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Thursday 14 March 2019

Following Tuesday’s night’s welcome defeat of the EU withdrawal deal, last night brought independence into the red as MPs voted in favour of a motion to take No Deal off the table.

Theresa May had tried to soften the motion by adding, “notes that leaving without a deal remains the default in UK and EU law”. Her feeble attempt to not upset the Brexiteers in her party trying to keep her in check was dashed by Caroline Spelman’s amendment reasserting the House of Commons’ commitment to remaining in the EU until a deal is secured. Both the motion and the amendment passed, 321-278 and  312-308 respectively, overturning the popular will in an instant.

The usual Conservatives, seventeen in all, including Spelman, voted for the amended motion. They were joined by two juniour members of government who have since resigned, Sarah Newton and Paul Masterson.

More serious however are the abstentions of senior figures in government. Cabinet ministers, Amber Rudd, David Mundell, David Gauke and Greg Clarke all abstained.

Here’s the rest: Claire Perry, Stephen Hammond, Robert Buckland, Greg Clark, David Mundell, Tobias Ellwood, David Gauke, Richard Harrington, Alistair Burt, Margot James, Anne Milton.

Shockingly, none of the abstainers have resigned. “Voting against the government is a resigning matter,” said a Downing Street spokesperson, “we will have to decide”. They probably won’t.

“The Prime Minister should have been firm weeks ago when the ministers came to her and threatened to resign,” said Brexiteer Andrea Jenkyns on ITV’s Peston.

“She should have said give us your pass, leave now.”

See Westmonster for more on the building pressure for resignations.

Next on the agenda is the more functional motion for a long extension to Article 50, the means by which No Deal will be averted. Theresa May will use that unappealing prospect to leverage support for her deal that just won’t die despite. A third meaningful vote is scheduled to come in six days’ time.

Other plans are afoot to make the deal more palatable, even though the EU has convincingly declared there won’t be any more renegotiations. Having seemingly destroyed any notion that May’s late compromises with Brussels amounted to any legal restraint on the backstop, Geoffrey Cox is set to be wheeled out to re-interpret his own interpretations. What a farce.

“Channels are open”, a DUP source tells the Guardian, for the Tories to clarify aspects of the deal that may convince them to back it. Downing Street also has the European Research Group in its sites and is looking at its leader, Jacob Rees Mogg’s interest in Article 62 of the Vienna convention. Rees-Mogg raised the article at a select committee hearing attended by the Secretary of State on Tuesday.

“If the facts clearly warranted that there had been an unforeseen and fundamental change of circumstances affecting the essential basis of the treaty on which the United Kingdom’s consent had been given,” said Stephen Barclay.

“…In those exceptional circumstances that international law provides the United Kingdom with a right to terminate the withdrawal agreement. In the unlikely event that that were to happen, the United Kingdom would no doubt offer to continue to observe the unexhausted obligations in connection, for example, with citizens’ rights.”

This clarification, delivered by the attorney general, could make the difference to the DUP, and in all likelihood, the ERG too. “If we’d had it earlier in the day it could have changed the vote,” added the source.

Almost passing under the radar yesterday, and stretching through to today’s newsfeed are government plans to unilaterally cut almost all tariffs to zero per cent.

As expected, agricultural products have been largely ring-fenced, indeed the planning as a whole was long been foreseen. What was less obvious was the government’s intention to spin the plans as a net negative, when they are positive, indeed this kind of free trade initiative is the reason why many voted to leave the EU in the first place.

“This is no way to run a country,” said Carolyn Fairbairn of the CBI, who under different circumstances may have praised the government’s free trade move that will lower the cost of goods in the UK and cut down on administrative burdens at UK ports that are supposed to grind the nation to a halt in the event of a no deal Brexit.

“What we are hearing is the biggest change in terms of trade this country has faced since the mid-19th century with no consultation with business, no time to prepare,” she added.

The CBI are very much in cahoots with the government when it comes to EU withdrawal, they both hate it. On this occasion however, the government probably acted alone.

In leaving the planning until the last minute, without properly consulting business, while turning up the volume on restricted access to the EU’s heavily fortified agricultural market, the reaction was inevitably going to be hostile, claims Ambrose Evans Pritchard in his must-read column.

“To spring this on British industry with just two weeks to go before Brexit day is a national disgrace. It is also useless as a tool of negotiating leverage with the EU so late in the day,” he writes.

He’s absolutely correct. Northern Ireland is being described as a “smugglers paradise” in waiting. The government will not erect border infrastructure, using “intelligence” instead to identify shipments and charge tariffs. It openly concedes unchecked goods will flow into the province. Thorough controls will however be implemented between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain. Again, this could have been managed very differently.

The government’s aggressive communications and sloppy planning are deliberate, intended to stoke anger and in turn bestow May’s deal with legitimacy it does not innately possess. This is the kind of political scheming you’d expect from a despotic regime, not a democratically elected government.

With only a couple of weeks to go until the nominal Brexit date, the airwaves will be thick with doom and gloom accompanied by the boom of Cox’s voice. And don’t expect any resignations.