Brexit: May’s Sweatbox

When I searched on Brexit just now, I saw such a rehash of what ought to be old stories that I thought there must be something wrong with Google. “May to focus on Irish backstop.” “May mulls amending Good Friday Agreement.” “U.K. Parliament Moves Closer to Stopping a No-Deal Brexit” And the body of a Guardian story has this blather:

Tory Brexit supporters alarmed by the prospect of a delay have hinted they could be won over in the coming weeks – if Theresa May can produce a serious concession from Brussels on the Irish backstop….

The Tory backbencher Andrew Murrison tabled an amendment to next Tuesday’s Brexit motion that insists on an expiry date to the backstop in the hope that it could allow MPs such as Bradley to demonstrate the level of parliamentary concern to both Downing Street and the EU.

Help me. As if no one noticed that May’s deal was voted down by a margin of 230?

The press is dignifying the barmy the idea that Parliament can take the steering wheel from the Government. Even though this issue has been discussed in comments, with our regulars providing explanations, it seemed worth making this issue a post topic, particularly since it’s going to come to the fore in the next week plus.

As David pointed out, the UK isn’t supposed to be where it is, with a weak, discredited government that isn’t merely soldiering on, but is refusing to abandon a position that Parliament has rejected on the highest-stakes issue of at least a generation. But Parliament cannot fix this problem by usurping the Government. It would need to replace the current Government with one more aligned with its views. But as we know, the Tories have been unable to defenestrate May, and they are unwilling to risk a general election. And now with so little time left, even if the EU were to give the maximum realistic extension (till June? early July?), the GE process would chew up so much time that there would be no net addition of Parliamentary days….and no assurance that a GE would produce any real change in the political configuration.

We’ll turn the mike over to Clive, who provided more detail on the Constitutional/procedural issues by e-mail. This is mildly tweaked from a series of messages. What triggered this discussion was one of the new unicorns, Yvette Cooper’s bill. As summarized in the Independent:

At the moment, if parliament fails to act, the UK will leave the EU on 29 March. Cooper’s bill says that, if a deal has not been approved by 7 March, the government would be required to seek an extension of the Article 50 deadline.* That would mean asking the EU to postpone the UK’s departure until the end of this year – and EU leaders have said they would agree to an extension if it were to hold another referendum.

We’ll put aside the fact that the EU has never indicated any willingness to extend Brexit to year end. Clive gives a Parliamentary tutorial to work up to why the idea that Parliament can order the Government to take an executive action is not on:

To understand why this is daft, it’s probably helpful to do a quick primer on the way the UK constitution works and the repeating constitutional democracy cycle:

  • The Sovereign handed (I’ll skip over whether this was a volitional or a causative action; that’s a matter of history, but the result was the same) sovereignty of the country to Parliament
  • The Sovereign dissolves Parliament (either at the expiry of the fixed term Parliament or else if 2/3rds of the MPs agree to dissolve it or else if there is a No Confidence vote in the existing government and there cannot be a new government formed in 14 days) and calls elections to elect MPs to a new Parliament
  • The people elect MPs to Parliament
  • MPs decide, usually (but not necessarily) along political party lines who can form a government which commands the confidence of the House of Commons — this is almost always the party with the most MPs but if, as is currently the case, if a single party cannot command a majority and win a confidence vote then they can either form a coalition or enter in to a Confidence and Supply agreement with one or more of the remaining other parties. The Conservative and Unionist Party entered into a Confidence and Supply Agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party in 2017, for example
  • The Sovereign invites the party or parties who can command a majority in the Commons to forma government.
  • The government governs via a combination of exercising the Royal Prerogative https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Royal_prerogative#United_Kingdom (“executive action” as it is more commonly known in modern times, along the same language as used in the US) and/or, where required, getting its bills passed as Acts of Parliament in Westminster.
  • The House of Commons, MPs in other words, serve to scrutinise the government’s bills when presented by the government they (Parliament) formed. That government has bestowed on it the Royal Prerogative and the ability to advance legislation by dint of the fact that a majority of MPs voted it has confidence in it. MPs’ confidence, explicitly expressed, in the government creates and sustains that government.
  • If a majority of MPs find they no longer support a government, they can pass a No Confidence motion and set in train events to either form a new government supported by the existing Parliament or, if this isn’t possible, dissolve the Parliament in favour of a new Parliament which can then, hopefully, form a new (supportable) government. Such a vote was held on 16/01/19 and the May administration passed it so remains the government of the UK.
  • But what MPs cannot do is to both simultaneously sustain a particular government (via passing a Confidence motion) while at the same time try to put in place another — somehow “parallel” or “alternative” government — able to bring forward new legislation or exercise the Royal Prerogative such as by discussing and agreeing Treaties or Treaty provisions with foreign governments. Parliament (MPs) scrutinises proposed bills and if it doesn’t like them it can vote them down. But parliament cannot act as a government and advance new legislation or exercise the Royal Prerogative / Executive Action.
So, even if somehow Cooper’s bill is passed by Parliament, Parliament cannot bind the government to exercise it. If it tries, and the government refuses, then it will either (after a while) end up in the Supreme Court who are not about to overturn 500+ years of constitutional norms or Parliament will have to remove the government — the government that it itself created and facilitates — via the long-standing and accepted method of a No Confidence motion.

Normally, we don’t get into such crazy, dumb third-world level governance crises. The Speaker of the House has, historically, understood why things are done the way things are done and what happens if anyone tries to do anything that will inevitably throw a spanner into the machinery of government. But the current Speaker, Bercow, seems to have lost all sense of caution and, having gotten drunk on his own sense of power and influence, apparent intent on adding “constitutional crises” to our current predicament. As if things aren’t difficult enough with “only” having a political crisis to worry about. The conclusion, if Cooper’s bill is allowed to get parliamentary time in the face of the government not wishing to allocate it, is a foregone conclusion — it would be ruled unconstitutional.

I suspect the Clerk to the Commons will have told the Speaker that, if he doesn’t kill Cooper’s bill, he’ll almost certainly face moves to remove him from office because the constitutional position on the (un-) allowability of it is clear. So, despite press frothing at the mouth, it won’t go anywhere.

If Bercow is determined to force a crisis, however, he might try to do so. But his options are very limited once MPs cotton onto the fact that no functioning government (which is what a constitutional crisis will inevitably create) guarantees a No Deal Brexit because the EU27 will not know they are receiving instructions or requests from the UK “in line with the constitutional requirements” — he’ll have to back down or will be removed. He’ll know this so I doubt he’ll try to bluff it out and will quietly put the kibosh on Cooper’s bill.

If you are new to the discussion of Brexit procedural machinations, another reason the Government can exercise so much power is that it controls Parliamentary time, meaning the scheduling of which bills get considered, how much time there is for debate. We had a dramatic demonstration of that last week when May agreed to comply with Parliament’s legally non-binding request to submit an amendable motion to Parliament on what she planned to do after her Brexit smackdown. Right after she got past the no-confidence vote and before her agreed January 21 submission date, May made clear who was boss. She cancelled all Parliamentary Brexit business, meaning debates and votes, until January 29.

As Clive noted:

Yep, just watched live Andrea Leadsom (Leader of the House) in action. She was surgical. Like a parliamentary Cruella de Vil eyeing up some puppies, she just dismembered the opposition where it stood and they never saw it coming.

This was the big problem with the previous Dominic Grieve / Speaker ambush and the subsequent allowing of a non-government MP to amend House Business motions. You can get away with it once, using the element of surprise.

But once you’ve shown your hand, the government is on to you and fully prepared for you trying to pull the same stunt again. The clueless Labour Party, the too-clever by half Grieve and the delusions of grandeur Speaker forgot why these endless and apparently archaic rules and customs were adopted, not in a written constitution but adopted nonetheless, in first place.

In nearly half a millennia of the U.K. parliament, every conceivable procedural wheeze has been tried on by someone before. There was a reason that business motions were not conventionally amendable. This was because all the government of the day had to do was sit it out in something akin to the current US government shutdown and simply do nothing. Voila! Instant stalemate and gridlock. The government can’t get any business through the house but neither can the opposition do anything about it either.

Labour and the various commons factions can gripe all they want. But they can’t force the government to bring forward bills. The government can now say, with what they say being an incontrovertible fact, that until order is restored and the constitutional conventions respected and reinstated, they dare not risk bringing forward any legislation. For the legitimate fear anything could happen with any hijacking being, apparently, fair game.

Parliament is now locked in (and a lot of the locking in is of its own silly making) to May’s Brexit Sweatbox. The picking of the date for the Meaningful Vote motion (the 29th, with exactly two months to go) is May’s way of just rubbing their noses in it.

Oh, and in the highly unlikely event that May can’t stop what is called a “private Member’s bill,” meaning one introduced by an MP acting on his own, rather than on behalf of Government, from getting to the floor, you can be it won’t survive. Clive again:

Private Member’s bills can be scuppered by any member simply saying “object” — my mother in laws MP, scourge of the house (even the Ultras think he’s extreme, but you should see his constituency voters…) makes a habit of this https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-44496427

And thanks to a February break, as I read the Parliamentary calendar, there are 37 sitting days from the January 19 Meaningful Vote to Brexit Day (although May is threatening to cancel the holiday). The only way out of May’s sweatbox looks to be to remove her, and Corbyn threatened to keep lodging no confidence motions. But will MPs knuckle under to May, toss her out, or wast energy in Constitutional gambits which looked doomed to fail?

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154 comments

  1. PlutoniumKun

    It an unholy mess, and I honestly don’t see any way out of it. Its made 1000x worse by the fact that it seems that all the key players don’t actually understand the forces at play. Parliament cannot seize back control if the executive doesn’t want that to happen, thats not how the British system works. But the Executive has no idea how to get anything past Parliament. It is complete gridlock.

    May seems to be desperately hoping the EU will ride to the rescue and give her something she can sell. But its not going to happen – Barnier this morning has explicitly ruled this out (and I’m sure he wouldn’t have said this without checking with the major European players).

    A temporary safeguard to avoid erecting a physical border between Ireland and Northern Ireland after Brexit would serve no purpose, the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier said.

    In an interview to newspapers Le Monde, Rzeczpospolita and Luxemburger Wort, Mr Barnier said the current backstop proposal over the border was the only option on the table.

    “The question of limiting the backstop in time has already been discussed twice by European leaders. This is the only possible option because an insurance is of no use if it is time limited,” Mr Barnier said.

    In the meanwhile, the rats are starting to leave the sinking ship – UK companies are panicking. Even Brexiter Dyson is switching to Singapore.

    The scale of no-deal panic gripping major companies has been thrown into sharp focus by a series of damage-limitation announcements, as corporate Britain signalled it is running out of patience with Westminster gridlock.

    Sir James Dyson, the Brexit-backing billionaire, dealt a further blow to the government by revealing he is shifting his company headquarters to Singapore in a move that drew sharp criticism.

    I think that even the chance of a 2 month postponement is shrinking. The EU seems to have lost patience and will extract a price for any extension. Only concern about the impact on the Channel Ports and on Ireland give them any incentive to help May out. Its pretty clear that neither Ireland, not the major French ports, are anywhere near ready for a hard border. But the UK is even less prepared.

    I honestly don’t see any way out of this. May is clinging to the hope that a panicking Parliament will agree to her deal. I just don’t see where she will get the numbers. There are no other options. She won’t (and maybe can’t) revoke A.50. She won’t ask for the time from the EU needed for a new referendum (and they probably wouldn’t agree anyway). I don’t think she is even in enough control of events to ask for an extra 2 months.

