement. In other words: while reassuring Brexiteers about the backstop – the aspect of the deal they disliked most – May’s team has known full well that the UK would indeed be powerless to leave this constitutional and commercial limbo.
  3. What about Labour? Understandably, Jeremy Corbyn’s party is having a wonderful time at the Government’s expense. But the Labour leader is still behaving like socialist Santa when it comes to his own plans for Brexit. We are asked to believe that his supposedly epic charm and track record in foreign policy would deliver an unrecognisably-better deal were he in Number Ten. But since Labour cannot even make its mind up whether it would end freedom of movement – that is to say, EU immigration – it is hard to take such magical thinking seriously.
  4. So is the PM safe? Not even slightly. The next ten days may well be the most tumultuous in British politics since the fall of Margaret Thatcher in November 1990.

PS Here’s my Evening Standard column on the sensational developments of the past 24 hours.

Featured image credit: Wilson Hui via Flickr