Friday 7 December 2018
The government was hit by defeat after defeat this week, with three occurring in a single day, while failing to score any victories. Theresa May now leads a minority government with no control over Britain’s destiny whatsoever. It has always been hazardous to predict outcomes under her administration. It is now impossible.
Downing Street’s feebleness was perfectly illustrated on Tuesday when the government was found to be in contempt of Parliament for refusing to publish the attorney general’s advice on the 599-page withdrawal deal. Then yesterday, chief whip Julian Smith exposed his utter desperation to get the agreement through the Commons, begging Eurosceptic Tories to support the prime minister in front of television cameras.
The amateurishness of the government has been broadcast loud and clear by the bizarre decision to have ITV filming the chief whip plying his trade, a traditionally secretive and often post-watershed operation. He was seen getting nowhere with Philip Davies MP for the simple reason Davies, a member of the European Research Group, believes no-deal is better than a bad deal, and that’s because it is. You don’t have to be a dyed-in-the-wool Brexiteer to believe that.
Attorney general Geoffrey Cox repeatedly stated that it was not in the public interest to reveal his legal advice on the withdrawal agreement. That would have been the case if there was something genuinely compromising to disclose to say, a foreign power. However, with the deal with our external foe already struck, in withholding information the government is only acting in its own interest, viewing the people as a liability, not the constituency it was elected to serve.
Neither Parliament nor the people are ignorant to the facts. We are already perfectly aware that, under the terms of the agreement, the United Kingdom will be trapped in the backstop and subject to the EU’s whim on whether we ever get out of it.
The only leverage we have left to influence matters is to hand over our fishing waters and yet more payments on an annual basis – and what’s to bet against the follow-up deal including no right to a unilateral breakout either? Cox admitted as such at the dispatch box after being placed there as a proxy for his legal advice demanded by MPs.
The government’s unsatisfactory response to those demands placed it on a constant rear-guard action. Cox’s appearance triggered the ruling of contempt which only served to further highlight what a rotten deal has been settled with Brussels and why MPs must not vote for it.
With the trap over the backstop laid bare for even the most casual observer to acknowledge, the government responded with its only significant move of the week, which of course failed.
On Wednesday, reports began to circulate of a Downing Street pitch to the Jacob Rees-Mogg-led ERG: MPs would get a vote on whether to trigger the backstop towards the end of the transition period. For the reasons outlined above, the proposal would be unworkable as. Once the deal is implemented, Britain will have no legal right to deviate without the EU’s consent, which won’t be forthcoming.
“It’s just balls. Is she really seriously saying that Parliament would be able to default on Britain’s international obligations?” Complained one bitter Tory Brexiteer.
Herein lies Remainers’ central misunderstanding. The establishment indulges in blinkered views of backward Brexiteers rejoicing in chaos. Quite the contrary of course. We cherish the rule of law, transparency and representative democracy, virtues hardly synonymous with European integration. There is as little will to sign agreements we intend to break as there is to sign sovereignty sapping deals in the first place.
Not taking the hint, the government’s unilateral idea made its way into an amendment to the Commons meaningful vote motion – now only four days away. “Domestic legislative tinkering won’t cut it. The legally binding international Withdrawal Treaty would remain fundamentally flawed as evidenced by the attorney general’s legal advice,” tweeted DUP leader Arlene Foster.
As the government weakens, the ERG, DUP and – regrettably – pro-Remain forces strengthen at its expense. The Ulster Unionists have been particularly canny in taking their opportunities, stating this week that if the deal somehow makes it through the meaningful vote, the DUP will “bring down the government” by abandoning the confidence and supply agreement when the deal is whisked through Parliament under the Withdrawal Bill in the New Year. Nigel Dodds added that May is running a major risk of a vote of no confidence.
Meanwhile Dominic Grieve, who struck a gentleman’s agreement in the dying hours of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill for MPs to have more of say if May’s deal failed first time around decided to put the pressure up a notch with a non-binding amendment to the same effect. Grieve’s real purpose is to thwart a no deal.
On a positive note, numerous MPs showed their commitment a true Brexit during this week’s debate in the Commons over the meaningful vote. People voted in 2016 “to take back control of our laws, our money and our borders. They voted to reclaim the lost sovereignty of the United Kingdom electorate” argued John Redwood. Boris Johnson, Bernard Jenkin, Johnny Mercer (pictured above) and Owen Patterson made similarly noble appeals to democracy and sovereignty.
Raging on in the background this week is talk that Article 50 can be cancelled or extended. A case launched with the ECJ by a band of Remainer MPs, MEPs and MSPs has received a preliminary ruling that an EU Member State can choose to revoke Article 50. Rather conveniently, the final decision will not be made until on Monday, the day before the big vote. It normally takes considerably longer to reach these judgements.
The EU has, meanwhile, hinted Article 50 can be extended. Michel Barnier claims the only deal is the one on the table, but not until it’s defeated in the Commons will he and his employers have an incentive to say anything else. Grieve’s amendment was backed by his colleague Oliver Letwin, until now, not a Tory traitor.
Tellingly Letwin was doing the media rounds this week, talking up EFTA plus – the plus by his own admission being, unlike Norway and Switzerland, Britain would remain in the Customs Union. There is only one arrangement worse than Mrs May’s and it’s this. Unfortunately, it is popular in both Brussels and Westminster, if nowhere else. We must therefore look upon the prospect of this charade being dragged on with the utmost prejudice.
David Davis begs to differ, speaking to The House magazine, the ever-optimistic former Brexit secretary continues to view a “Canada++” with elements from other existing EU trade deals, notably South Korea and New Zealand as a realistic prospect.