    And in the meanwhile, there seems a head of steam building up for a no-deal exit. I think this is one thing Corbyn and the Ultras agree on – its best to get over the edge and deal with the fall out later.

    Reply
    1. Clive

      I feel desperately sorry and not a little guilty on behalf of the population of the U.K. that, as was once said of the US, we’re just acting on the world stage like a large over enthusiastic dog rushing around knocking all the furniture over. If we could simply confine our antics to the domestic sphere, that’s fine, at least we wouldn’t expect everyone else to have to clear up the messes we’ve made.

      But forcing the Republic, France, Spain and the Benelux countries to have to try to work around the outpouring of craziness emanating from London is embarrassing. I’m not exactly EU’s number one fan, but the Commission has devoted significant resources and expertise to come up with a perfectly fair and workable set of compromises that, as with all compromises, leaves no one exactly delighted but which everyone can live with. Yes, there’s a significant implication for NI, but the EU27’s agreed hackjob on the indivisibility of the Four Freedoms (I won’t go into all the details here, but the short version is they did get divided for a specific purpose in a specific region) is a huge concession for the EU to make. And the U.K. political class, apart from May, which shows how bad they are when they make May look clever, just goes whah whah whah and throws a strop over it and goes back to demanding cake, ponies and unicorns.

      That is, when it can tear itself away from dumbass parliamentary schemes and schoolyard games.

      Reply
      1. PlutoniumKun

        I think the only real question now for UK politics is which breaks first – Parliament, or one (or both) of the two main parties. I suspect that a desperate need to keep their parties together might actually be a major driver now for no-deal. The longer this goes on, the more likely a permanent historic realignment or split. And I suspect Labour is more likely to break first.

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        1. Colonel Smithers

          Thank you, PK.

          You’re not the first to suspect that Labour is more likely to break first.

          As Vlade has written here and we chatted over lunch last week, Corbyn is / Labour are mistaken if he thinks / they think he / Labour can control / benefit from how events unfold after a hard Brexit.

          Reply
        2. Which is worse - bankers or terrorists

          This sort of the feels like the final weeks of the Spanish Civil War when the Republicans started an internal civli war within their faction before the Nationalists defeated them.

          Except in this case it applies to the entire UK.

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          1. Ignacio

            This comparison looks appropiate and I would add that whereas decomposition of the republicans in Spain was due to center-left, left, extreme left differences in this case political decomposition is wider in the political spectrum. Interestingly, I believe, there is a rupture amongst right-wing options driven by the ultraliberal and the extreme rigth populists both against the traditional conservatives.

            Reply
    2. Colonel Smithers

      Thank you, PK.

      Over the past three years, Dyson has become one of the largest landowners in the UK, buying aristocratic estates in East Anglia and the West Country, totalling over 100,000 acres. Farmland is exempt from various taxes and, after Brexit, will continue to receive subsidies. Dyson was clear about the UK having to grow more of what it consumes and the tax benefits of owning rural estates.

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      1. Redlife2017

        Colonel Smithers – there is a great UK magazine called “The Land” (http://www.thelandmagazine.org.uk/), which in their prior issue (issue 23), they discussed Who Owns Britain’s Land and try to figure out how many people that is. The UK makes it difficult to figure out who owns what and where. Land reform is a real requirement…

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        1. Colonel Smithers

          Thank you, Redlife.

          I will have a look.

          I follow Who Owns England and Who Owns Scotland online and have a few books, some dating to the 19th century, on the matter.

          I agree with you about land reform, but, knowing you are a Labour activist, caution, having gone to school with some of them (including a former head of the Scottish landowners’ federation and clan chief), that this is a fight Labour must know when and how to fight.

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      2. PlutoniumKun

        Given how awful his products are (embarrassingly I bought one of his vacuums, never again), investing in farming is quite sensible for him.

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        1. Hayek's Heelbiter

          And don’t forget the Feudal system of Leaseholds, most of which are owned by the same ilk, it has been abolished in Scotland and limited in NI but clings on like some thousand-year old vampire to whom nobody can drive a stake through its heart.

          Forget about actually owning your own flat if you live in England or Wales.

          Reply
          1. Colonel Smithers

            Thank you, HH.

            Thatcher tried to reform, but could not see off the descendants of William the Bastard and his gang. I don’t see that other Norman, Corbeau, doing it, either.

            In recent years, aristos, such as the brother in law of David Cameron, have been buying such property, kept quite separate from their hereditary lands, and securitising the income stream.

            Reply
  2. Anders K

    While I would say that there are things that Parliament can do to hit back at May – start declaring one member of the Government in contempt per day until they get their way and/or May runs out of ministers, for one, the issue seems to be as Clive said – that Parliament must make some action that will impact the Government, which the Tory party members is loath to do (I can imagine some sort of deal, with every minister found in contempt, one Labour MP promises to abstain from voting or whatnot).

    This reluctance to act – and granted, for some it may be because they know how little time is left until Brexit – is what is paralyzing Parliament. Most of the things they could do to break the impasse would trigger a constitutional crisis which are highly likely to cause No Deal Brexit to become a reality.

    On the other side, May still has actions she can take, but probably will not, because they are also destructive.and likely to trigger other, different crisis (sending a revocation of Article 50 to the EU, for instance, is entirely under her remit, the question remains if the EU would accept it as it stands).

    It’s like a Mexican standoff where someone can only break by destroying their own future prospects, with a Prisoner’s Dilemma added on top – if no one takes the fall, everyone will be worse off (the people not part of the deciding group considerable worse off than the ones that are, but hey, that’s civilization for you).

    Reply
    1. Yves Smith Post author

      The Parliament cannot make the Government take action that falls within its executive capacity. That’s the problem. They already declared the Government to be in contempt. Nice headlines. No impact. They have no basis for declaring May in contempt if Parliament is trying some made up unconstitutional procedure. And even if they did, so what? The only thing that matters is her losing a vote of no confidence. Everything else is theatrics.

      Even the idea of trying the “constitutional crisis” gambit, if there were time, would not work. As Clive stressed, the fight would wind up in court and the Government would prevail.

      You seem to forget that the only reason Parliament got a vote on the Withdrawal Agreement in the first place was that it affected citizen’s rights. Otherwise they could have been bypassed completely. But we do agree that it’s hard to see any way out of this. Either it’s No Deal or Parliament holds its nose and votes for May’s deal.

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      1. quill

        This is not accurate.

        Parliament in fact can order the government to take action. (In other words, Parliament has the ability to restrict or amend the Royal Prerogative.)

        Under the UK system, Parliament has absolute sovereignty. Various Standing Orders govern how Parliament conducts business and give control to the government of the agenda, but these standing orders are themselves creatures of Parliament and can be suspended or amended by the House.

        In order to do so, you need agreement in Parliament (if push come to shove, just by the House of Commons) on what course of action should be taken.

        That doesn’t seem to exist, so it is a moot point.

        But, at the end of the day, Parliament could (i) determine that it is within the power of Parliament to withdraw the Article 50 notice and (ii) effect that withdrawal and that action would be unequivocally constitutional, notwithstanding the objections of the Government.

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        1. Clive

          Parliament is indeed sovereign. It can exercise that sovereignty in the ultimate expression of its authority which is to dismiss the government through a No Confidence motion. There is no higher and no more effective sanction possible than that — it can literally end up eviscerating the government, refusing to support any potentially assembled government and forcing a general election.

          Parliament was offered that opportunity to act on that highest level of sovereignty on the 16th. It then did indeed do so. It voted it had confidence in May’s government.

          If parliament tries to force the government to do something and the government refuses, it always has at its discretion this mechanism. But it cannot force a government to not govern in the way that government wants to govern. The most it can do is to give a government its kick in the arse on the way out the door.

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          1. quill

            Ultimately the only limit on how Parliament exercises its power is the will of a majority of the House of Commons.

            What is the basis for your conclusion that there is a constraint on this power or its means of exercise? In the piece you linked on the risks of the Grieve Amendment, the only noted constraints were the standing orders of the House of Commons – but these are subject to repeal and amendment by the House of Commons.

            To put it another way, the government’s authority derives either from Parliament (which can remove or revise this authority at its pleasure) or the Royal Prerogative (which Parliament can amend or restrict at its pleasure). Do you think the government has another source of authority? If so, what? If not, what of the foregoing do you disagree with and why?

            It is true that it is hard to imagine Parliament issuing such an order and the government remaining in power – but it is unprecedented for a government suffering the kind of defeat May’s has without falling.

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            1. Clive

              May could have lost the vote on the Withdrawal Agreement by six hundred plus votes. It would not make the slightest difference to the ability of the current government to govern using executive action where executive action is the method of governing.

              Parliament promptly, following May’s defeat, voted it had confidence in her government. Therefore the government can exercise the Royal Prerogative / executive action exactly as it sees fit, unless and until Parliament acts to dismiss the government through an expression of No Confidence.

              And as Sir Stephen Laws’ report / analysis made clear, the government can even refuse to bring any Act before the sovereign for Royal Assent. That would put the government and Parliament on a 50/50 level footing with the sovereign being forced to act as referee — a situation which will be prevented using every means possible. But it shows that the government does have another source of authority higher than Parliament, albeit one which should never need to be invoked. It would not be allowed to get that far. In a stand off between Parliament and the government— a government which Parliament created — the resolution would be for government to defy Parliament and ignore the Act and if Parliament didn’t like it, it could remove the government in a vote of No Confidence.

              Those putting forward these procedural shenanigans (and those who think they have merit) obviously don’t realise how dumb their schemes are. “Here’s a government” says Parliament “one we’ve apparently got confidence in and which we have installed in office”. But in the next breath it’s trying to say “The government isn’t governing how we want it to govern and must govern in a different way”. Which is fine. Parliament can have any government it likes governing in any way the government it selects wants to govern. But it can’t simultaneously both pick a government and then not like that government but all the while refusing to remove it from office.

              Parliament is sovereign. But that doesn’t make it possible to get away with nutsyness.

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        2. Ape

          I think the point is that in principle parliament can do anything that doesn’t lead to a revolution and the courts only rule on the technicalities of how it was passed.

          But in practice if parliament would change the executive power to allow themselves to micromanage the executive, that breaks the system. That’s the end of the monarchy fundamentally, the end of the whole shebang if you follow out the consequences a few years out.

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    2. Clive

      Parliament cannot hold a minister in contempt when it itself is acting unconstitutionally. Just as in the current US shutdown, all democratic political systems work in broadly the same way — the executive can bring forward a proposal to spend sovereign funds (Trump can ask for the money to build his wall, for example here). But he cannot just legally force government to write out a check. He has to get the House of Representstives to approve the budget. Similarly, the House can’t draw up a budget and then spend it willy-nilly — the President has to approve it. These are fundamental checks and balances.

      If Parliament decided it wants to delay the exit from the EU, it will create a spending commitment. It cannot both create the commitment and then authorise it. This is Magna Carta level stuff. Or at least, post-English Civil War parliamentary democracy level stuff. Only a government can propose a spending commitment on behalf of the sovereign, which Parliament can then approve or vote down.

      A full explanation is here https://policyexchange.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/The-risks-of-the-Grieve-Amendment.pdf

      And the whole thing is U.K. exceptionalism Brexit Derangement Syndrome. The U.K. cannot force the EU27 to agree to anything. And even if May was willing to go the Council and make enquires, how on Earth do the nitty-gritty details get worked out (whether the U.K. wants MEPs seated, whether the U.K. is willing to have any extension granted to be knocked off the two year transition, whether the U.K. is or isn’t willing to pay into the EU27’s next budget round and if so, how much, decided on what basis… etc. etc. etc.). There’s a reason why you have a government, it is because it is essential to allow it to govern in any sort of practical way. If everything that comes up and results in a decision point has to be voted on and one of the available options agreed by Parliament, nothing could ever get done in any sort of sane timescales.

