Brexit, Conservative Party, Michel Barnier, Negotiating, UK Labour Party

Chucking Chequers and #Brexit… there are just too many ‘unknown unknowns’ in play

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Michael Gove with Andrew Marr (Photo via Jeff Overs/BBC/PA Wire)

I took the last week off to spend a few days outside Chatal, on the west coast of France. But even there, there was no escaping Brexit.

It is important to understand that Europeans are not obsessed with Brexit in the same way as people are in the UK. Talking to people in France, Belgium or Spain over the past few months leaves you with the impression that most people think the UK is “nuts” or “mad” to leave the EU. But they also believe that the UK never really wanted to be part of “Europe” in the first place, so, goodbye to them.

Nevertheless, quite often when people in France, Belgium or Spain hear you speak English they ask you “What do you think of Brexit?” My first response is to tell them that I am Irish, not English.

It’s amazing the difference that little sentence makes. Any suggestion of hostility immediately disappears as they begin to tell you about a fishing trip they once took on the Shannon or their cycling tour of Connemara.  When they were much younger, of course.

“So, how will Brexit end up?”, they ask. My answer is that I have no idea. I have been following Brexit developments in detail over the past two years and have written some 60 or so of these Briefings. Yet, I have absolutely no idea of what is going to happen between now and March 29th next year. Quite frankly, neither does anyone else.

There are just too many “unknown unknowns” in play, political molecules bouncing around, crashing into one another, producing unintended effects.

However, I am convinced of one thing. The UK will leave the EU on March 29th, 2019. I simply see no way that will not happen, despite poll evidence showing that there is a growing majority against leaving and despite the campaign for a second referendum. The UK will leave on March 29th. We just don’t know the terms.

Regular readers of this Briefing know that I share the European view that Brexit is both “mad” and “nuts”. But because you think something is wrong does not mean it won’t happen or can be prevented from happening. There are too many politicians who have bought into Brexit as a matter of faith and no amount of polling data or new evidence on the disruption and costs that Brexit will bring will ever dissuade them.

But “Brexit” will not end on March 29th next.

The fallout from Brexit will continue for years and will poison UK politics for decades to come. It may well smash the current party systems as a new generation seeks to re-join the EU and the older generation of Brexiteers “pass on”.

An ugly Brexit will also likely see new demands for Scottish independence, while the position of Northern Ireland in the UK will also be called into question. Hard Brexit will bring hard choices and create new and challenging realities.

So, even if I have no idea as to how Brexit will evolve over the coming months, let me try to unpick some discernible paths from the confusion of molecular dynamics ahead.

The latest headline grabber is the comment by the leading Brexiteer, cabinet minister Michael Gove, who said in a TV interview on Sunday (Photo via Jeff Overs/BBC/PA Wire) that a future UK Prime Minister could “always choose to alter the relationship between Britain and the European Union”, while saying that Chequers was the right plan “for now”.

I have always thought that Gove was the smartest of the Brexiteers. For him, only one thing counts, that the UK leave the European Union on March 29th next. Whether the UK signs off on a Withdrawal Agreement that would see it pay €50bn to the EU to settle outstanding liabilities, reaches a deal on citizens’ rights, finds an Irish border solution and nods in the direction of May’s Chequers proposals, are all things Gove can live with. He just wants to get Brexit over the March 29th line.

Thereafter, May can be replaced as Prime Minister by a “genuine” Brexiteer who will take responsibility for negotiating the details of the relationship between a post-Brexit Britain and the EU. At that point, all bets would be off the table.

It cannot be overstated how important March 29th, 2019 is. As that day breaks, the UK will still be a member of the EU. After midnight it will no longer be a member. It is the difference between black and white. There are no 50 shades of grey. March 29th closes down all “remainer” options. Thereafter, if the UK wants to re-join the EU it will have to go through the process of negotiating membership and it will not be offered the same terms that it has now. Opt-outs on the single currency and Schengen will not be on the table.

Keep in mind, as well, that the UK parliament has already voted to leave the EU on March 29th. That is the default position. It would take a positive vote by parliament to reverse that. In other words, a majority in the House of Commons would have to vote to reverse the Brexit decision.

As I have written previously, (here) and as still applies today, I simply cannot see a majority in the Commons doing this, especially given the position of the hard-left Labour leadership.

