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Deal or no deal or not this deal? That is the question

Author: 
Nigel Morris-Cotterill

When historians look back on the UK's withdrawal from the European Union, they will be focussed on whatever interests them: for some it will be the will of the people, for some it will be the choice of a "Remain" campaigner to lead the exit negotiations, for others it will focus on any one of dozens of politically motivated stands and rhetoric and for others it will focus on the drama that has surrounded attempts to do something mind-numbingly complicated that has never been done before under what turns out to be an arbitrary time-table. Then there will be the fact that partisan interests have taken over from the national interest....

432 members of the House of Commons voted against the "Brexit" deal put forward by UK Prime Minister Theresa May in what had been termed "the Meaningful Vote." In the event she, for the deal is inextricably tied up with May herself more than it is tied up with her party, the Conservatives, managed the support of only 202 members. Almost all senior members, those who have no expectation of reward from her no matter what they do, turned their backs on her. Even one of her party's Whips, the enforcers who were so perfectly characterised in the UK original House of Cards, resigned his position and publicly stated it was so that he could vote against it.

May won a confidence vote only last month but it was the confidence of her party. As soon as the vote on the deal was known, Jeremy Corbin, the leader of the Opposition, tabled a motion of no confidence in the government. This is an altogether more serious matter not least of which is because a change of government only changes some things, with regard to the withdrawal agreement.

The problem, as it has developed, is this: the British people voted to leave the EU but no one really knew what that meant. There was extraordinarily little information made available in a bitter war of rhetoric, slogans and sound bites. As soon as the Referendum was lost, the "Remain" camp started calling for a second referendum. In particular, they argued that the voting age, 18, had prejudiced the vote and that those of 16 to 18 who they said are the future of Europe, were far more likely to vote to remain. That's important because now all of that age group is 18 and there is a vocal demand for a second referendum which, pretty much all the numbers say, would change the result.

But what would a second referendum do? To have full effect, it would need to be run in sufficient time for the UK to withdraw its withdrawal notice which expired on 29th March. In theory, that's possible but only just; the vote of no confidence, counting up from last night, cannot result in a change of government for three weeks or so. The outgoing government would, one assumes, block all attempts by the Civil Service to begin preparations for a second referendum while they hold power. So that means that there would be at least six weeks more. Nine weeks from yesterday brings us to about two weeks before Exit Day, as it's called in the documents. That's cutting things fine, even if the new government has no delay in getting the necessary legislation passed. That might not be a problem: May is so unpopular that she managed to lose a decent majority last time out and there is no doubt that association with her will destroy any chance of a decent Conservative opposition if an election is called. Even so, the question would be whether an incoming government would pre-empt the second referendum and would either cancel the withdrawal notice (which it is already established can be done so that the two year period can start all over again) or seek an extension to it (which requires consent from the EU, an idea that many EU countries are not happy with.

The essential problem appears to be that there are some who (idiotically, this author opines) want a "no deal Brexit." That way chaos lies. They, therefore, would vote down any deal on principle. Then there are those that want something harder than is presently proposed: that the EU will not agree to, at least under its present leadership: they, therefore, have voted down the deal saying that it might be the best May can do but it's not the best for the country. And there are those that want something softer, protecting the socialist aspirations of the EU. They therefore say that May's deal is not in the interests of their ideology and therefore vote against it. Finally, there are those that want to over-ride the will of the people and reverse or ignore the result of the Referendum and are fighting a rear-guard action wherever possible. The chances of May's deal being successful in the House of Commons were always marginal at best.

What happens now is that May has a few days to try to resolve the flaws in her deal and bring it back so that she might succeed. The scale of the defeat suggests that, even if she fixed the most high-profile stumbling block, the border with Ireland, she would lose a vote on a revised deal. This week, the EU wrote a letter containing platitudes but it did not amend the proposed agreement. Even though there were indications that the letter would be legally binding, even the UK's Attorney-General's advice was couched in terms that that enforceability arose out of a political desire not to cause problems and to continue negotiations in good faith. Amongst the objectors are those who do not think the EU has so far acted in good faith and see no reason to assume that it will now start to do so. They want the contents of the letter enshrined in the agreement.

Essentially, the problems are caused by the fact that this is entirely novel territory for all concerned. No one had any clue how to achieve a withdrawal or, even, what shape a withdrawal would take. The EU, in the shape of Jean-Claude Junker, has previously said that it is for the UK to say what it wants so that there can be full consideration. May's apparently vacuous requests have not met that. Junker's immediate response to the vote was to say, that he hoped the UK would now make clear what it will be satisfied with.

Will "Brexit" happen? Who can say, and who can say when and on what terms? The logical step, which arguably May should have taken weeks ago, is to extend the time to exit day or, even, to cancel the withdrawal notice and start again. Simply, it's far too complicated to do in two years, especially as there was very slow progress to start with. But there is also the question of resolving acrimony between the many partisan views within the UK and within the EU.

What is clear is that now the entire process is, domestically, going to have to take a back seat while Parliament prepares for the vote of no confidence and a highly likely change of government.

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