      Plus, Cooper’s amendment doesn’t specify when or how the U.K. government can approach the EU27 in terms of timescales. There’s a tonne of perfectly justifiable reasons why it can’t happen in only a few weeks. It’s just parading Labour’s stupidity in public to be even thinking of trying this on. If I’m dumb and clueless about a subject, I at least try to keep my big mouth shut.

      Reply
      1. Colonel Smithers

        Thank you, Clive.

        Neither Cooper / Mrs Ed Balls and her husband, and New Labour, Blairite or Brownite, same shite, for that matter, are known for their humility.

        “It’s just parading Labour’s stupidity in public to be even thinking of trying this on.” May be it’s deliberate. Cooper and other New Labourites were happy to sabotage Ed Miliband.

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      2. shtove

        Thanks – that Stephen Laws link is very useful. In a way, it’s thrilling to see these deep-sea fish hauled up from the legal trenches – but not so much when the change in pressure makes them explode on deck.

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      3. Tim Smyth

        In the US system the Congress can override a Presidental veto. I will note that just last night the US House of Representatives passed a bill attempting to strip the US President of his right to give notice of withdrawal to the Secretary General of NATO to withdraw from the NATO treaty. All Democrats voted in favor including AOC, Rashida Tlaib, et all.

        Reply
        1. Yves Smith Post author

          This isn’t a matter of a veto. This would be more like Congress trying to order the President to Do Something that is clearly a Presidential prerogative, like nominate a particular person to the Supreme Court.

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      4. David

        Yes, if nothing else useful has come out of this ghastly episode, at least there has been some clarity about different constitutional powers. As I’ve said somewhere else on this page, Parliament can delay and obstruct, but it can’t make policy and, for the reasons you give, it would be impossible for it to do so. I’m sure that a reasonable interlocutor could approach the EU and get some fairly decent guidance. But this government is not a reasonable interlocutor. What should be happening now is a huge effort of sherpa-ing through UKREP in Brussels preparing the ground for a formal approach to delay Art 50. But I suspect that the Delegation is basically powerless to do anything, and there’s little point in it sounding out the Commission, for example, because the Commission could have no confidence either that the UK government would still be in power in a week or that it would be capable of agreeing to any terms that the EU 27 might offer. I think we need to keep saying, and encourage readers to repeat to everyone they know, that this is not your average political crisis, but an unprecedented political catastrophe which has no obvious solution at all, and which may bring the country’s system of government down with it.

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    3. vlade

      As Yves says above, the only real, quick and efficient way for the Parliament to force the government to do what they want is to no-confidence the current one and get a new one. That would require a major re-alignement of the MPs, with more than a half of each Labour and Tories rebelling. Since the MPs are basically selected for their loyalty, this is not going to happen (more likely with Labour now, but close to impossible with Tories IMO).

      Even if Parliament managed to make things illegal for the government, remember it’s the executive branch that controls things like police. So Parliament can’t jail May – and even if they did, what would happen to the government? Would she just be a PM in the jail, but still having government confidence? See how ridiculous it is?

      The only way where the Parliament could do something is if it a) revoked the leave-EU-act, b) passed another act revoking May’s right to submit A50 and instructing her to withdraw it.

      Not because it would actually force May to do anything, but because it could technically invalidate the A50 notice as it would not comply with “according to constitutional requirements” formula, so one could argue with the EU (probably suscessfully since they want it) that the A50 notice from May was now invalid. Practically though, it would be the UK High Court which would decide on the constitutionality of the move – although if it was a full-fledged bill, carefully worded, it would be hard for the HC to do anything here given the sovereignity of the Parliament.

      Reply
      1. Anders K

        Specifically, isn’t it the Serjeant-at-Arms which whould put whomever in Big Ben? Not that it matters, because my point is that the likely outcome is a constitutional crisis.

        Of course it is ridiculous! The whole thing is, on the face of it. The UK system of governance was obviously geared to make one party the top dog, and make it capable of ignoring the rest.

        It does not seem that Parliament can revoke the act without the Governments help (that would require the Government to schedule it in – but I may have misunderstood that – UK Parliament procedural arcana is definitely not my forte!). I agree with your interpretation of the EUs desire – not entirely sure they do not need a small napkin-sized excuse (a letter from the Speaker, maybe?) to trigger Article 50 revocation.

        Anyhow, in my previous (mis-placed) response, I tried to argue that there are things that Parliament can do, but that I did not see any way the would resolve the situation, hence the contempt thing, since it is one of those thing that makes me go “how would that work?” with the answer seeming to be “not very well, for anyone.” I just worry that in desperation, someone will go do something, just in order to be seen doing anything.

        Reply
        1. vlade

          In theory, the Parliament could do the above as an amedement to some bill that would get the above done. In practice, it may be close to impossible.

          I keep saying that the UK has a civil war, most people just didn’t notice it yet, because it’s run on grounds they don’t watch and understand. But to be clear, even most MPs don’t see it like that yet. Which is the reason why the revolutionary ERG (well, counter-revolutionary or whatever) has edge over them IMO.

          Well, in two months, pretty much everyone will know I guess.

          Reply
        2. shtove

          On the CJEU – I had expected them to decline the Art.50 revocation case on the obvious ground that there was no existing dispute. They went ahead, and the judgment is fine and clear, but it showed they would step in when it wasn’t necessary. And now they’ve planted a little bomb with the “constitutional requirements” criterion – will they be willing to step on that and effectively interfere with UK domestic arrangements?

          Reply
  3. Avidremainer

    Parliament can do what Parliament wants. It has been like that since1640.
    By all the norms and “constitutional” conventions May should have resigned when she lost by 230 votes. She is cocking a snook at the “constitution”. May has ignored all “constitutional” efforts to keep her in check, carried on as if she does not need a majority in Parliament. Mr Bercow reacted to May’s hubris and changed the rules to favour parliament. He will no doubt change them again if this deranged government carries on. Mrs May should do the decent thing and resign before the situation gets dangerous.
    PS
    The idea that Leadsom being anything other than inept is very funny.

    Reply
      1. Avidremainer

        No Parliament can do what it wants when it wants. All that is required is a majority.
        The Speaker serves Parliament not the executive. Mrs May is the Charles I figure here. High handed, dismissive, tin eared and woefully inadequate. She has ignored all ” constitutional ” efforts to constrain the executive. She has played fast and loose with all parliamentary precedents. Yves said in an earlier post that being found in contempt had had no serious consequences. Yes it has. The speaker changed the rules. Should this “unconstitutional” government carry on without changing its ways look out for more changes in parliamentary procedure.
        Parliament is not one component in a system of government. It is the system of government. Unless Mrs May returns post haste to “constitutional” government then we are in for a rough ride. I hope vlade is wrong, he is ,however, closer to the mark than I find comfortable.

        Reply
        1. Clive

          May has acted exactly in accordance with the established constitutional arrangements. If anyone has acted unconstitutionally, it is Grieve and the Speaker.

          There isn’t a parliamentary majority to do the one, single thing that will change the course: a Confidence Motion where the government loses.

          This was tried on the 16th. May won it. I strongly suspect that May’s almost insistence and poking of smaller non official opposition parties to bring it if Labour wouldn’t was on advice from the Department of Constitutional Affairs or the Attorney General to ensure it happened — so as to reassert beyond any doubt the primacy and legitimacy of her government.

          If Parliament wants to “take control” that is what it must do and the only thing it can do. It didn’t, so it doesn’t “control” anything. Only in the minds of Guardian columnists does it work any differently.

          Reply
          1. Avidremainer

            There is no “constitution”. The “constitution” is what parliament says it is at any one time. Pulling a vote because the government would loose and staying in office when you loose that same vote by 230 are both deeply ” unconstitutional” actions. The speaker cannot be “unconstitutional” as long as he enjoys the confidence of parliament. Mr Grieve becomes “constitutional” if parliament gives his amendment a majority.
            Until such time that we have a written Constitution, as argued recently by Vernon Bogdanor, then what parliament says goes. Anything else would be “unconstitutional”.

            Reply
            1. Clive

              Yes, and Parliament said, when it voted in support of May’s government in the confidence motion, it supports the government’s Brexit approach.

              If or when it no longer does so, it can pass a vote of no confidence.

              It cannot, as in Cooper’s amendment, have its constitutional cake and eat it too.

              And there is a constitution. It is made up of countless procedures, laws and conventions. The fact that it isn’t written down in a consolidated document doesn’t mean that there isn’t one.

              Reply
              1. Avidremainer

                Your first two sentences stretch credibility too far.
                Parliament rejected Mrs May’s Brexit policy by an unheard of majority. Procedure and convention, if Mrs May were to follow it, would have meant her resignation.
                If Ms Cooper’s amendment passes then it too will be “constitutional”
                The unwritten ” constitution” is not worth the paper it is not written on.
                Mrs May’s behaviour is an outrage. She must resign.

                Reply
                1. vlade

                  There are only three forces on earth that can make May resign, and two have been tried and failed. Parliament no-confidence motion, Tory leadership motion, and May deciding to do so herself.

                  The reality is, government runs the day to day things, this is why it’s called executive. Parliament cannot order government – it can replace it, with no-confidence motion. Which failed.

                  Because a small minority in the Parliamnt likes the default outcome. And because even Tory “rebels” are not willing to drop May w/o a sensible replacement, of which there are exactly zero (not least becasue it would not solve lack of majority in the Parliament).

                  Unless that changes, the hands of Parliament in forcing executive to do something are tied.

                  Reply
                  1. Avidremainer

                    I agree. I think the main thrust is to try and prevent the government from doing something.
                    If you cut off enough avenues of escape then you trap the government into doing the only thing left, or resigning.
                    I hope Grieve, Cooper et al succeed, but time is not on their side.
                    Why do you think Mrs May refuses to take no deal off the table?
                    Her Chancellor and Business Secretary have been recorded telling UK business interests not to worry about no deal because parliament wouldn’t allow it.
                    It can’t be long before this government collapses under its own internal contradictions.

                    Reply
                2. Clive

                  May gets to go to the EU Council. She is the Head of Government. It is from her and her alone that the EU27 would legally have to receive any A50 extension request. The EU27 would be acting unlawfully to even discuss Brexit with any MP purporting to represent the U.K. who wasn’t a member of the U.K. government.

                  Parliament would have no authority to allocate a budget to any items of expenditure to cover costs arising from any A50 extension. Only at CalPERS do staff get to approve their own expenses by putting a fake rubber stamp on claims or a signature on a blank document. Parliament cannot do the same legislative equivalent.

                  Parliament can huff and puff all it likes. It can’t blow May’s house down unless it passes a motion of No Confidence in her government. It’s a shame that pretty much all the media decide to carry on putting up such nonsensical notions as we’re getting because they only encourage the gullible to believe that things aren’t the way they are. You begin to wonder what their motives are in trying to convince the population that it is a credible possibility that May could somehow be sent off to Brussels with Cooper and/or Grieve (or whoever) pulling her strings (“Merkel says best she can do is August Yvette, what should I say now?” or “Macron is saying it’ll be an extra €5bn to cover the EU budget ‘til July Dominic, can I put it on a credit card?”).

                  Ridiculous.

