This blog was written on saturday morning, Sept 29th 2018,
I completely agree with Jacob Rees-Mogg. There’s a sentence I never thought I’d write.
Actually, to be more accurate, Rees-Mogg agrees with me. Some weeks ago I wrote a Briefing, The Politics of Hard Numbers, here, in which I argued that there was no majority in the House of Commons for any Brexit deal.
In an article in Saturday’s Daily Telegraph Rees-Mogg argues, as regards Theresa May’s Chequers plan, that the EU:
“…has been so clear that the plan fails to meet its requirements that it is hard to see that it could change tack without a new chief negotiator.”
More critically, he notes:
The domestic opposition is even more important because, although our system provides for a powerful executive, ultimately laws need the support of the House of Commons, which Chequers cannot get. Indeed, if put forward it could be heavily defeated with no direct consequence for the Government.
As Rees-Mogg also writes, because of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act a prime minister can lose a critical vote in the Commons and still not have to call an election, as happened in the past.
Unlike in the days before the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, the Government could lose heavily on its Chequers proposals without triggering a general election. It cannot under the current law be a confidence motion, which makes it much easier for MPs to vote against a three-line whip, safe in the knowledge that they can support the Government in a confidence vote at a later stage.
Never mind Chequers, I remain unconvinced that the numbers are there to get any Brexit deal through the House of Commons as things stand. The UK appears to be heading for deadlock and a possible constitutional crisis. Bear in mind that because of laws already passed, the UK will leave the EU on March 29th next, with or without a deal, unless between now and then Parliament votes otherwise.
The Conservative party roughly splits in three.
- In the middle you have the loyalists, ready to support the prime minister over any deal she manages to negotiate with Brussels. They probably number somewhere around 200.
- Then there are the absolute leavers, the European Research Group of circa 60 MPs, who have vowed to “chuck Chequers” and now appear to support a trade deal modelled on the deal recently concluded between Canada and the EU.
- A third group, which could be as many as 40, remainer-oriented, are those who favour closer relations with the EU than May’s Chequers plan allows. They also generally support putting the terms of any deal to a second referendum.
As for the ten Democratic Union Party (DUP) MPs, on whom May’s parliamentary majority depends, who knows what way they will break. Between them, the Conservatives and the DUP have 325 seats in the Commons. That leaves another 325, but 7 of those are Sinn Fein who never take their seats, and a further 1 is the Speaker.
As of today, the ERG will vote against any proposal based on Chequers, so depriving May of her majority. The remainers may also vote against it as not going far enough in maintaining close contact with the EU.
In all likelihood, all of the opposition MPs, except maybe a handful of Labour Brexiters, will also vote against what May puts to the House. Much is being made of comments Jeremy Corbyn made to the Labour Party conference during the past week. Corbyn said:
“If you deliver a deal that includes a customs union and no hard border in Ireland, if you protect jobs, people’s rights at work and environmental and consumer standards, then we will support that sensible deal. A deal that would be backed by most of the business world and trade unions too”.
“But if you can’t negotiate that deal then you need to make way for a party that can.”
Martin Sandbu of the Financial Times is one of those who thinks that Corbyn’s remarks are a game-changer which could see Labour support May. He argues that May should propose a Chequers 2 to the EU which would:
…include a customs union in all but name, perhaps as an indefinite arrangement with a promise of periodical non-committal reviews of technological alternatives. It would also widen the scope of the common rule book, to include not just everything touching on the production or trading of goods but environmental, social and labour rules where the UK’s temptation to undercut European standards is a legitimate concern. And, finally, it would accept dynamically aligning with EU rule changes and European court jurisdiction in the same way Norway does, though for a narrower set of rules.
Sandbu concludes, based on Corbyn’s remarks, that if May brought back such a deal from Brussels then “these changes… might swing Labour behind May’s plan” and “are just the ones needed for the EU to warm to it too.” Sandbu is what I described in last week’s Briefing as a “solutionist”, one of those British commentators forever devising solutions and formulae to give the EU and the UK a “win-win” deal, when no such deal is available.
For the EU, Brexit is a damage limitation exercise before it is a negotiation. As the French finance minister, Bruno Le Maire, put it during the week the EU mustn’t be generous with the UK as it would be “suicidal” for Europe. “I’m sorry to say it so callously: There is something more important for us than the future of the U.K., and that’s the future of the EU.”
Corbyn has made it clear that what the Labour party wants is a general election and it wants it now. It sees it best chance of getting such an election through stalemate in the House of Commons over May’s Brexit deal. Given this, does anyone really believe that the Labour Party will swing behind a May deal in the “national interest”?
Labour will find that whatever deal May cuts with Brussels does not meet the tests set out in Corbyn’s comments, a “customs union and no hard border in Ireland” and a deal protecting “jobs, people’s rights at work and environmental and consumer standards”.
