How to cut the Brexit Gordian Knot

Denis MacShane / Mar 2019

Photo: Shutterstock

For the first time in 33 months the Daily Telegraph has written something about the negative costs of Brexit. Its report this morning that City outfits have transferred £1 trillion of assets out of the UK shows the depth of fear in UK finance capitalism over leaving Europe.

This was followed by Yvette Cooper, the senior, thoughtful Labour MP, explaining her thinking on why Parliament should be more involved, the need to stop No Deal as she fleshed out her call for an extension to the Article 50 process in a speech at the Centre for European Reform.

Ms Cooper was scornful of Mrs May (though she breathed no word of criticism of the confusions and contradictions of Labour’s policy on Europe) and  said she thought there was no chance of Mrs May’s deal being voted through this week. She herself would vote against it as it was unworkable and incoherent.

She said Mrs May had given her her word that there would be votes on No Deal (likely to be passed) and on an extension (likely to be passed) but she was not certain the government would not seek to avoid having the straight up and down vote on Tuesday in order to avoid a humiliating defeat.

A variation of not having the vote – also a humiliation for Mrs May as it shows she dare not face the Commons – would be to change the wording to make it conditional on future concessions from Brussels.

Ms Cooper was angry that the government was this close to Brexit day – 29 March – but had no plan, and could give no guidance to business, to hospitals, to the transport sector – on what would happen.

She called for an extension period of Article 50 to allow Parliament to debate a full negotiating mandate for the different issues that need to be agreed in the 147 paragraphs of the Political Declaration part of the Withdrawal agreement package.

She said the national parliaments of the UK,  the regions and big cities, and   the public services should be consulted, and there should be a series of votes so that Parliament could indicate its preferences.


This is a remarkably ambitious project which involves months of parliamentary debating time and a lengthy consultation process with the wider nation.

I asked her if she had talked to anyone in European capitals about her idea of an extension. MPs may propose but the EU27 will dispose. I pointed out that leading figures including President Macron and the EPP president, Manfred Weber, as well as other senior EU political leaders had all said the UK had to make up its mind and not demand an extension that would be simply to allow the failure of MPs to take a decision to continue indefinitely.

Another person asked Ms Cooper if under her proposal to extend Article 50 the UK would have to take part in the European Parliament elections in May.  She said No, the UK could extend Article 50 without taking part in the EP elections.

Given extending Article 50 means staying in the EU I am not sure how British citizens and EU citizens living in the UK can be denied their legal Treaty rights to vote for representatives. Other supporters of an extension like Andrew Adonis also blithely say the EU would allow the UK to stay in the EU under a lengthy extension.

It is far from clear that is as easy as Ms Cooper and Lord Adonis may wish. At the very least a French or Spanish citizen in the UK would take a case to the European Court of Justice that their constitutional rights are being denied as under the extension idea the UK stays an EU member.

At the very least, this would require a major abrogation of Treaty law, requiring a decision by the full EU27 Council and probably a vote in the European Parliament which soon stops working ahead of the EP elections.

Charles Grant, the knowledgeable CER Director, said he thought the EU would have no problem with a short – 3 month extension.

I am not convinced President Macron is particular wants to make this concession to the Brits ahead of a very tough election with Marine Le Pen as his main opponent. Gifting to the anti-EU British their wish-list demand for an extension will be portrayed in the heated atmosphere of French politics as surrendering to Brexit Britain.


The German CDU leader, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, had just launched a full-scale attack on Macron’s initiative on Europe as has his main left opponent, Jean-Luc Mélenchon. In addition to Macron and Weber it is unlikely that Brussels will want to offer concessions to Mrs May especially after the intemperate attacks she and other ministers have made in recent days on the negotiating position of the EU and its Brexit team headed by Michel Barnier.

So looking at where we are on the eve of this week's Commons discussion and possible votes there is really only one escape route for Mrs May. This is to add the Customs Union to the deal.

In effect, the backstop means the UK staying de facto in the Customs Union. If that is the political reality why not make it a political virtue? Saying the UK will stay in Customs unions means:

  1. a) Labour will support it (Corbyn claims it is his policy)
  2. b) So will all other non-government parties including most significantly the DUP
  3. c) It will be enthusiastically supported by the business community, CBI, BCC, City, industrial federations, trade, Airbus etc
  4. d) It will be welcomed by most of the media and BBC
  5. e) It will be welcomed by leaders of national assemblies in Scotland, Wales, N Ireland and all big cities
  6. f) It will be hailed as statecraft and leadership as Mrs May finds a way out 
  7. g) It will be supported by at least 200 Tory MPs probably more.


It will upset hardline pro-Brexit Tories who believe in the fantasy that outside the EU there are wonderful  new trade agreements to be had.  This illusion has lost its allure especially as it appears to involve importing unhealthy food from the USA produced in unacceptable conditions. It also implies opening the door to visa free access to 1.3 billion Indians.

Will the Tory Party split over this? No. Brexit goes ahead in the sense that the UK ceases to be a signatory member of the Treaty, the House of Commons is the only sovereign source of law, the UK will only obey EU laws and regulations if its national parliament accepts them.  These lines are enough for Tory MPs to persuade their rank and file members and activists that they should support the deal + Customs Union.

No-one has any insight into Mrs May's mind. It is her decision alone. But unless she wants to embrace Yvette Cooper’s proposal which means beginning suspending or extending the Article 50 process, launching a long process of bi-partisan consultation, and allowing MPs to oversee the negotiation process going into the 2020s with the hint of either a general election or referendum at the end of this she has to find an alternative.

She can cut the Brexit Gordian knot by inserting staying in the Customs Union into the Withdrawal Deal and obtaining Parliamentary approval. It would mean facing down the ugly extremists of a full amputational Brexit headed by Sir William Cash, David Davis, Sir Bernard Jenkin and Boris Johnson and other veterans of the 25 years Tory civil war over Europe.

But the country and many Tory MPs are bored with their self-importance and would want to move on.


Denis MacShane

Denis MacShane

March 2019

About this author ︎►

Related content


Macron + tortoise

See the bigger picture ►



See the bigger picture ►



See the bigger picture ►


Ballot box

See the bigger picture ►



See the bigger picture ►