Whatever happens next, this is history

Drugstore Culture

Drugstore Culture on the Brexit deal and the enduring need for a People’s Vote

14 November 2018 10:19

The British deal between the Government and Brussels that many thought would never be struck is now being studied by Cabinet ministers. In its many hundreds of pages of deceptively dry technicality may be found nothing less than the destiny of this country. Every aspect of our institutional, commercial and cultural future will be affected by its contents, if they are implemented.

It is not often that DRUGSTORE CULTURE endorses the remarks of the hard Brexiteer MP, Mark Francois, deputy chairman of the European Research Group. But he was quite right on Tuesday to declare that ‘what members of the Cabinet do over the next 24 hours is the most important thing that they do in their lives.’ For the most senior custodians of the public trust, the stakes are indeed – or should be – this high.

Which is why the Prime Minister has been so assiduously canvassing her colleagues, urging them to accept what is on the table rather than to court chaos by rejecting it. Sajid Javid, the Home Secretary, has already indicated that he will not resign.

Others have suggested, via intermediaries, that they will not do so today, but are keeping their options open as the debate unfolds. On Wednesday morning, the back-of-an-envelope calculation was that the deal would be passed by a majority of Cabinet – enough for May to take the agreement to Parliament.

It is in the crucible of the Commons that we can expect the most fiery arguments, and rightly so. On Tuesday, there was a taste of what is to come when the Government could not muster the votes to oppose a motion calling for the Attorney General’s legal advice on the deal to be published. Those who remember the role that such counsel – and the extent to which it was made public – played in the Iraq War controversy will grasp how significant this aspect of the Brexit furore is likely to become.

But the Government’s inability to muster a parliamentary majority was also structurally important. It is one thing for a prime minister to face down the Cabinet she appoints. But mastering the arithmetic of the Commons is an entirely different matter. And, as Lyndon Johnson famously said, the first thing a serious politician must learn to do is to count.

This has been Theresa May’s principal problem since she squandered the Conservatives’ Commons majority in last year’s snap election. Hoping for a landslide, she ended up dependent upon the often-grudging support of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, purchased with taxpayer’s money.

As 2018 draws to a close, Labour wants another general election and has constructed its ‘six tests’ for the Brexit deal to expedite this ambition. It seems very unlikely that the Opposition will support the Prime Minister in the Commons vote on the deal – though a handful of rebel Labour Brexiteers may choose to do so.

On the Tory side, some MPs, it is true, will be compelled by boredom, exhaustion, or (most powerfully) fear of a Jeremy Corbyn government to wave through an agreement that they know to be unsatisfactory. On Wednesday’s Today programme, the Remainer and former Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, made clear that she believed it was time to move on from Brexit to all the other issues that exercise voters. But this is a specious argument: the form that Brexit takes will affect every aspect of domestic policy, from transport to health to the creative industries. The distinction is entirely artificial.

In the absence of a constitutional rabbit plucked from the PM’s hat, this is a deal that simply cannot be passed by the House of Commons as presently constituted.

May’s greatest problem lies with the many Tory Brexiteer MPs who simply will not countenance what the deal appears to propose in order to resolve the Irish border issue: namely that the entire UK remains in the EU Customs Union until such time as that particular question is settled. A joint UK-EU committee is meant to decide when that moment has been reached.

For those who campaigned in 2016 for Britain to ‘take back control’ this is an intolerable provocation. Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg and others have already been quite explicit that they will not support such a proposal. How many will join them? On Wednesday morning, that figure was unknowable. But, even with the DUP’s 10 votes, May has a working majority of only 13.

More to the point: it is very unlikely that the DUP will lend its support to the deal. From what has already been leaked, it appears that, as long as the customs union ‘backstop’ was in place, Northern Ireland would be subject, in certain respects, to greater control from Brussels than is the case under the UK’s present membership arrangements. As well as being laughably counter-intuitive, this will not be acceptable to Arlene Foster’s party.

In the absence of a constitutional rabbit plucked from the PM’s hat, this is a deal that simply cannot be passed by the House of Commons as presently constituted. May will warn MPs that it is her way, or the high way. They must endorse the agreement – or accept that the UK will tumble out of the EU at 11pm on March 29 without a deal of any sort. And this is indeed a chilling argument.

It is also complete nonsense. The choice between May’s bad deal and no deal is one of her own political contrivance. There are many other options. The general election that Corbyn craves is one of them. So too is the defenestration of May by her own party and the installation of a new Conservative leader as prime minister – though it must be doubted that this unnamed successor would be long acceptable to the electorate, which scarcely gave the Tories a ringing endorsement last year.

The risk of a parliamentary impasse is now clear and present. Indeed, it is the most probable outcome. All of this reinforces our belief that a People’s Vote is the only honest, logical and democratically defensible way out of the mess. Those who say that such a vote has already been held are wilfully dismissive of all that has happened in the ensuing two-and-a-half years. It cannot be claimed – at least not with a straight face – that this fiasco was what anyone was voting for in 2016.

History is an over-used and much-abused word, but, one way or another, it will be made in the coming days. Our political class should recall the extent to which it has lost the public’s trust in the past few decades and look upon this moment not as a crisis but an opportunity to renew that frayed covenant. If ever there was a time for statesmanship, this is it.