Eight days to B-day on March 29! For amoral political junkies, it’s sheer heaven. The last fortnight at Westminster has been the most exciting since May 1940, if not quite as important. You could only keep up by 24/7 liveblogging. I can’t manage it, so consider this a Brexit open thread.
Last time I looked (ten minutes ago) the state of play is this:
1. PM Theresa May has negotiated a fat Withdrawal Agreement with the EU. At the EU’s insistence, This does not cover the future trading relationship, which is what most of the fuss is about. It does include the “Irish backstop”, resulting from the syllogism I and others noted a year ago:
No hard border at Dundalk → Northern Ireland must stay in the EU customs area and (for many other purposes) the EU Single Market → EITHER the whole of the UK applies the same rules OR there is a customs border in the Irish Sea.
2. May’s deal has been rejected twice by the House of Commons by large majorities, composed of a tactical alliance of Tory hard Brexiters and Labour, triangulating like mad and sort of promising a (completely pointless) soft Brexit to keep both Leaver and Remainer voters on board.
3. May would like a third bite at the cherry (another vote on her unpopular deal) but the Speaker, John Bercow, has rejected this unless there is something new on the table, because that’s the way it’s been done since 1604. Juncker has offered meaningless clarifications, which May argues should be enough for Bercow.
4. The Commons have twice passed resolutions (the Spelman amendment) opposing a disastrous no-deal Brexit, which is the default unless a deal is agreed. In the impasse, May has asked the EU for a 3-month extension of the deadline (letter here). She still hopes to get her deal through.
The collapse of parliamentary conventions is striking. May has not only lost control of her MPs, which has happened before, but rarely. She has lost control of her Cabinet: four members voted against her deal last time, with nine junior ministers. All but one junior are still in office.
What I am interested in is the chance of the whole stupid thing being called off. I’m no expert, but the clean path to this lies through a second referendum. Two intelligent Labour backbenchers, Peter Kyle and Phil Wilson, have drafted an amendment that involves the Commons passing May’s deal subject to a referendum on it. If the referendum fails, the UK stays in the EU. The amendment does not put No Deal on the ballot; understandable, as it’s completely irresponsible. The amendment has not yet been voted on but is gathering traction, particularly with the Labour leadership It also offers the now desperate May a face-saving rescue from her largely self-imposed Sarlac. It’s largely up to Bercow if and when the amendment put to a vote.
Polls of UK voters have consistently shown a small majority for Remain for the last 18 months. As a UK citizen resident in Spain, I and a million like me are disenfranchised and not polled. That’s on a simple stay/leave question, without the real threat of the No Deal alternative, and the defects of any actual deal on the table like May’s.
The chaos shows the inability of the British political class to think constitutionally. Opinions Differ on the shape of the British Constitution. Is any part of Magna Carta still relevant? Is the Lascelles letter to The Times of 1950? However, it’s indisputable that the Act of Union of 1707, passed by the now defunct Scottish Parliament, is part of the British constitution. The same surely holds for the Good Friday Agreement of April 1998 (pdf) on Northern Ireland, embedded in a treaty between the UK and Ireland. The GFA does not mention the EU, and has very little on economic issues, but in December 2017 the British government promised to avoid a hard border “for the protection of the 1998 Agreement” (citation here). This gives political, legal and constitutional support to the common sense observation that prosperity, mobility, and trade within the EU are crucial guarantees for continued peace in Ireland.
In hindsight, Cameron’s tactical decision in 2016 to call a referendum on Brexit, not on a clear proposal like the GFA, but a vague intention, looks breathtakingly irresponsible. It was like asking “Do you want to abolish the monarchy?” without specifying what sort of republic would replace it.
Tomorrow things will be different. Anything to add?
PS: Five-minute update: it looks as if the EU will only agree an Article 50 extension to May 22. Stay tuned.
Updates 23 March:
- The EU have given May only until April 22, enough time to get her deal rejected for a third time and then to think of something else that might work (second referendum or general election).
- An online petition to revoke the Article 50 notification has gathered 4m votes at the time of writing (4,105,117 as of 12:00 23/3 Madrid time), and has at times crashed the site. A competing no-deal Leaver petition has a mere 455,668 signatories. These are statutory petitions on a site run by Parliament. With more that 100,000 signatories, Parliament will normally debate them, though Bercow can fold the debate into another one on the same topic. Interestingly, disenfranchised expats like me can sign. I can’t see anything that stops minors like my two granddaughters in Lille (with dual nationality) from signing, though they will need their own email addresses for the confirmation link. And why not? It’s their future. Political junkies can pore over a map with signatories by parliamentary constituency.
- AOC etc should take up this scheme for the US Congress. It does not change any constitution, and makes the legislature a little more responsive to public opinion and a little less responsive to money.