Things are bad in Brexit land and yesterday illustrated how the press has played a big role in that.
What was the lead story pretty much everywhere, including the Wall Street Journal? That Theresa May said she’d go if her deal was approved by Parliament this week.
This is like watching pilots argue over who will man the plane on the next leg of a flight plan when if you look out the windshield, you can see it’s going to crash into a mountain. This should have been the biggest Brexit news of the day:
In a spectacular display of indecision, the House of Commons has voted against remaining in the EU and every version of leaving the EU.
— James Cleverly MP (@JamesCleverly) March 27, 2019
As we’ll discuss, the odds are still solidly against May’s deal passing. Under any scenario save becoming physically incapable of serving, May will still be Prime Minister as of April 12, the current crash out date. Parliament hates May’s deal yet still has no plan of its own as to how to escape a no deal Brexit.
Why May’s pledge to resign is news is beyond me, since she made that offer the last time she was toying with Meaningful Vote 3. Was this commitment deemed to be more serious because the 1922 Committee demanded a meeting on when exactly May intended to leave and they supposedly wrested this concession from her? Or was it the fact that the Maybot reportedly got tearful?
Frankly, even though I do not fathom why she still wants the job, it looks like May played everyone. Admittedly, she does still appear to be clinging to the delusion that her deal might pass. And if that were to happen, May’s rigidity would in a flash of revisionism, become courage and tenacity. And if her deal fails, she’s made no promise as to when she’ll clear out of No. 10.
May has managed to get some members of the ERG, in particularly media hounds Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg, to say they’d support her deal. But the DUP has not budged, consistent with earlier accounts that they are people of principle….just not very lofty ones. And Rees-Mogg has flip-flopped:
⚡️ “Jacob Rees-Mogg Won't Back the PM's Deal”https://t.co/VBtbawHoZ1
— Peston (@itvpeston) March 27, 2019
So even with ERG solidarity buckling, it does not appear that May can get enough Labour votes to get her Withdrawal Agreement approved.
May is out of time. But even the reading above charitably assumes John Bercow would allow May’s pact to come up for a vote. He is still holding fast to his position, that the bill needed to be substantially different to be considered in the current Parliamentary session.
He is, at this point, simply being a dick. https://t.co/ypJqmRorNd
— James Ball (@jamesrbuk) March 27, 2019
Richard Smith provided quite a few tweets showing that MPs were flummoxed. Examples:
One clerk just texted me, unsolicited: "Why even have procedure anymore, apparently we're making it up as we go along"
— Esther Webber (@estwebber) March 27, 2019
Extraordinary that only now is the Government waking up to the fact that the only safe way to get around the Bercow ruling is with legislation – a point that was clear to some of us nine days ago. How can they be so incompetent? https://t.co/9VOCtqBDdx
— Jo Maugham QC (@JolyonMaugham) March 27, 2019
Having said that, the Financial Times suggests that there could be another finesse:
Theresa May is considering a dramatic move to bypass a blockade on her Brexit plan by House of Commons Speaker John Bercow, by splitting her deal in two and presenting only one half to MPs for a vote.
The prime minister is looking at holding a vote only on the 585-page draft withdrawal treaty — the legally binding divorce agreement with the EU— while spinning off the 26-page non-binding political declaration on future relations with the bloc.
So the point is that the Government could have circumvented Bercow, either by proroguing Parliament or via legislation…but if he doesn’t budge, it seems highly unlikely that there’s enough time for either alternative now. And would he approve her simply splitting the bill? He seemed awfully cheeky yesterday.
Parliament is also being inattentive about the clock. At risk of going into “Sentence first, verdict afterward,” mode, we’ll focus on process and get to substance next.
The current no deal date is April 12, a Friday, but the EU Council said don’t come to us at the last minute asking for an extension. So we will charitably assume that April 11 (and best early that day) is the last day the EU Council would consider an extension.
Parliament is bizarrely not going to hold its next round of indicative votes until next Monday. Why it is holding another vote this week or at worst over the weekend is beyond me.
Let us make the most optimistic scenario: the MPs manage to agree on an option on Monday that is not a unicorn. All of these options are indicative. They are just 50,000 foot sketches. They still do not map onto a specific request to the EU Council for an extension. Does Parliament decide that? Does May?
May said she was skeptical of the indicative vote process, and in particular, that Parliament might decide on a unicorn, concluding:
So I cannot commit the Government to delivering the outcome of any votes held by this House.
She also has made clear that she isn’t keen about an extension beyond May 22:
No Brexit must not happen. And a slow Brexit, which extends Article 50 beyond May 22, forces the British people to take part in European elections and gives up control of any of our borders, laws, money or trade is not a Brexit that will bring the British people together.
And as we said, it is May and not Parliament which deals with the EU:
EU senior source pointing out again that – whatever #Brexit outcome Parliament may lean towards in indicative votes -Brussels’ interlocutor remains Theresa May, not MPs
— katya adler (@BBCkatyaadler) March 26, 2019
So what if Parliament actually agrees on a napkin-doodle level idea next Monday? How do they reduce it to a concrete ask of the EU, which would include a specific extension date? Who is in charge? Does the more detailed language also require Parliamentary approval? And when do the MPs driving this particular bus intend to include the Government?