                  Reply
                  1. Avidremainer

                    Grieve and Cooper are a lot cleverer than you allow, Grieve in particular has a giant legal mind.
                    On a point of fact: Parliament controls the purse strings. No government may spend anything unless parliament agrees. All Bills are checked line by line by parliament. Only if parliament agrees can a bill become an Act. Thus the law is enacted, with money allocated with the agreement of parliament.
                    To compare parliament to CalPERS? Well I’ll pass over that.

                    Reply
                    1. Clive

                      Government advances a bill which the approval of parliament, if given, authorises the expenditure.

                      Parliament cannot advance a government bill, obviously, because it isn’t the government so if the result of a bill is government expenditure being created, the government can refuse to sanction the expenditure. If parliament somehow claims that it isn’t coercing the government to authorise expenditures it doesn’t want to authorise when that is precisely what it was doing, then it isn’t any better than CalPERS.

                      And how, exactly, is parliament going to make the government comply? The worst it can do is a No Confidence motion. Like the one it just declined to vote up.

                  2. David

                    There are precedents for EU states not having functioning governments, or having minority governments which had to get agreement from their parliaments for everything. Denmark in 1991 was one such, and it caused no end of trouble in the Maastricht negotiations. In practice, there would be no direct contacts between parliament and the EU; There would be deniable third-party talks, possibly hosted by another government (the Norwegians?) which would try to produce an “indicative” solution. Only then would things become visible.Officials and diplomats would have to be exquisitely careful, and I hope the level of expertise in the UK system is still adequate. It’s something that you could only consider in desperate circumstances like this.
                    I don’t know that money would be that much of a problem. Negotiating activity would be covered from existing budgets, and the process would not mean committing any actual new money to the EU, but rather finding out from them what they would accept. At some point, late in the day when the documents were drafted, the whole process would go legit. Desperate times, desperate measures.

                    Reply
  4. Anders K

    EDIT: was meant as response to Clive above, sorry for that!

    My point was that there are things the Parliament can do to hit back at May, but that AFAIK all of them have costs – for instance, while I am unsure whether they can put May in contempt “just because” legally, I am pretty sure that they can attempt to do so and that no matter the particular outcome, the end result is some sort of crisis (and days wasted). The usual safeguards to “don’t do stupid things” seems to be broken and who knows what levers they’ll pull in order to be seen doing something (anything).

    My main concern is that when you remove all good choices from people, they tend to reach for the stupid choices, as long as the stupid choices hurt you as well. Theresa May seems to be a unifier in that both the EU and the UK Parliament are unifying against her; for her to twit the nose of Parliament is to invite reprisals. When different parts of the government bicker, everyone suffers.

    (Sidenote – as a Swede, I don’t have a dog in this fight except for not wanting No-Deal Brexit and readily admit my lack of knowledge of the precise forms of retribution available to the UK Parliament – but I am convinced that they are there, since it has been along for quite a while and have amassed a set of – probably not used recently – capabilities like most parts of government tend to do.)

    Reply
    1. Clive

      Yes, and the big risk with throwing stupid things about is that if the entire U.K. government and political machinery is seen by the EU27 as not functional in a stable, constitutionally-compliant way, it can’t accept any instructions from the U.K. until it has sorted itself out and it can approach the EU27 in a way which offers legal certainty.

      This of course guarantees a No Deal Brexit because you’re having to wait for a set of legal processes and court judgements which take months. Those months don’t exist before March 29th.

      Reply
      1. Anders K

        Totally agree with you. I’m just not seeing a lot of sense swanning about the UK Parliament or Government at the moment.

        Reply
    2. vlade

      Unfortunately, it’s not like that.

      The problem is that while technically the UK runs a separation of powers (executive/legislative/judicary), in practice UK’s FPTP system delivers governments with majorities, and the PM has to be more aware of their own party than opposition. It’s very uncommon for MPs to cross party lines.

      The second, even worse, problem is that the default outcome here is no-deal exit. It takes only a very small minority of MPs to block anything. Unless there is a cross-party cooperation, cf above.

      Reply
      1. Colonel Smithers

        Thank you, Vlade.

        I wonder if there would have been Tory defections if Labour was not led by Corbyn. I am thinking of the defections to the Liberals and New Labour from Major’s Tory government.

        On the subject, one is reminded of Churchill’s quip that anyone can rat, but it takes a genius to rerat.

        Reply
      2. David

        Yes, I can’t remember how many times how many times I’ve tried to explain to Pol Sci graduates from different countries that in the UK the Executive controls Parliament, because if it didn’t, it would not be the Executive. At least until now. Much depends on how long you think party discipline can hold in this situation. In other political systems (the French Fourth Republic, for example) the parliament regularly brought down governments and replaced them with others within a few days. The UK parliament is actually holding a nuclear weapon. The problem is that the warhead, the arming switch and the delivery system are all controlled by different people. Will they get it together?

        Reply
  5. vlade

    With the above, my current worry is that if the UK ends with no-deal, which right now is IMO almost certain, it will also end up with the most incapable government (and opposition) imaginable. The MPs will engage at a blame-game, Corbyn will keep calling for GE (which the Tories will keep resisting), SNP will start planning Scottish Referendum, NI republicans the same etc. etc.

    And this can be put right to May’s door, from botching the election to setting her red lines so that the only possible partner was the DUP fanatics, and ruling as if she had a firm majority and a loyalty of her party. In pure incompetence (unless one counts the competence to make a bad mess worse) she’s the worst PM I can think of in the UK since at least Chamberlain.

    Reply
      1. vlade

        Labour failed in educating public what Brexit really means (assuming they had a clue, you can’t expect a clueless to teach..). Corbyn’s ignorance of Brexit and where May was leading was gross negligence.

        If May would have tried to forge a national consensus first, I’m sure Corbyn would have scuppered it for political gains.

        But she not only not tried, she made it very explicit she did not even consider it a viable or a right option. And as someone who has the power (at least nominally), I blame her a smidgen more.

        Reply
        1. Which is worse - bankers or terrorists

          But what is the problem with Scotland and Northern Ireland leaving? The current political entity clearly does not function and there does not appear to be hope of that improving.

          The entities leaving would create a political realignment that would resolve the current stalemate.

          Reply
          1. PlutoniumKun

            There is no mechanism for Scotland to leave the Union, unless Parliament grants it. Its part of the same Union, there is no existing body in Scotland with the power to split the Union. The Scottish Parliament could of course say ‘sod it, we are off’, but they’d then have to get recognised internationally which would be a huge problem if the legitimate government of the UK said ‘no, they are not independent’. They’d end up in a Taiwan style legal limbo that could last for many years.

            Northern Ireland is in a slightly different situation in that there is a constitutional mechanism to leave the United Kingdom – a border poll – recognised as part of the Good Friday Agreement. But nobody – including hard line Republicans – believe its a good idea to pull that one out of the hat at such an uncertain time.

            Reply
            1. Anonymous2

              If Scotland voted to leave the UK and the UK tried to block it, surely you are on the way to civil war in Great Britain?

              Reply
              1. PlutoniumKun

                I guess it depends on what you mean by ‘voted for it’. There would have to be a referendum and that could only be authorised by Parliament (the London one), so presumably that implies they would respect a leave vote – as with the one a few years ago. I would imagine that if the SNP decided to hold an unauthorised referendum then it would cause all sorts of problems, I don’t really know. You could argue that as Scotland voted by a majority for the SNP, and voted to stay in Europe, then implicitly they already have voted to leave. But it still would need Londons approval, not least because I doubt if many countries would recognise an independent Scotland in the face of objections from London.

                Reply
                1. David

                  I agree. The EU will be very nervous about encouraging the belief that regions – even formerly independent countries – can be given special treatment like this. Who knows where you are going to wind up? Indeed, the current effort in Europe (led by Macron) is all towards further and deeper integration, as a response to what’s usually described as “populism'”. The EU can’t stop Scotland holding a referendum, but they can make it clear that they won’t recognise the country as independent. After all, what’s next – Brittany? Corsica? the Basque Country? Catalonia? And Scotland has been part of the UK for much longer than Italy has even been a country.

                  Reply
                  1. Anonymous2

                    That is why I think bombs could start to go off. To pressure the English to agree to recognise an independent Scotland.

                    Reply
                    1. paul

                      Not a chance, at least not from independents.

                      Widely accused of being an agent provocateur is Major Frederick Alexander Colquhoun Boothby, who founded the paramilitary Tartan Army – the group that claimed responsibility for the bulk of the 1970s bombings. Boothby moved back to Edinburgh in the late 60s from Surrey, where he’d been “under suspicion of beguiling teenagers into Satanic rituals”. Boothby, alongside SNLA founder Adam Busby, was accused of being a Special Branch agent who infiltrated the nationalist movement to make it appear extremist and absurd. Similar claims have been repeated by infighting ultranationalists.

                      Always looked like a kitson style countergang operation to me.

                      The dependents/unionists have a far higher propensity to violence, as was seen in george square after the 2014 ref

                  2. Joe Well

                    And Scotland has been part of the UK for much longer than Italy has even been a country.

                    Has anyone ever written a book explaining Scottish nationalism? I get the feeling it’s kind of a psychological mechanism to dissociate from the Empire + recent British “foreign policy,” sort of how a lot of Americans feel like being black or a member of another minority absolves you of any responsibility for US foreign policy.

                    The people of Scotland do understand that the rest of the world doesn’t see much of a difference between them and the rest of the UK (and not as a result of ignorance, just objective judgement), don’t they?

                    Reply
                    1. PlutoniumKun

                      I’m not sure I’d agree that the rest of the world doesn’t see much of a difference – I’d imagine that a random poll of people around the world would find that a fair percentage would think it was an independent country (especially after one of those rare soccer World Cups where Scotland qualify). I think only a minority of people in the UK actually could explain correctly what the ‘UK’ actually represents (bearing in mind that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, not to mention the Channel Islands and Isle of Man) have their own pretty peculiar and unique constitutional set-ups.

                      The best source on what being Scottish actually means is summed up in this 90 second Youtube clip (from Trainspotting, so NSFW).

                  3. PlutoniumKun

                    I’ve wondered though whether the EU might actually think the opposite with Scotland – rather than seeing the recognition of a province as a country as a threat to the integrity of its members, the breakup of the UK could be seen as the ultimate punishment for the UK as a leaver. ‘Look what happens when you leave, you can’t even hold your country together’. The EU can then hold itself up as the protector both of regions and national integrity. Pour encourager les autres.

                    I do think the Scots Nat’s made a big mistake in not fighting harder in the immediate aftermath of Brexit to try to get the sort of deal NI was offered. I think there may have been an opening there for them to argue that Scotland could stay in the EU under the temporary umbrella of Dublin as a transition period (since this is essentially what NI was offered). Last week the leader of Plaid Cymru said this was his long term hope for Wales – a sort of confederation of Celtic States that could have a better deal with the EU than the UK alone.

                    Reply
                    1. Ignacio

                      The effect of a breakup in UK in places like Catalonia would be, at least initially, to push nationalists further for independence, no matter that this case would be different because it would be Catalonia the country that leaves the euro after independence. Watching UK politics these days is helpful to see how stupid politics can be anywhere –UK just reflects a loss in leadership that is quite general in OECD countries– and I would add that catalonian nationalists, particularly the tory-like rigth wing individuals like Puigdemont, can be assimilated as the Rees-Moggs & the Johnsons no-deal crazies of “Catalunya”.

                2. Nigel Goddard

                  Referendums in U.K. and Scots law are advisory. So the Scottish government can run one in Scotland without Westminster permission, as it has no legal effect in its own. But Westminster can ignore the result. If there was a big majority in Scotland in a referendum to dissolve the union, and Westminster refused, I expect you’d see mass disobedience of various forms in Scotland. Would definitely not be pretty. Lots of ifs in there though.