In an interview with the Financial Times last Friday, Labour frontbencher, Emily Thornberry, said that Labour would vote against any deal May brought back from Brussels, as any deal she could negotiate would not be good enough. If enough of the Conservative ultra-Brexiters join with Labour, then May simply will not have the numbers to get her deal through the Commons.

It is at that point that anything could happen.

First, nothing could happen if agreement cannot then be found on what to do next. Brussels would be notified that the UK parliament had rejected the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement and the UK was now going to prepare to leave the EU on March 29th without a deal.

While it is clear that a majority of MPs would be appalled at such a development the dynamics of the situation may simply bounce them into it. There are times in politics when the stupidest thing happens because no one can work out how to stop the stupid thing happening. This could be one of those times.

Labour would, of course, demand that May resign and that a general election be called. But I do not believe that this will happen. Parliament is locked into a fixed 5-year term and the Commons would have to vote to suspend the fixed-term rule. Does anyone seriously believe that the Conservatives and the Democratic Unionists are going to vote themselves out of office in circumstances where there is every chance they will lose an election to Corbyn, who many see as a dangerous Marxist?

The other possibility is that the Commons discusses going back to the people by way of another referendum. The problem with this is getting agreement on the questions that should be put in the referendum. May’s deal or no deal? May’s deal or continued membership of the EU? While there would also be technical and legal problems about the staging of another referendum, the real problem is the political one of the question (or even questions) to be put.

Life-long Brexiteers, having finally snatched the prize back in June 2016, would be loath to risk a second referendum, which they might well lose.

As noted above, demographics are moving in a “stay in the EU” direction. To force a referendum will require every opposition vote in the House of Commons and some Conservatives to also vote for it. If the Labour leadership was fully committed to a second referendum, it could happen. But everyone knows that the Labour leader, Corbyn, has been anti-EU all his life, seeing it as nothing more than a capitalist club that he wants out of it. A second referendum is a longshot.

Which brings us back to Gove and his laser-like focus on just getting out of the EU.

I have no doubt that Gove, like other Brexiteers, wants to “chuck Chequers”, the campaign currently being run by the Brexiteers to scrap Prime Minister May’s proposals for a long-term deal with the EU based on a single market for goods, but not services, and without free movement obligations. Instead, they want a trade deal based on the deal recently concluded between Canada and the EU.

The difference between Gove and the other Brexiteers is this: they want to “chuck Chequers” now and also disavow the Northern Ireland backstop that was agreed last December in the Joint Report on the progress on negotiation to that date.

In his column in this week’s Daily Telegraph, Johnson, who was Foreign Secretary at the time, says he was “taken in” by the Northern Ireland wording and only later realised what it would mean in practice.

Gove wants to “chuck Chequers” but not until Chequers gets Brexit across the March 29 line. For Gove a minimalist declaration on the future relationship between the UK and the EU would probably suffice. It would allow maximum flexibility to define the relationship once the UK is out of the EU and has become a “third country”.

The transition period until December 2020 provides the safety net to allow this to be done. Gove will encourage his fellow Tories to accept whatever May agrees with Brussels as long as it delivers on the prize of Brexit.

The only drawback with Gove’s strategy is that he has publicly announced it.

Now, here is the issue: If I let the other party in a negotiation know that as soon as the deal is signed I intend to look for ways to get out of it, they are either going to decide that no deal is better than this or they say: “How do we lock this down to prevent backsliding”.

In the case of Brexit, the locking down means watertight, all weather language on the Irish border issue and the “framework” for the future economic relationship. The “Irish question” has always been the rock against which the ship of Brexit might crash.

Speaking of “rocks” expect difficulties over Gibraltar to make a late appearance as negotiating midnight approaches. Ireland and Gibraltar… the long tail of empire.

No sooner had I finished writing these two paragraphs than newspapers began to report that Michael Barnier, the EU’s Brexit negotiator, had just visited Spain, while Brussels was letting it be known that in light of Gove’s comments the EU would be seeking assurances that there would be no subsequent unpacking of the Brexit deal.

Back to where we began and discussions with ordinary people about Brexit, this time with ordinary British people.

I am absolutely convinced that 99% of people believe that Brexit will mean an end to EU immigration to the UK and have some vague idea about “Westminster not Brussels” being back in charge. After that, they assume, nothing will change, everything will be as it is today.

But, when the true extent and the real costs of the changes become evident people are going to become angry, very angry. The fallout will not be pleasant.