For now, the Battle of the Commons has averted disaster. However, Theresa May’s poor strategy and apologetic Brexit policy indicate a difficult road ahead, says Joshua King.
In the immortal words of the retired footballer, John Barnes: “It can be slow or fast, but you must get to the line.” It seems the Government had this in mind as they stumbled to victory in every vote on the Lords’ wrecking amendments to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill this week.
These were vital victories to avoid immediate disaster for Brexiteers. No continued membership of the European Economic Area (EEA); no Customs Union madness; no ‘meaningful vote’ for Parliament – all guarantors of a ‘bad deal.’
Celebrations should be subdued, however.
The ‘meaningful vote’ victory came at a heavy price for the Prime Minister. The win was only achieved by last minute ‘significant’ concessions to Tory Remainer rebels, spurred on by Dominic Grieve QC MP, a barrister, Queen’s Counsel, a Member of the Privy Council and also a former Attorney General.
As a result of Grieve’s influence, the Prime Minister has been forced to publish a compromise amendment. The amendment requires Parliament be given the right to vote ‘on a motion in neutral terms’ stating the House has considered the statement, in the event of a ‘no deal’ outcome being announced by 21st January 2019. While this amendment is certainly better for Brexiteers than the ‘meaningful vote’ would have been, it has angered rebels who feel misled and means a revolt is highly likely during votes on this in Parliament next week. Theresa May has yet again kicked the can down the road.
The ‘meaningful vote’ in its original, and constitutionally unprecedented form would have allowed Parliament to tie the hands of the Government, and demand they go back to the negotiating table with the EU if ‘No Deal’ is achieved– allowing Parliament to effectively delay, frustrate and potentially stop Brexit. The Government has the Royal Prerogative to negotiate treaties on behalf of the UK. It is deeply unfortunate Remainers seemingly have no respect for such established conventions. This amendment will return from the Lords to the Commons next Wednesday, with Tory rebels ready to strike if they are unsatisfied with the new wording.
The Customs Union argument is also still very much alive, likely to rear its ugly head again in debates during the upcoming Trade Bill (another vital piece of Brexit legislation) in a few weeks. Remainers who have felt slighted by the process so far could decide to take their revenge at that stage, with a near fatal blow. Many are angry: the 75 Labour rebels who voted in favour of the EEA, the entire Scottish National Party (who stormed out of the Commons on Wednesday) and the Tory rebels who may feel let down by the substance of Theresa May’s promises as she attempts to satisfy both sides. The Remainers are still very determined.
Despite all this, a wider question looms, one which asks whether the Government’s recent victories are actually likely to change the outcome of this process.
Theresa May’s 3 keynote Brexit speeches so far have been fantastic: leaving the Single Market and Customs Union, no deal being better than a bad deal: negotiating from a position of strength. Yet in practice, the Prime Minister’s language and demeanour could not be clearer. She now speaks of ‘Customs Arrangements’, and ‘regulatory alignment’ – euphemisms for retaining the status quo, with a different label!
Whenever the prospect of ‘No Deal’ is mentioned, May visibly crumbles – perhaps why so little preparation has gone into this contingency plan. Ironically, of course, the less we prepare for ‘No Deal’ and consider the prospect of walking away, the more it reduces the incentive for the EU to offer us good terms. And as any good businessman knows, going into any kind of negotiations, without being prepared to walk away if no good deal ends up on the table, gives the other side the upper hand. Perhaps someone close to Mrs May should remind her of this, or we will end up being trodden down even more in these negotiations with nothing useful to show for Brexit.
Theresa May seems to have been consistently unable to see Brexit as anything other than a damage limitation exercise. This is why she has been so keen to conform to the EU agenda of the Customs backstop. The ‘time-limited’ backstop (with no actual time-limit) promises regulatory alignment in the case of ‘No-Deal’. The Prime Minister, in her desperation to get any deal, has shown her weak hand and lack of belief in the capacity of our great nation to be an independent country triumphing on the world stage.
May’s apologetic Brexit stance seems to be diving into a ‘Bad Deal’. Brexit is a fantastic opportunity for liberation. However, it requires decisive leadership and belief. You cannot expect success and a better life when you have divorced your controlling wife and then you refuse to leave the marital home.
The votes in the Commons this week have meant disaster has been averted – for the time being – but for those of us wanting to Get Britain Out of the EU, much work is still ahead to “Get us across the line” and into our global future.
Joshua King is a Research Executive at cross-party, grassroots campaign Get Britain Out