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Wednesday 29 May 2019

It’s parliamentary recess, but John Bercow is still attracting headlines for the wrong reasons. Speaking to the Guardian after giving a talk in Washington, the pint-sized speaker of the House of Commons said he will stay on until Brexit is dealt with despite hints at stepping down this summer after 10 years presiding over the Commons.

“I’ve never said anything about going in July of this year,” said Bercow. “Secondly, I do feel that now is a time in which momentous events are taking place and there are great issues to be resolved and in those circumstances, it doesn’t seem to me sensible to vacate the chair.” His motives are clear.

Bercow’s tenure could continue for many years to come and only a general election can dislodge him. Even then, given that the Commons is unashamedly pro-EU, a majority of MPs will want the Remain-voting speaker to carry on disrupting Brexit.

Contrast Bercow’s meddling with Esther McVey’s vow to take Britain out of the EU on sovereign terms.

“Political suicide lies in failing to secure a clean break from the EU on October 31, not in anything else. This is the only viable and acceptable Brexit option now left on the table,” writes the contender for the Tory throne in the Telegraph.

“We need to stop wasting time having artificial debates about renegotiating backstops or resurrecting botched deals. The only way to deliver the referendum result is to actively embrace leaving the EU without a deal,” adds McVey, citing her resignation from the cabinet when the prime minister first published her deal to emphasize her credentials. Note, the former work and pensions secretary did vote for the deal at the third vote.

The depressingly bland Matt Hancock, a fellow contender for leadership of the Conservative Party, has also attracted attention this morning for his knock down of Boris’s “f**k business” jest made a year ago. Hancock’s imaginative comeback, “f**k, f**k busines” is published in today’s FT – where else?

Naturally, McVey’s admirable statement isn’t being taken seriously by the commentariat. Such is their eagerness to quash any notion of No Deal actually happening. It won’t be possible, they argue. Either MPs will unilaterally revoke Article 50 or issue a vote of no confidence in the event a bold leader – like the one McVey says she will be – takes Britain out of the EU on WTO terms, or even threatens to do so.

Case in point, influential Times columnist, Daniel Finkelstein:

The government has a majority of just five and this is not big enough to do what is necessary to ram no-deal through a parliament that doesn’t want it. No-deal Brexit itself might provoke some MPs to withhold their confidence, but what is even more likely to produce such an outcome is the constitutional issue. I do not believe the government would survive trying simply to ignore parliament on the way to no-deal.

So if the government cannot get no-deal through without an election, can’t change the deal, can’t get the deal through and can’t fight an election until it has achieved Brexit, there is only one option left. A referendum.

Finkelstein premises his argument on the gospel according to “line to take” (LTT), correctly indicating that Jeremy Hunt’s claim that he will go back to Brussels with a coalition of differing political interests to get a new deal out of Brussels “creaks but it doesn’t break”. A politician needs to adopt coherent positions that are also realistic. This is true, but they need to do a lot more than that if they hope to provide competent leadership.

Grassroots Tories aren’t just looking for positions and policies that will withstand a bit of probing within the dizzyingly complex context of Brexit, they want to see strength.

Furthermore, the arithmetic of EU withdrawal is the same as it has ever been – as a net importer of EU goods, we have the leverage of No Deal. The key to breaking the simple code is simply to apply pressure and be courageous, this is the bit Finkelstein and many like him will not admit. Britain must wield the threat of No Deal with intent, otherwise, the EU will take advantage, as it has so viciously with Theresa May. If that raises the possibility of leaving the EU without terms, so be it, but such an outcome is still unlikely. This is the essential equation that Tory MPs under a real leader would be obliged to understand.

May said she would orchestrate such a strategy, she did the exact apposite. The likes of Hunt, Hancock and Michael Gove, who is widely reported to be storming ahead will fare no better.  McVey is taking the right line.

However, it is worth noting that while the Brexit Party’s opening position is for a WTO withdrawal, the victor at last week’s European elections would pursue a trade agreement, so long as British sovereignty was safeguarded. “If you want to talk to us… about a free trade deal, the door is open,” said Nigel Farage yesterday (see below).

Jean-Claude Juncker was “crystal clear” with Theresa May at yesterday’s informal summit of EU leaders in Brussels that there would be “no renegotiation”. However, the Telegraph points out that a time-limit on the backstop was given serious consideration in January. Brussels then lost confidence in May after her historic three digit defeat later that month. The compromise was never revisited.

The potential is there, it just needs a British leader with some steel to demand the right terms and get MPs in line. But they would need to do a lot more than time limit the Irish backstop. If Britain is to leave with a deal, the government must start anew.