                  Reply
                  1. paul

                    But Westminster can ignore the result.

                    Which is what happened in scotland 1979 after a 51.6% yes vote, thanks to a labour amendment requiring 40% of the electorate and the suppression of the mccrone report showing scotland’s economic viability.

                    A standard that the EU ref did not meet (37.4% of the electorate for leave)

                    Reply
      2. Anders K

        Maybe we can all agree on giving Cameron a large chunk of blame? Or share it with May?
        Whatever gets us closer to actually start fixing things, honestly.

        Reply
      3. FFA

        @vlade: No love hate for Sir Anthony Eden?
        @Clive: Do you fault for Labour for a particular sin of commission? If so, what? It’s not obvious to me what the opposition has done that eclipses the actions of the prime minister, the previous prime minister, the leaders of the leave campaigns (and their subsequent successes as foreign and brexit ministers) or the parties that put most of the above in power and maintain them there.
        Some effective opposition would be nice though.

        Reply
        1. Clive

          The main sin is that of looking stupid. It keeps standing on its stool, like a Victorian housemaid who, having seen a mouse, proceeds to perform a right old carry on “oh my ! oh my ! a mouse ! a mouse ! help ! help ! someone make it go away !” but rather than a mouse, it is No Deal they reference.

          To which, all May has to do and, indeed does do, is say “well, you can vote for my Deal then”.

          Upon which, Labour then resumes the Victorian housemaid act thusly: having said it won’t vote for May’s Deal it resumes the playacting “oh my ! oh my ! a No Deal Brexit ! a No Deal Brexit ! help ! help ! someone make it go away !”

          Various Labour MPs at random intervals offer mouse catching services (sorry, No Deal prevention services) such as a second referendum, Norway, Canada, “a” or “the” or “new” or “updated” Customs Unions and so on. But since Labour then becomes even dumber, if that were possible, and fails to agree on which mouse catching service is the one to employ. Thereby adding incompetence and disorganisation as an opposition party to stupidity.

          Reply
          1. FFA

            Ah. Nobody likes a (bad) court jester.
            But, while Labour are contributing to the comedy in parliament, the country is on the path chosen by Theresa May (and Cameron before her).

            Reply
            1. vlade

              Indeed. But Labour did squat all to change the trajectory, which was deeply idiotic from the moment of May’s Lancaster House speach. Major point in case being triggering A50 w/o a plan.

              Reply
      4. Ape

        Why? At the end the uk runs as a temporary dictatorship. A party controls parliament and as long as that party functions it controls everything – it runs as a one party state until it falls apart. Even having elections are due to the majority party believes that not doing so would explode the system.

        So at the end of the day all responsibility falls on the ruling party to keep the constitutional system functioning. The Tories have created a constitutional crisis by failing to recognize their failure and giving up power in defense of their long term interest in keeping the system going.

        I don’t see how anyone can blame anyone except the ruling party for failing to defend the constitution. They’re the only ones with the legal authority to do so.

        Reply
    1. David

      Actually, I wouldn’t be too hard on Chamberlain. His government launched the rearmament program that produced Spitfires, Hurricanes and radar in 1940, without which Churchill would never have had his finest hour.

      Reply
      1. Colonel Smithers

        Thank you, David.

        I agree with you.

        It helps that Churchill was more charismatic, better connected, had a more interesting back story and, more importantly, realised that for history to be kind to him, he should write it.

        Reply
        1. Eclair

          ” … (he) realized that for history to be kind to him, he should write it.”

          Thank you, Colonel, for providing a much-needed laugh at this point in the discussion!

          Reply
      2. vlade

        True – he at least was able to see the reality when it was finally staring him in the face (i.e. occupation of the rump Czechoslovakia despite promises making it clear to everyone that you could not do deals with Hitler). May can’t do even that.

        We have to ask Colonel to dig an approriately incompetent Brittish PM then.

        Reply
        1. Colonel Smithers

          Thank you, Vlade.

          From the history books, Lords North and Wellington for incompetence. In my lifetime, Brown, Cameron and May.

          For venality, but not incompetence, Thatcher and Blair.

          David and you are right to explain. Mainstream coverage of such history tends to be black and white, which explains why Churchill is held in such esteem.

          Reply
  6. Freddo

    If May does not play ball, her key ministers like Hammond could walk and make her job untenable. Further surely Parliament has the nuclear option of revoking the withdrawal if May is totally unreasonable. The issue of a humble address to the queen has also been raised

    Reply
    1. Which is worse - bankers or terrorists

      I understood that the Queen in 2016 commented to others that she didn’t understand why the UK was in the EU.

      Reply
      1. Colonel Smithers

        Thank you.

        You may remember how she dressed, blue and yellow, at a function not long after the referendum for her true feelings.

        Reply
      2. Anonymous2

        That was based on a report by Gove who is both a politician and a journalist – the two least trustworthy types in the UK. I would take it with a ton of salt.

        She also wore the EU colours to the State Opening of Parliament. This is a woman who comments by means of the brooches she wears.

        Reply
        1. shtove

          Are you thinking of this by Tina Brown, at the start of her assassination piece of BloJo?

          There were ritual denials from the palace last week after the queen’s (pro-EU) biographer Robert Lacey, writing in The Daily Beast, quoted the monarch as having issued this icy challenge to her dinner guests: “Give me three good reasons why Britain should be part of Europe.”

          But if you talk to any of her intimate circle who are in a position to know her point of view, there is little doubt that Her Maj was a keen Brexiteer.

          https://www.thedailybeast.com/beware-boris-johnson-the-power-of-a-cunning-clown?ref=scroll

          Reply
    2. flora

      Though May’s position might be untenable, I think no one in the divided Tory party wants to take the Brexit hot potato from her; the Torys are willing to let May keep it (and be personally blamed for the disaster). Torys also don’t want Labor to get in. It looks like a standoff within the Tory party as well as between parties. My 2¢ from the US.

      Reply
  7. Samuel Conner

    One suspects that PM TM will not ever have sufficient self-awareness to be distressed by what she has wrought.

    Imagining an alternate universe in which that could happen, here might be a fantasy metaphor (from the BBC, too)

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KSxr5V4rY8Y

    sadly, there won’t be a Doctor with a “dimension vault” to protect the world from the crashing machinery

    Reply
  8. David

    The simplest way of understanding this is to think of it in flow-chart terms. Thus:
    1. MPs are elected by the voters.
    2. The Queen asks whichever group, or these days groups, of MPs seems most able to form a government to do so.
    3. The government governs by executive action, and where this requires legislation introduces it.
    4. Parliament, under normal circumstances, passes the legislation.
    5. Parliament can refuse to approve legislation or pass vote of no-confidence. In the latter case, GOTO 2.
    But the key is that this process only works in one direction. What we are seeing here is equivalent to trying to reverse entropy. Parliament cannot direct the executive to change a policy, it can only make the policy impossible in practical terms to implement, normally when legislation is needed. But no-deal Brexit is not a policy, it is an accident, and parliament cannot direct the government to carry out a policy change that would stop it. All that can happen is a trial of strength which has one of three outcomes: Art 50 extension, Art 50 abandoned, or WA accepted at the second attempt. The first two of these cannot be legislated for: they have to result from political pressure alone, and a political and PR battle which the government loses. The third would require parliament to back down.
    The only faintly plausible scenario I could see would be something like the following. Cross-party talks would establish a majority against the government which could form a government whose only policy would be to withdraw, or conceivably delay, Art 50. The Queen would have been tipped off in advance, as would the EU 27. After the vote of confidence, the Queen would, by arrangement, ask someone to form a government. Depending on how the cards fell, that government would either ask for a (fairly serious) extension of Art 50, or withdraw the notification. Repeal of the EUWA would then follow automatically. Then there would be a General Election. It would be messy, it may be impossible, and is certainly very difficult. But it’s the only path I can see through the minefield.

    Reply
    1. PlutoniumKun

      I hope May hasn’t seen the film The Favourite. There is a scene where Queen Anne is faced with an impossible dilemma in front of Parliament and solves it by pretending to faint. She might feel its her best option.

      Reply
    2. shtove

      Surely May would have to step down, formally return her seal of office. Or flee the country and form a government in exile on, say, Guernsey, living off the crumbs in her husband’s tax-haven vault?

      Reply
    3. larry

      A no-deal Brexit need not be an accident. It could be brought about intentionally. I am not arguing for this but it could be argued that, in discussing the prevention of a no deal Brexit, Corbyn could be interpreted as saying that an intention to bring about Brexit be taken off the table, which would mean that, should it occur, it would follow from other actions or non-actions, and May could be interpreted as talking about Brexit as a result if nothing else is done, like voting for her WA. In essence, they could be viewed as talking past one another. This is to put the best case for Corbyn, which I am not arguing for, but it is the logic of the situation. That is, this is a logically possible interpretation of what is taking place in this particular instance, which carries the implication that Corbyn is being deliberately obfuscatory.

      Reply
      1. PlutoniumKun

        John Harris had an excellent article yesterday about the rising campaign for a no deal. He focuses on the usual right wing English nationalists, but I’ve a feeling (not based on facts, just a feeling) that Corbyn and some of his circle genuinely see this as a best case scenario. They see it as taking Brexit off the table (i.e. its all done and dusted), and they’ll be able to pick up the pieces as it crashes around the heads of the Tories, and would allow them to implement Disaster Socialism.

        I think that there are more people out there than we think who genuinely want a no deal for a whole range of reasons, from the deluded to the mendacious. I strongly suspect they’ll discover rapidly what the word ‘blowback’ means.

        Reply
    4. Sw94

      Your flowchart is obviously accurate, but the key point is that the UK constitution is uncodified- that is the way it operates, until it doesn’t. Predicting the inflection points is impossible, although it may be possible to identify a level of pressure which could cause an inflection. However, Stephen Laws spent his career operating within what the general understanding is- he is for that reason poorly placed to predict whether we are at an inflection point.

      The various proposed Parliamentary amendments have a twin track effect- they provide the Government with a ladder to climb down should it wish to do so, and a ladder for rebellious Tory MPs to climb up, potentially to your stage 5b. In any normal circumstances, that would be enough. But these are not normal times- a Government blackmailing the legislature into supporting its proposals “or the country gets it” tells you that. As its steadfast refusal to give Parliament time to explore alternatives, which led Bercow, quite rightly in my view, to say that if the Government isn’t going to be bound by previous norms, nor am I.

      The second track, more debatable for the reasons rehearsed here, is to create a legislative direction. It is clear that the Government is subject to the law, and that laws can be prescriptive as well as proscriptive. So the questions are whether the law is valid, and therefore enforceable, and is it capable of performance (ie would the EU agree with what we asked for). I am also assuming that the sponsors have done their homework and can find a route to get the legislation through Parliament. The idea that then the Queen would not give it Royal Assent based on advice from the PM seems far fetched- we have no concept of a veto, at least since Queen Anne. Her refusal would provoke a different crisis.

      The main validity objection seems to be the money question. This is likely to be a question of degree- after all most private MPs Bills are likely to have some money effect, even if pretty small. So the Government would have to argue that Bill is invalid because the net financial effect on its plans would be significant. Good luck with that, faced with the costs of the alternative.

      The performance issue is clearly unknowable until the time comes. Since unilateral revocation is available, if the EU is unwilling, the fact that the EU may refuse our request should not itself stop Parliament from controlling the process of it wants to.