Sandbu’s hope that Corby’s Labour would “swing behind May” is simply not going to happen.
Even if May could deliver such a deal she would probably split the Conservative party in two. For loyalists and her cabinet, Chequers is the UK’s “best offer, final offer” and not the basis for negotiations. For the most part, loyalists and cabinet members are what I described last week, (here) as “blamers”, those in UK public life who blame the EU for the position the UK finds itself in. “If only the EU had treated David Cameron nicer, if only the EU would let us stay in the single market without freedom of movement, if only the EU would let us stay in the customs union and still be able to do our own trade deals”, everything would be OK.
A good example of the blamer mentality can be found in an interview in Saturday’s Daily Telegraph with Liam Fox, the international trade secretary, and probable the most hardline Brexiteer in the cabinet. According to Fox, following Salzburg:
The European Union… once again demonstrated its “intransigence” by putting the “abstract purity” of the European project ahead of its own economic interests. I have always said the trade elements of our relationship should be relatively easy. But it has never been about just trade, it has always been about the politics… We have got to make a decision. Is Brexit about the people and businesses and prosperity of Europe, or is it about the abstract purity of the EU and the European bureaucracy?”
Now it is a bit late in the day to be asking such questions. For if such questions had been raised before the British people were told that leaving the EU would be easy then maybe the people might have concluded otherwise. Maybe they would have realised that it would be anything but easy to unravel forty years of deep integration. They might well still have voted for Brexit, but they would have done so in the knowledge that they were voting for hard days, not sunny uplands.
in his remarks Fox demonstrates two misconceptions that have skewed the UK’s approach to the Brexit process.
The first is that, somehow or other, there is “Brussels” which is driven by some form of EU theology and is divorced from the real interests of the 27-member-states. That’s what informed May’s approach before and at Salzburg. The UK attempted to do an “end-run” around the EU’s chief negotiator, Michael Barnier, and appeal directly to EU political leaders. But it didn’t work. As Rees-Mogg puts it in his Telegraph article:
The member states have not so far cracked under pressure from the efforts of our diplomatic service and have continued to support Michel Barnier, and as the Government has, until now, given way every time it has been asked to, it is hard to see why they would change approach now.
The second is that “politics” should not get in the way of “people and business”. Now, Fox is not talking about Brexit, which is nothing if not politics. To the best of my knowledge no reputable economist has yet demonstrated that there is any business upside to Brexit. Brexit is nothing but a belief that in an era of economic superpowers such as the USA, China and the EU, and in the future others such as India, a medium-sized country can go it alone. Of course, it can, but at a cost and Brexiteers never admit to that cost.
Everything will be “super” as in, for instance a “SuperCanada” trade deal with the EU. This is policy by adjectives. It is the EU’s commitment to the integrity of the single market that for Fox constitutes putting “politics” over and above “business”, and British business at that. In essence: “my Brexit politics good, your single market politics bad”.
Blamers believe that it is up to the EU to come forward with a deal that meets the UK requirements. Fox captures it neatly when he says:
“Any plan B needs to be an EU plan B. They need to come forward with an idea now because intransigence will push us towards exit and a no deal”.
Just consider the logic of that statement for a moment. The UK decided to leave the EU and told the EU it was leaving with a bundle of red lines: out of the single market, out of the customs union, out of the jurisdiction of the EU court, and ending of payments into EU funds.
As Chris Grey repeatedly points out in his Blog, Brexiteers like Fox constantly act as if the UK was being expelled from the EU and that, therefore, it was the EU’s responsibility to come up with an “exit package”.
If the EU fails to come up with the right “exit package” then the UK will have to leave without a deal, and that will be the result of EU “intransigence” because it put the needs of EU “politics” before the needs of British “people and business”.
The Brexiteer blamer attitude can be summed up as follows: You are wholly responsible for the hole into which I have dug myself and if you don’t immediately give me a ladder I will have no option but to keep digging and it will be all your fault.
So, given the stance of Labour, and all other opposition parties, given the splits in the Conservative party, there is, as of today, because of Theresa May’s redlines, no deal on offer from the EU that would get through the House of Commons.
The EU will not break up the single market to suit the British. That is the bottom line. EU political leaders, and not just “Brussels theologians”, have said it often enough.
But the UK political and commentator class do not hear this message because they do not want to believe this message.
Whether “blamers” or “solutionists” they are convinced that this is a magic formula somewhere that will let the UK have the benefits of the single market and the customs union without the costs. If this formula has not been found yet it is because the EU is hiding it somewhere or is not looking hard enough for it.
One final point. The height of the Brexiteers ambitions now is a “SuperCanada” trade deal. A deal modelled on one negotiated with the EU by one of the UK’s former colonies.
How the mighty have fallen.