Kicking the can

Denis MacShane / Jan 2019

Photo: Shutterstock


Theresa May has hauled up the white flag to the hardline anti-Europeans in her party. She has bought a temporary truce in internal Tory turmoil by giving in  to Jacob Rees Mogg, Boris Johnson and other anti-Europeans. This morning the Tory anti-Europeans were exultant on the BBC. 

One of them, the former Brexit Secretary, Dominic Raab, even resurrected their favourite myth that there are no border checks on the borders between Switzerland and  its EU neighbours. In the last 2 months I have crossed into Switzerland 8 times and trust me the Swiss take border controls and customs checks very seriously!

Not noticed in this morning’s reporting is another Tory victory – namely that an amendment calling for a second referendum was defeated. The decision of 7 Labour MPs to vote with the Conservatives also removes the already faint chance of a a new general election taking place as Jeremy Corbyn has been regularly demanding since last summer.

This may stabilise the Conservative MPs if they feel the threat of a new referendum to reverse Brexit has receded and a new general election which they all fear after the Tory 2017 election losses is off the table.

Caroline Fairbairn, the Director General of the CBI, la patronne des patronnes of British business, was very clear on the BBC. She sounded very down as she said the vote last night makes no difference to the plans and preparations British firms – especially manufacturing and FDI firms – are making for a No Deal. She said the vote means UK business will “accelerate their plans to prepare for No Deal.”

As often with excited drama-fuelled votes in the Commons, once the excitement had settled down it will be seen little has changed. Only two amendments were passed. One told the Prime Minister to renegotiate the Deal to weaken the third pillar of the Withdrawal Agreement. This is the clear commitment to the people of Ireland that the peace in the island will be maintained by rejecting ad infinitum any return to a border in Northern Ireland between the non-EU British controlled province and the rest of Ireland which remains an EU member state.

The Tories with the help of 7 Labour MPs voted to intruct Mrs May to negotiate a change so that this commitment to no hard border will be time-limited.

On the face of it from a Tory hard Brexit point of view this demand makes sense. If there is to be no border it means the UK, including Northern Ireland, has to have the same customs union agreement and most of the EU regulations to allow trade in Ireland to continue as today.

That in turn ends the dream (or fantasy) of hardline Brexiters since 23 June 2016 that the UK can negotiate wonderful free trade deal with countries far from Europe in  the creation of a 19th century British global trade imperium.

So far there has been little mainstream media or business exposure of the folly of this fantasy. The Labour Party has long called for the UK to remain in a customs union with the EU albeit with some unworkable Labour caveat conceits.

For the moment that solution which mainly solves the Irish backstop issue is not on the agenda but it is one that would command support amongst moderate Tory MPs and isolate the anti-EU hardliners. It also has the support of the DUP.

Britain wakes up to the EU at all levels making clear the Withdrawal Agreement – in effect a mini Treaty – will not be renegotiated. Tusk, Barnier, MEPs like the EPP Spitzenkandidat  Manfred Webber and the influential German Norbert Röttgen, chair of the Bundestag Foreign Affairs Committee, has underlined this as has the Irish government and President Macron. Michael Martin, the leader of the Irish Fianne Fail party also confirmed on the BBC that for Ireland the problem is party political divisions in London. He said the withdrawal agreement is "over" and that the GFA should not be undermined.

There is hope that the full horror of No Deal with trade, flights, supplies of food and medicine all coming to a stop and even a suggestion from the UK government that martial law may be imposed if there is unrest as supplies ran out can somehow force a change.

But that works both ways. The House of Commons also voted for an amendment last night repudiating a No Deal. 17 Tory MPs voted with all opposition MPs to defeat the Government.

This vote has allowed Corbyn to climb down from his previous position of not talking to Mrs May until No Deal was off the table. With the Commons vote defeating Mrs May in his pocket he can now meet her and press for a Customs Union solution to the Irish border issue.

Corbyn has lost his general election option but also pushed back the new referendum idea which was very divisive with Labour MPs though popular with rank and file activists.

Now it is up to Brussels wordsmiths to forge words to add to the Political Declaration to allow Mrs May to claim she has won some concessions.

The vote earlier in the month rejecting the Deal is now history. The Deal is now acceptable with modifications. Can Mrs May modify her stubborn insistence that her very hard interpretation of the June 2019 Brexit vote extends to a complete repudiation of Custom union type arrangements with Europe. Or can she soften her line?

She has moved from a 230 majority defeat to a united Tory Party last night. Does this encourage her to lead? Or will it confirm her unwillingness to take on the hard Brexit minority inside her party?

Denis MacShane

Denis MacShane

January 2019

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