      Ultimately validity is a question for the Supremes. Lots of barrack room lawyers were arguing that invoking A50 was clearly within the Royal Prerogative. Even though Parliament had shown little interest, the judges still found a way to say “this is a big decision for the country, Parliament should have a say”. Anyone who confidently says that they won’t do the same on this is being naive. As of course would be the reverse proposition.

      In the background is the Lanacaster house speech, which provides the policy backdrop for Parliament to approve the A50 letter. The WA is far from what was promised in that speech, but the Government is in effect claiming that Parliament has no right to have second thoughts- it had its chance to control the policy, it blew it, tough. What could be termed the “strong” version of your flowchart. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see “ordinarily” being inserted in there somewhere, a “weak” version in other words.

      The term unprecedented is much used at the moment. Time to remember what that word actually means.

      Reply
      1. David

        Yes, I agree that we may be coming to an inflection point. In effect, I think what has now been shown is that there is no solution to this problem within the current rules. This leaves two possibilities (1) crash out or (2) change the rules. This is where vlade’s point earlier about an unacknowledged civil war going on is important. Civil wars, by definition, do not respect rules and precedents, and they create a new reality once they are over. We also need to bear in mind that we haven’t seen the worst of the crisis yet. May’s behaviour may become sufficiently unstable that, as other options fail and an awareness of the likely consequences grows, the relative balance of forces and ideas will almost certainly change. The kind of soft coup I mentioned above seems to me the most that would be feasible, but who is to say what the situation will be like in a month’s time?
        There is also the ghost of an argument that could be made in support of a Royal prerogative withdrawal of Art 50. Those who voted for Brexit were voting to conclude a withdrawal agreement with the EU, and leave the Union in an orderly fashion. They were not voting for a non-agreement, or for the chaotic consequences, and, like any purchaser of a service they were expecting the government to supply them with the promised objective (an orderly exit from the EU) which it has (so far) failed to do. It could also be argued that they expected an exit to leave the UK better off, or there would have been no point. Obviously that’s not the case either; It’s not much of an argument, but I’ve seen lawyers manage with less. But then again, if the correlation of forces changes, maybe constitutional lawyers will suddenly start saying that this has “always” been the case.

        Reply
        1. SW94

          Good to hear that someone else is broadly on the same page- if I am mad, at least I am not alone.

          Jacob Rees Mogg has just perpetrated another breach of norms- arguing that Parliament should be suspended so as to prevent Parliament from stopping the delivery of a specific policy outcome. Quite how that is different from what Charles 1 did, with ultimately unfortunate consequences for him, I am unclear.

          Reply
          1. ChrisPacific

            The spectacle of watching Parliament try to legislate specific executive functions is something to see as an outside observer. I wonder how it will appear to future historians. It’s like reading through archives and finding a bylaw requiring X (an 18th century parliamentarian) to take back what he said about my mother.

            Reply
            1. shtove

              That’s why the two sides of the commons are seperated by more than the length of two swords.

              Better to arrange them in a circle, so when the shooting starts nobody gets out alive.

              Reply
      2. Yves Smith Post author

        I think you are overestimating the “uncodified” part.

        The UK and US operate on a common law system. That means both statue and case law are what guide a judge’s decisions.

        In cutting edge matters, case law often has to be made with no/little statue

        The UK “constitution” is analogous to an all/heavily case law system. That does not mean it isn’t formalized. It simply isn’t formalized mainly in one place.

        Reply
        1. Ape

          But in theory, at bottom, all power emanates from parliament. A majority in theory have dictatorial power.

          In practice of course that’s not true because the game is iterative. Thus bad choices can blow the game up.

          Looks like they are approaching that point.

          Reply
        2. SW94

          Probably a bit loose language by me- very little, perhaps none is codified like the US constitution, but lots of it is written down on scraps of paper in different places as you say. Which is a form of codification, but where riders, exceptions and variations can be added where new circumstances arise. Which is how common law systems evolve new laws.

          All it takes is someone to declare “this is a new situation”, so long as is there isn’t anybody else able to mount an effective challenge to that person’s decision. The Speaker has that capacity in some areas, the Supreme Court in others, and (least likely in practice) the Queen in yet others.

          And of course Parliament. Which can do anything, so long as it is not inconsistent with something else it has previously done and not later undone.

          Reply
  9. Colonel Smithers

    It’s quite an indictment of the UK media that the best explanations of the constitutional and political aspects / impasse come from this website, especially today’s and recent contributions from Clive and David.

    Until the late 1990s, recognised experts, not the charlatans who now skip from talk show to talk show and op ed to op ed, were prominent on TV and the centre pages.

    Programmes like Panorama, Weekend World, The World In Action, TV Eye, The World This Week, The Money Programme were shown on prime time. They covered the UK’s membership of the then EEC, implications of 1992 / the single market and possible membership of the single currency in depth and without hysteria.

    EMU was the main European issue debated in the 1990s. The likes of Wynne Godley, Bob Rowthorn, Barry Eichengreen, Paul Krugman (OK, I know), Christopher Dow et al were regulars on the airwaves and the papers. Not so now.

    The tide turned from the late 1990s, when Blair introduced Clinton / DLC razzmatazz to the UK. Star columnists and other hacks who seem to know everything and everyone became the norm.

    Reply
    1. Avidremainer

      And how! I’d be interested to know your views on how the BBC can maintain its claim to impartiality when the journalists used are so ignorant. They allow all sorts of tosh to go unchallenged from both sides of the Brexit argument. This does not educate the public it keeps them in deep ignorance.

      Reply
      1. Colonel Smithers

        Thank you.

        I agree with you about the impartiality and ignorance, “overeducated fools” as Dr North calls them.

        That’s not the worse thing. It’s the arrogance.

        I support a think tank / forum in the City, the Centre for the Study of Financial Innovation. We invite journalists, civil servants, foreign diplomats, academics etc. to attend discussions. The hacks rarely attend.

        Last summer, a Canadian diplomat remarked how unreal the Westminster talks were in comparison. She said that the Westminster ones are just media and politics bubbles, all flattering one another and inhaling their own supply.

        Reply
  10. Ataraxite

    Whether or not May or the Parliament are following conditional niceties, it’s pretty clear that Britain’s mechanisms of government are opaque, antiquated, complex and not fit for purpose. When Brexit is over – if, indeed, Brexit will ever be over – they should really take a long hard look at everything.

    Here’s a further wrinkle: there comes a date, around February 10 or so, when a No Confidence motion will guarantee a No Deal Brexit. This is because a general election requires roughly 6 weeks, there’s a 14 day dithering period after a MoNC passes before parliament returns, and once the MoNC passes, Britain doesn’t really have a government who could make a constitutionally proper request to extend or revoke Article 50.

    Reply
  11. Anonymous2

    Thank you, Yves. Good post and interesting comments as always.

    On the Cooper bill, the FT carried a report the other day that the Government had agreed to provide Parliamentary time for the Cooper bill if by the end of February there was no progress in any other direction. It seems to me that there are a number of interpretations one could place on this;

    1 The FT is wrong (perfectly possible)

    2. The FT is correctly reporting a feed from someone in the Government but the feed is false.

    3. The Government is being duplicitous, making promises it has no intention of keeping or at least keeping in a way which is meaningful (choice of word deliberate).

    4. The FT will be proved correct.

    Time will tell.

    On other developments, Ivan Rogers has made another speech, this time at UCL. I think it is worth a listen. One of the points I took from it is that the EU is having difficulty managing its approach to the UK because the EU is used to dealing with a rational, consistent, if difficult, entity in the UK whose decisions were ultimately formed by pursuit of UK economic self interest. The problem is that the UK as it behaved up to 2016 is no longer on the other side of the table. Instead there is this strange being which cannot seem to think straight, is swayed by bizarre emotions and fantasies, cannot make up its mind on anything for any length of time and cannot be trusted to keep its promises.

    I do not know if it is accurate but I recall reading a suggestion on another comments board that in the after-speech Q&A, Rogers described the UK as ‘sleepwalking towards disaster’.

    Reply
    1. Clive

      Re: the FT.

      My dear, how long have you got? It could be because the FT’s Brexit coverage on occasions descends into sub-Daily Mail levels of Let’s Just Make Stuff Up. It could be because it is part of some bizarre move in May’s 11-dimensional chess game (hmm… May… 11-dimentional chess…? let me rephrase that…) May’s one-dimensional chess game to scare the willies off the Ultras so they consider voting her Deal through. It could be because May is quite happy to let Cooper and the rest flail around in the Commons, generate loads of noise and headlines for a couple of weeks, then promptly nix the whole thing in the Lords — and promptly end up with, say less than a month to go before Exit Day where there’s even more panic. It could be because May has already sounded the EU27 out about what sort of extension they might give, it isn’t suffice to say anything like until 31st December and this gives her an opportunity to formally ask and for the EU27 to formally say “get stuffed, May”. It could be because Larry, the Downing Street cat is secretly running the government and was bribed by the offer of some cheesey treats.

      I could go on. But I’d better not.

      Reply
  12. notabanker

    What is the British people’s sense of the Monarch’s role in all of this?

    “A. V. Dicey, however, believed that in certain extreme circumstances the monarch could dissolve Parliament single-handedly, on the condition that “an occasion has arisen on which there is fair reason to suppose that the opinion of the House is not the opinion of the electors… A dissolution is allowable, or necessary, whenever the wishes of the legislature are, or may fairly be presumed to be, different from the wishes of the nation.”[16]”

    While the wording of the referendum is pretty clear, leave the EU, an unorderly process could cause great harm to the nation, and certainly a case can be built that the electorate itself has lost confidence in the House and Government.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Royal_prerogative_in_the_United_Kingdom

    Reply
  13. wvjohn

    Transcript of Sir Ivan Rogers’ Jan 22 2019 lecture. His insights into the current process and how it diverges from reality are pretty scary.

    Reply
      1. Clive

        Yes, I agree totally. This is not a situation where parliament being prorogued is even remotely indicated. Which is why one of my hunches (outlined in more detail a little way above) is that one of May’s mind games (Ha! What a prospect …) is to facilitate ever increasing levels of Brexit Derangement Syndrome in order to create that oldest of sales techniques, the drama of persuasion.

        Reply
        1. David

          Paradoxically, his intervention may actually harden the resolve of some in parliament to confront May. If they’re going to treat us like that ….

          Reply
      2. Colonel Smithers

        Thank you, Gents.

        @ David: As a civil servant, you may recall the BBC’s frequent bust ups with the Tory government in the 1980s and the forcing out of Alasdair Milne as director-general.

        You may recall William Rees-Mogg, Jacob’s father, as BBC Chairman and Milne, father of Corbyn’s media handler Seumas, as D-G. JRM was at Eton at the time. Seumas was at Winchester. Both sons ended up at Oxford. Apparently, Seumas was scarred by his father’s treatment and nursed a grudge ever since.

        That feud reminds me of the one between BA boss Lord King and Virgin’s Richard Branson. Branson’s father was a judge and landowner in Surrey. King’s father was the village postman and not enamoured of the squire.

        One wonders if other people matter in these things. The players seem to be related and their families and feuds persist.

        Reply
        1. David

          Yes, I remember the BBC’s problems very well. These were the days when Norman Lamont could casually raise a laugh at the Tory Party conference by sneering at the “Bolshevik Broadcasting Corporation.”
          The serious point is that Milne, like the senior civil service and indeed most of the establishment, simply didn’t realise what he was dealing with. These were people who believed absolutely in the unwritten norms and procedures that we’ve been discussing, and assumed they would always hold. They hadn’t realised that such norms are only effective if everybody agrees to uphold them, and that Thatcher’s government were a group of thugs with no interest in playing by traditional rules. Arguably (and I’ve felt this ever since) the establishment missed a big trick here. People like Milne, as well as the top civil servants, should have told Thatcher to (your choice of verb) off at the very beginning. Instead, they thought they could appease her, and that it they just waited a bit, and trimmed their sails, things would get back to normal. That was the most catastrophic misjudgement of modern British politics, and the Brexit saga is, in many ways, the logical consequence of the establishment’s lack of willpower.
          Incidentally, there was time when I flew a lot on routes served by both BA and Virgin (I always flew Virgin if I could). Talking to the Virgin crews I definitely got the impression there was something personal going on.