I can imagine the to-ing and fro-ing easily going till Thursday. It might then become clear that May will need to be compelled, and only way to do that is via legislation.
But if I understand procedure correctly, it takes only one “object” from an MP to kill a private bill. And aside from the MP from Clive’s mother-in-law’s district who always objects, the most bloody-minded Ultras would also do so.
Now I assume just the way Parliament revoked the Standing Order that gave the Government control over Parliamentary time, it too can revoke the provision that allows MPs to nix private bills. But how likely is it that they remove that impediment in time to get the legislation passed (again charitably assuming that converting the napkin doodle to a bill, which requires adding detail, doesn’t lose so many votes in the process as to put Parliament back at square zero)?
Now it is conceivable this all gets done, but hopefully you see the problem: there are many moving parts, and the more steps a process has to go though for completion, the greater the odds of failure.
The various motions themselves show that Parliament has a poor grip on Brexit, and the top pick is no solution. Here is a recap:
No Deal (Proposed by John Baron)
AYES: 160 NOES: 400
Common Market 2.0 (Proposed by Nick Boles)
AYES: 188 NOES: 283
EFTA/EEA (Proposed by George Eustice)
AYES: 65 NOES: 377
Customs Union (Proposed by Ken Clarke)
AYES: 264 NOES: 272
Labour Plan (Proposed by Jeremy Corbyn)
AYES: 237 NOES: 307
Revoke Article 50 to prevent No Deal (Proposed by Joanna Cherry)
AYES: 184 NOES: 293
Second Referendum (Proposed by Margaret Beckett)
AYES: 268 NOES: 295
Contingent Preferential Arrangements (Proposed by Marcus Fysh)
AYES: 139 NOES: 422
One vote that is striking is the large margin of failure on “Revoke Article 50′ even with a significant number of abstentions. So the cleanest path out, a retreat, is still deemed to be unacceptable. The Second Referendum vote failed, despite having Labour’s support, due to 27 Labour MPs defying the whip. You will see that is also the margin of loss.
The “Customs Union” scheme failed by only eight votes, so it is conceivable that it could win approval in subsequent voted. But as we’ve pointed out, a customs union does not solve any of the problems UK pundits and pols think it does. It does not put the UK in the “internal market,” so it neither prevents the disruption of non-tariff trade barriers, nor does it solve the Irish border problem.
Let us turn the mike over to Richard North:
Last night, parliament decided to vote stupid…
The only way of ranking the eight options voted is by referring to the number of negative votes, the one with the least votes coming first. Thus, first in the rankings, on the basis of the least overall negative votes, was a “permanent and comprehensive UK-wide customs union with the EU”, tabled by Kenneth Clarke. This got 264 votes against 272, giving it a score of -8.
This confirms the utter fatuity of the House of Commons, which has managed to favour most (or disfavour least) an option that would turn the clock back to 1957 and the Treaty of Rome (or 1973 if you prefer), before the advent of the Single Market. It would not provide “frictionless” trade and would not solve the Irish border problem, essentially offering not very much more than a no-deal Brexit.
Seriously, that is the considered view of the House – an utterly vacuous option which some probably think takes in the Single Market, many MPs seemingly having trouble telling the difference between it and a customs union.
Coming second was the option calling for a referendum to confirm any Brexit deal. This was not another in-out re-run, but simply a vote on any deal which was agreed by parliament, rendering it rather moot if parliament (as on current form) is unable to agree any deal. Nevertheless, this was “only” voted down by 268 votes to 295, scoring -27.
Third was Labour’s “alternative plan”, taking us firmly into unicorn territory with a permanent customs union, “close alignment” with (but not membership of) the single market and commitments on participation in EU agencies and funding programmes, which are not within the gift of the UK government. This got 237 with 307 against, scoring -70.
I am not certain this version of a “second referendum” would be acceptable to the EU if they understood what the UK meant (as oppose to a second referendum happening first, to inform Parliament and the Government as to what to do next). Does the EU want to spend another year plus negotiating a new version of Brexit, and then be subject to the uncertainty of the minimum of 147 days more for the UK to hold a referendum? Recall that what the EU wanted from the UK was a “way forward,” which is either a low bar or a fudge to mask divisions among EU leaders. Even assuming the former, saying “We’ll let the voters have a say” simply ignores the looming question of “What type of Brexit do you want?”
Scott sent a fitting conclusion:
— Deepak Saxena (@deeply_social) March 25, 2019
But will the EU tolerate “forever”? Politco’s morning newsletter says Donald Tusk is lobbying hard for that:
BUT DONALD TUSK HAS A STRONG STOMACH: The European Council president urged the European Parliament to grant a “long extension if the U.K. wishes to rethink its Brexit strategy.” Speaking in front of the Strasbourg plenary Wednesday, Tusk said (in a “personal remark”) that a long extension of the Article 50 period “would of course mean the U.K.’s participation in the European Parliament elections.
But Robert Peston has been reporting for some time that a significant number of EU leaders regard having the UK participate in the European Parliament again would be toxic and damaging to the EU. It isn’t clear yet how much impact Tusk’s charm offensive is having on the skeptics. The worst scenario is that the UK come to the EU just before the April 12 deadline with a half-baked extension request. The whole point of the carefully crafted compromise was to give the Brexit hot potato back to the UK. It’s all too probable that the UK will try to toss it back.