Sunday 18 November 2018

Deal or no Deal?

I am very annoyed we are leaving the European Union and wish that could be stopped.

But I am very annoyed about a lot of things. The current league position of St Mirren; Legal Aid pay rates; the weather. Me being annoyed about them really doesn't matter. They are facts of life and I just have to live with them. And so, at this point, is Brexit.

That need not have been the case. In the aftermath of the referendum, there could have been a re-alignment of the centre of British politics. Or a Party could have stood at the 2017 General Election on a platform of reversing Brexit or at least re-running the Referendum. But none did and the one which came closest, the Lib Dems, made little or no progress. Or public opinion could have so fundamentally changed that Parliament and Government felt emboldened enough to disregard the referendum result altogether. But that hasn't happened either.

Two big things have however happened. Firstly, as authorised by the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017 the Government gave notice under Article 50 of the Treaty of European Union that we were leaving, setting that process starting and, secondly, by passing the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, the date of our leaving as set by the terms of Article 50 (29th March 2019) was encompassed into domestic law.

Now, Parliament is of course sovereign and it could repeal or amend the latter piece of legislation. And never mind the question of withdrawal of the Article 50, the terms of the article itself provide that, with agreement on both sides, the actual exit date can be postponed, if necessary indefinitely.

But there is simply no majority for such legislation in the current House of Commons. The Tories, even the most "remainery" of Tories believe that, unless it is re-run, (a point to which I will return) the result of the referendum must be respected. Putting the most innocent of interpretations on what the Labour leadership are up to, that is also there stated view. That is what both Parties said in their last General Election manifestos and there is nothing to suggest that, even if there were another General Election, they would be saying anything different. And, in any event, there is not going to be another General Election because there is equally no majority in the House of Commons to bring down the current Government and even less likelihood of that Government voluntarily submitting its fate to the electorate.

But there is also one other given. A (literally) handful of Tory nutters aside, everybody agrees we need to leave with a deal. For the avoidance of doubt, that "everybody" includes Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab. They just don't want the deal the Government has negotiated and believe, no matter how deludedly, that a different deal could be done. But, crucially, that "everybody" includes pretty much all of the Parliamentary Labour Party.They also would prefer a different, "better" deal but, unlike the fantasists on the Tory benches, are surely sanguine to the fact that had a "better" deal been available, Mrs May would surely have done it. There simply is no deal that is as good as our current deal but, for good or ill, the will of the electorate is to reject that and the stated position of both Government and opposition front benches is to respect the will of the electorate.

So what other options are there?

Well, in theory, there is a second referendum. But the theory simply does not match up with reality. What would the question be in that referendum? Mrs May's deal or remain would clearly be the preferred option of the remainers but that would undoubtedly disenfranchise that not insignificant section of the electorate who want neither. And Justine Greening MP (although just about nobody else) has suggested a multiple choice, transferable vote, referendum but that begs the question of how many questions? And if it was just Remain, Mrs May's deal or no deal, what way would Boris and Dominic Raab vote? While if it was Remain, Mrs May's deal or "neither", how would victory for the last option leave us any the wiser?

Anyway, how and when would this referendum take place? The process couldn't even start until Mrs. May's deal had failed to win Commons approval in mid December.. Even if a Commons majority could somehow be cobbled together, it would require Primary legislation. It couldn't possibly be held any earlier than the very eve of 29th March. With no idea what would follow from any result except a simple remain. It would inevitably have to come with postponing the 29th March departure if only, in a worst case scenario, to allow us more time for no deal. And there is no Commons majority for postponing 29th March! It is a chimera, an illusion, a hopelessly lost cause.

There is of course one other option, a different deal. Not the fantasy different deal of Johnson, Raab and the Pizza five but one the EU might actually agree to.  Its main partisan is Nick Boles MP, who wants EFTA. That's fine. EFTA is my own second choice. But how would that possibly be achieved either? International treaties are the domain of Governments, not Parliaments. But how do we get to this Government that would negotiate EFTA? It couldn't be led by Mrs May. It wouldn't be led by any Tory Brexiteer successor to Mrs May and it couldn't command a Commons majority if led by a non Brexiteer Tory successor to Mrs May. At least not without Labour support, which, shall we say, under a Corbyn leadership, it is never likely to enjoy. Matters would be as gridlocked as at present with the one remaining constant, that fixed date of 29th March.

The truth is that starting from here, on 18th November 2018, and without changing our potential exit date, we now have a binary choice. Mrs May's deal or no deal.

It's a terrible deal, much worse than we currently have, full of things which, even within its own terms, could be much improved. But it is the only deal in town and it is still a far, far better deal than no deal. It keeps the Irish border open, it stops Kent and the Pas-de-Calais from becoming lorry parks. It removes the very real threats of disruption to life saving medicines and indeed basic food supplies.

Best of all however, it leaves open the question of whether our future relationship with Europe lies in being further apart or, once again, closer together. A question which could then be answered in calmer, more considered, time.

I'll be astonished if, ultimately, it is not backed, albeit with gritted teeth, by all the Remainer Tories. It should be backed as well by all Remainer Labour MPs. For there is, in truth, no alternative and simply protesting otherwise demands more than protest. It requires process. And the time for process has long gone.