          Reply
        2. Avidremainer

          Lets face it, the ’16 referendum was principally a bunfight between three ex-members of the Bullingdon club.

          Reply
    1. fajensen

      The poor sod is probably a wee bit down on his short positions and is now trying to engineer a closeout?

      I did not expect markets to rally from the 3’rd but I closed OK. I do think I smell that the springs are being charged for either a big rally further up or a rather big dump so I am not keen on making a bet right now.

      For now I think that the OMX-30 index will go at least to 1531’ish –

      Unless Donald Trump tweets something or something radically different happens with Brexit. We probably will have to wait until mid February, to properly set up a fresh position on new Brexit Volatility. One should of course watch carefully ‘what gives’ after January the 29’th. Maybe the penny will finally drop for the media and they will see what the Brexit options actually are.

      Reply
    2. Ape

      Wow. It also says that their were factions suggesting that the pm should tell the queen to refuse assent.

      The threat is a coup threat.

      Reply
    1. Colonel Smithers

      Thank you.

      That may explain why he’s buying cereal farms there, and next door Lincolnshire, and dairy in the west country.

      Reply
  14. ptb

    In my uninformed, very non-UK opinion:

    With a number of clear “hints” from the EU that an extension til July is now on the table, I would maybe gently challenge Yves etc on the assumption that July is a hard date (just like March isn’t).

    Why would a brinkmanship type gambit, to get extension for the full year, be any crazier than the other options? Isn’t it actually the least-worst option?

    — recap / am I missing something? —

    soft brexit: conservatives lose their right wing to the crazies.
    no brexit via repeat referendum: same as above, at the moment
    hard brexit: breaks up May’s party, the UK, and the EU all at once.
    May’s deal (semi-hard?): DOA in parliament as very thoroughly covered here
    Mythical have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too brexit: lacks EU support
    crash-out/no-deal: crap for everyone.

    I say, don’t underestimate the fine art of doing nothing and buying time.

    Reply
    1. Yves Smith Post author

      What you wrote is in no way inconsistent with what I have been writing. The longest time rumored to be on offer from well-plugged-in reporters has been July. I’ve said that.

      And the EU has been saying since at least the Oct council meeting that if the UK asked for an extension (implying it expected a request), the UK had to have a reason and Parliament needed to have a “settled view”. Nothing you are claiming is at odd at that. Moscovici reaffirmed that idea at Davos today.

      I will come back and add the link, but Lambert linked to a Washington Post story a few days ago which had numerous EU officials saying they had no idea where these UK stories re the EUs supposed eagerness to grant an extension were coming from. It was as clear a statement as you ever see that the officials depicted them as made up.

      Here it is: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/britain-is-operating-as-if-a-brexit-delay-is-there-for-the-taking-its-not/2019/01/19/83da06a2-1b2a-11e9-b8e6-567190c2fd08_story.html

      Reply
      1. Ptb

        Thanks for your response.

        The Moscovici statement, per AP coverage, contained an invitation for a second referendum. Exactly what the UK Govt and most MPs prefer but can’t say.

        They both want the same outcome (referendum rerun) and everyone knows it, it’s just a question of whether May commits political suicide, and also radicalizes UK politics, by asking for it openly? Or else the EU team blinks and takes a hit on their “credibility” (an overrated concept IMO) by allowing the UK special treatment via a series of extensions. Hence the gambit.

        I guess I had a hard time seeing any other outcome.

        Reply
      2. vlade

        Kurz (Austrian Chancellor) has repeatedly said in the last week or so that the EU is “prepared to extend the deadline if that’s what it takes to avoid a no-deal”. A recent (today, Davos) quotes from him:

        “The offer [to postpone] is there anyway.” “That we’re ready, if necessary, to postpone the exit date. But of course, Great Britain must want it, too.”

        This is from someone who sits on the EC as a head of state, not an unnamed diplomatic source. It’s not even a hint. It’s a pretty clear statement – I’ll take a word from him over WP anytime of the day.

        There were similar statements late last year from the Czech and Maltese PMs, and a few others I can’t remember right now.

        It does not indicate how long the extension would be, but to me it’s pretty clear it’s there for UK’s asking.

        The EU could still do it “just so” (that is w/o a clear path from the UK) – not for the British, but to give themselves more time, as it’s becoming very apparent French and Irish are not very ready either.

        But the UK has to ask. Given this, May might be playing game of chicken both with her MPs and the EU. In the game with the EU, May has always blinked so far, which does not portend well for the EU backing off.

        Reply
        1. Yves Smith Post author

          This is not what the Washington Post reported in an extensively-sourced story on the 19th : Britain is operating as if a Brexit delay is there for the taking. It’s not. Key sections:

          Amid the chaos following the British Parliament’s historic rejection of a plan for the country’s orderly withdrawal from the European Union, British lawmakers increasingly feel they will need to ask to extend their impending departure deadline — and that E.U. leaders will give them what they want.

          The idea is splashed across British tabloid headlines. The London commentariat takes it as a given. Hard-line advocates of the divorce from the European Union say it would be a catastrophic mistake — but even they seem to expect it will happen.

          The only problem? The remaining 27 E.U. nations are not sure they are willing to give Britain a break, according to diplomats involved in the discussions — and any reprieve requires their unanimous approval…

          The British assumption that Brexit could easily be postponed would extend the stream of false assumptions, misperceptions and miscalculations that have plagued London policymakers since the June 2016 vote to leave the European Union…

          On Wednesday, Rutte said Brussels would look “charitably” on a Brexit extension request from London, echoing remarks from French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

          But there were strings attached — many of which seem to have sunk in the English Channel on their way over to Britain.

          “We have to have an idea how they want to solve things, because it is no use to continue to run in circles for a few more months,” Rutte said.

          That viewpoint is widely shared in Brussels: a willingness to entertain a British request for more time, but only on the condition that Downing Street gives credible assurances that it will not use the time to press for concessions that have already failed on the continent.

          Many policymakers working on Brexit in Brussels say Britain has given them little reason to expect a real plan.

          “Miscalculations are a continuous fact,” one senior European diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity to offer a frank assessment of the British position. “There will be no extension with unknown purpose.”…

          “E.U. ready to delay withdrawal until next year,” read one headline this week in the Times of London.

          “Either those sources are uninformed or making themselves interesting or just speculating,” said the senior European diplomat.

          Reply
          1. vlade

            Altemaier (German minister, Merkel’s ally), Jan 16, talking to BBC:

            “I have not yet seen a clear position on how to proceed further,” Altmaier said. “The U.K. should have sufficient time to clarify its position and, if needed, the European Union should allow for additional time in order to achieve a clear position by the British parliament and people.”

            “We should wait until parliament has come to the conclusions, and then we should consider what we can do. When parliament needs more time, then this is something that certainly will have be considered by the European Council. Personally, I would see this as a reasonable request.”

            In both cases, these are top/senior, named, figures saying things in public. WaPo has “senior diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity”.

            That said, it does match with the “not use the time to press for concessions that have already failed on the continent”. But that’s not to same as “a bit more time to sit down and think what the hell you want”.

            Reply
            1. Yves Smith Post author

              The EU had had multiple official spokesmen say pretty close to the same thing: the EU is not going to give an extension unless Parliament has a “settled view”. I have not read Sir Ivan Rogers latest speech yet, but one pretty detailed recap had Sir Ivan similarly saying that the EU was not keen about giving the UK an extension merely to have it thrash around some more.

              Reply
              1. PlutoniumKun

                My interpretation of the more recent statements is that the EU is essentially saying to London ‘don’t take us for granted’. They must be aware of the various proposals floating around Parliament that seem to take it as assumed that A.50 can be extended indefinitely.

                I wouldn’t normally link to Timothy Garton Ash in the Guardian (pretty much a neolibs neolib), but he is well connected in the EU and he says that:

                Fortunately, there are enough people in parliament, supported by numerous individual members of the government, who recognise that we can’t go on like this. If two key amendments tabled with cross-party support are passed next week, parliament itself will be able to take the initiative in debates about Brexit every Tuesday – and if no way forward has been found by the end of February, the government will be instructed to seek an extension of article 50.

                Before formulating the request for an extension, however, politicians would do well to stop for a moment and – unlike the man at the drinks party – look at it from the other’s point of view. If the UK is constrained by its laws and politics, so is the EU27. The key legal problem is those elections to the European parliament. European law says that the new parliament cannot legally convene on 2 July unless there are properly elected representatives from all the member states. If the UK remains a member state, but does not hold European elections, everything the new parliament does would be vulnerable to legal challenge.

                Behind the legal problem is the politics. Some people in the EU really want the UK to leave, and would be happy to use this issue as a justification for pushing the recalcitrant Brits out of the door. Many more would in principle like the UK to stay, but are completely exasperated with London’s shillyshallying and feel it is more important for the rest of the EU to get on with saving itself. Then there are those who really want us to stay, including the likely next chancellor of Germany, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (aka AKK) and other leading German figures who recently conveyed that message in an extraordinary, heartfelt letter to the Times. But they, too, are impatient for the UK to say what it wants. Specifically, as the European commissioner Pierre Moscovici puts it, the EU needs a “reasoned request” for extending article 50.

                Now here’s the rub. Most EU sources agree that it would be relatively straightforward to get an extension until 1 July (thus not significantly affecting the new European parliament). Those extra three months might be sufficient for the UK parliament to agree some tweaked version of May’s deal, or to put the goal of a softer Brexit (somewhere between permanent customs union and Norway plus) into the political declaration. They are nothing like enough to have the national debate we need and then hold a carefully prepared second referendum. Moreover, it is not until after the European elections, the appointment of four top people in the EU (the new presidents of the European council, European commission, European parliament and European Central Bank), and quite possibly the emergence of Kramp-Karrenbauer as head of a new German government, that we will have a clearer idea of what kind of EU it is we will finally be deciding to stay in or leave.

                Reply
              2. vlade

                Yes, but they cannot really say anything different right now.

                That, IMO, does not mean they would not extend till end of July just so.

                NOT because of the UK, but because of the EU (in particular to give France and Ireland a bit more time, as they seem as unprepared in some ways as the UK is). It would cost the EU little (IF, and it’s a big if, the UK asks), and gain them quite a bit. They cannot go out and say – you know what, we’d use a bit more time too, so how about you extend? As that would just make sure the Ultras would come in saying “see, they do need us more than we them”. The EU must look (mostly) ready to go no-deal. Everyone knows the UK is not ready, so if the EU looks even mostly ready, it has the upper hand.

                They would have to have an excuse to extend, but that’s all that would do – an excuse. May coming back and asking the same things she has been asking for two years is not an excuse, that’s a distraction and irritation (I suspect more than a few EU politicians had it with May).

                Reply
    2. none

      hard brexit: breaks up May’s party, the UK, and the EU all at once. …
      crash-out/no-deal: crap for everyone.

      How are these two different? I thought hard brexit meant no deal.

      How bad IS no deal anyway? Yeah lots of immediate disruption and economic damage, but would there be an actual shooting war? Or just a matter of people putting up with various hardships but having some semblance of normalcy again within a decade or so? Is it worse than the breakup of the ex-USSR? How would it mean that the EU breaks up, other than the UK splitting off which was the idea of brexit? Still unclear on all these basics.

      Reply
      1. Yves Smith Post author

        A hard Brexit is a deal with a distant relationship to the EU. A crashout is no deal at all. So yes, ptb is using terminology incorrectly, although in fairness to him, so is pretty much all of the press and MPs. And I don’t buy at all that a crash out breaks up the EU. It might even further solidify it in the interim. External crises tend to lead people to put aside their differences for a while.

        We have written about a no deal scenario at length. UK citizens (except from those at the top who engage in a plutocratic land grab) will suffer a permanent and large decline in their standard of living. The UK already has close to an unsustainably large trade deficit. It will get worse under a Brexit because UK goods going to the EU, its main export market, will face trade barriers. Most of these goods are made by multinationals (auto and aircraft parts) who don’t need to be in the UK per se and will shift non-UK production out of the UK. The pound falling will not give the UK an export lift (we saw that during the crisis) because it has the wrong mix of goods plus now border hassles will more than offset any price advantage. The pound falling plus regulatory restrictions will also hurt another big UK export sector, the City. One reason the US has had a strong dollar policy is to help our financial services industry; countries with weak currencies are disfavored as financial centers (see what happened to Tokyo, which once was but is no longer the financial center in the Pacific time zone)

        A fall in the pound will lead to a recession and probably a UK financial crisis. The UK has the characteristics of a country that is vulnerable to a financial crisis: outsized banking sector, small open economy. The BoE will try to defend the pound (although that will fail). It will raise interest rates. That means higher mortgage payments (UK mortgages are floating rate), hitting ordinary people quickly. A cheaper pound also quickly means more pricey food and energy.

        If UK banks go into crisis, it could spread to the EU. Italian banks and DeustcheBank are wobbly.

        The Brexit backers explicitly want to lower/eliminate labor and environmental protections. Pray tell, how is this in the interest of ordinary Brits?

        This “normalcy” is nonsense. The UK is a small open economy that imports 40% of its food as well as a fair bit of its electricity. It will be even more of a “rule taker” than it was in the EU, where it could do a lot to influence the rules.

        See this post on the incomprehension that countries operate in isolation with respect to trade; they are part of regional blocks:

        http://chrisgreybrexitblog.blogspot.com/2019/01/britain-is-on-brink-of-historic.html

        Reply
      2. Ptb

        @none,
        By breaking up the EU, I just meant the UK leaving.
        Point being, not something May wants to be remembered for.

        In addition to that, hard Brexit (as well as no deal) risks a successful rerun of Scottish independence, they want EU more than UK, if forced to choose. Again, not something May wants to be remembered for.

        Finally, it would be an enormous failure from the centrist/liberal core of her party, so maybe “breaking up” isn’t appropriate here. “triple failure” a better term, with the addition of the above 2.

        Reply
  15. Ignacio

    May’s deal was voted down by 230 margin. On the other hand May won a confidence vote even though it was known she was going to present the well known and unwanted WA. Then, there are several unicorns in Westminster Parking. All this suggests parliamentary volatilty and I have been thinking these weeks that such volatility could turn in the parliamentary approval of the WA once unicorns die and the only options left are no-deal/WA. Reading the comments It seems our experts do not believe this can occur. Does May need a simple majority to get the deal approved or does she need wider approval? Can you explain to an idiot why this looks so improbable?

    Reply
    1. David

      She needs a simple majority to “ratify” the WA (it isn’t that technically but it amounts to the same thing). Normally, a government, even one relying on a small party for support, could be reasonably sanguine about getting the votes necessary. Here though, the hall-of-mirrors situation that is Brexit means that normal party discipline has broken down on the government side, and a significant minority of her party oppose the WA, and so voted against it. Given that the Labour Party is also divided, theoretically enough sympathetic members could be peeled off to make up the difference, but this didn’t happen.Only a handful of Labour MPs voted with the government. The SNP and the DUP also voted against. Those who voted against did so for a variety of different and irreconcilable reasons. Because the WA cannot be changed, the only possibility is that panic about the upcoming deadline may convince enough MPs from all parties to support the WA as the less bad of two alternatives. This is what May obviously wants, and the debate is about how realisticthist is. It would require a massive change of heart by the Labour Party, with unknown electoral consequences, as well as support from other parties including Tory rebels (the actual arithmetic is exceptionally complicated and multi-dimensional). May’s longer term strategy (inasmuch as she has one) is obviously to have the WA approved, and then to deflect all criticism of its consequences by pointing out that it had cross-party support, thus making her own position much stronger. Not everybody will want to play this game.
      The seeming contradiction between the two votes is entirely tactical: after what happened in the last election, the Tories are taking no chances on losing power to Corbyn.

      Reply
    2. FFA

      I think May’s plan was always to drive Parliament to a last-minute choice between her deal or a crash-out [1]. This can also be taken as a last-minute choice between revoking A50 or crash-out, of course. There are also a lot of politicians whose public position is that they get a deal more acceptable to MPs in the time between now and the end of March, including Theresa May.
      If several factions are playing chicken as the clock runs out then all the ultras need to do is to jam the controls at the right time so that we hit the default option, an exit with no agreement in place. But surely there’s no-one that underhanded in Parliament! And, in any case, the machinery of government and Parliament is well oiled and in the care of professionals, so we can’t end up with the option that almost everyone is trying to avoid!
      Theresa May and a majority in Parliament could agree on her withdrawal agreement or on revoking A50 now and get that through Parliament and delivered to Brussels. Either outcome depends on people changing their minds and would probably be the end of quite a few political careers. At some point in the future it becomes too late to get it done, particularly when there are people willing obstruct the process and nobody trusts anyone else. I don’t know when we reach that point and I’m not confident that our lords and masters know either.
      [1] AIR, the initial plan was that her government would not reveal it’s negotiating position to anyone.

      Reply
  16. JBird4049

    The Speaker of the House has, historically, understood why things are done the way things are done and what happens if anyone tries to do anything that will inevitably throw a spanner into the machinery of government.

    Let me just say as an American, the current clown shows both in the UK and the US look much alike in this. It is also an example of people ignoring why things are done, or were at least, in certain ways. Also chunks of the Constitution, and government in general, are unwritten and are merely agreements as too how to do things; everything written and unwritten were done for a reason, but just like in UK, the various factions in the US began to ignore the previous two centuries of government thirty years ago.

    Reply
    1. flora

      Yes.
      As an aside: In the US, I think the current shutdown is a standoff between the Exec GOP pres and the Congress Dem House Leader which is holding the voters/country “hostage”; Trump and Pelosi are locked in an attempt to get the public to decisively break toward one or the other. In 2016 the voters in both parties showed they were fed up with politics as usual, i.e. as practiced for the last 30 years.

      My opinion is that supply-side economics – accepted and practiced by politicians in both parties for the last 30 years – has run its course with the populace. Attempts by politicians to strong arm the public to go one way or the other without offering any real change to the supply-side paradigm is likely to result in a long stalemate, imo. This is a discussion for another post.

      Now, back to the madness of Brexit ,which looks like an effort to change the 30-year economic paradigm in UK, imo, but has devolved into shambles…

      Reply
      1. JBird4049

        A showdown over over what? I’m underwhelmed by any reasons offered for the Congress and the President being unable to pass a freaking and just progressively closing the federal government and causing chunks of the many state and municipal governments to also be threatened; they are all interwoven even if theoretically independent.

        Congress had not passed a well debated, fully thought out, comprehensive, and complete budget in years in decades. I am not even sure that they have the staffing needed anymore because both individual congresscritter’s office staff and the various supporting agencies that used to help Congress either had their staffing cut or been cut entirely.

        It is as if the legislators don’t believe in doing any legislation but only in political theater; the job is maintaining appearances and not in actually running the government.

        Being paid to act and not to do. That would explain some things.

        Reply
        1. flora

          A showdown over over what?

          Yes. I think that’s the whole point: neither party is willing to address the real issues most of the voters want addressed. They do theater filled with sound and fury instead.

          Reply
  17. Brick

    Reading between the lines of Ivan Rogers latest speech even if hard Brexit is avoided in March there are still High chances of it in 2020.

    Reply
    1. David

      This is why the EU is bound to be somewhat sceptical of just giving the UK even more time to twist itself into smaller and smaller knots. As we’ve discussed , there’s no purely technical solution to this problem (even if we can agree what the problem is). The only argument for an extension is that one of the following things is going to happen (1) a change of heart by May (2) a new government, with or without a general election, which either manages to get the WA approved or rescinds Art 50 (3) large-scale changes of opinion by Tory MPs, and smaller, but still appreciable, conversions of MPs from other parties to vote for the WA (4) major rethink by Labour (5) Some completely unexpected political development – a deus ex machina. Now, you can argue that none of those is inherently impossible, but all are inherently unlikely. Thus, unless the fundamental balance of political forces is radically changed, the UK will be in the same position in six months as it is now.

      Reply
  18. StuckInTheFrozenRepublic

    Why couldn’t Theresa May come out and say that Brexit as currently formulated is unworkable at least in this timespan and come up with some kind of vote with Labour MP’s to call it off? It’d destroy her career (but I think that’s done for anyways no matter what happens) but I’m not seeing how if that vote actually worked it wouldn’t be a better option than what’s being described here so far.

    Reply
  19. Oregoncharles

    I’ve been getting the impression that Britain no longer had a parliamentary system, in which the executive is installed by the legislature and can be removed at any time. The above explanation does help. The root of the problem is probably the hung parliament – nobody has a majority, and the working majority depends on a pack of extremists. (If they REALLY want to cause a commotion, the IRA could come in and start voting. But they may think th epresent situation is to their advantage.)

    The other root appears to be that Parliament cedes so much authority over its operations to the PM. That looks like a structural flaw.

    All this matters because Parliament has made just one thing very clear: they don’t want a no-deal Brexit. Despite that and despite May being theoretically their servant, they seem unable to enforce their will. That’s dangerous – though the only solution at this point is probably to abandon Brexit. The other arm o fthe dilemma.

    If they meant those votes, they’re going to have to remove May and form a new government, then go hat in hand to the EU. Or cancel Art. 50. So that’s why Labor is going to keep on calling confidence votes: at this point, it’s the only hope. Assuming I understand the situation from the other side of the world.

    Reply
    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Parliament is perfectly capable of getting rid of May. They don’t want to:

      Because Corbyn

      Because the only Tories who want her job are even more disliked (Boris Johnson, Rees-Mogg)

      Because for a decent percentage, pumping for a GE which would be seen as part of an effort to undo the referendum would result in them getting turfed out. For instance, something like 76% of Tory party members (as in the ones who pay dues) prefer a crash-out to revoking Brexit

      And Parliament cannot revoke the A50 notice. Only the Government can.

      The system you are treating as abnormal isn’t. Our Congress can’t perform executive functions either. This is bog standard division of powers. The particulars vary by system but not ginormously.

      Reply
      1. Ape

        But isn’t brexit failure equivalent to failing to pass a budget? There’s a good reason that until recently failing to pass a budget was automatic no confidence.

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        1. Avidremainer

          You are right of course.
          Mrs May’s refusal to step down after her catastrophic failure is what makes the current situation abnormal and dangerous.

          Reply
          1. Anders K

            Parliament is supposed to vote No Confidence as it is the proper way to handle a PM who refuses to bow out gracefully.

            Pity that neither side seems to be living up to their responsiibilties

            Reply

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