No third chance

Over the weekend the notion that Theresa May’s Brexit deal would rise from the dead began to move from completely unthinkable to just about imaginable, as the DUP started to hint that they could perhaps live with the Irish backstop, and Tory hold-outs suggested they would follow suit. The excuse for this volte-face was the proposition that article 62 of the Vienna Convention would allow the UK to unilaterally extricate itself from the backstop; actual international lawyers dismissed this as a fairytale, but it looked like it would be enough of a convenient fiction to provide cover for the Brexiteers’ retreat from their supposedly unshakable principles.

However this glimmer of hope for our beleaguered premier was extinguished today, with the news that Commons Speaker John Bercow was minded to rule out a third vote on the plan, on the grounds that repeatedly presenting the same defeated motion contravenes long-established parliamentary convention. This should have been blindingly obvious to the government, but they seem to have assumed that, since all other precedents were being torn up, this one could be ignored too.

This seems to leave May with no choice but to request a long extension of article 50, which presumably the EU will only grant if she promises that the time will be used for a general election, or another referendum. Alternatively she could just ignore last week’s vote against no-deal and plough on with it regardless, but that seems bloody-minded, even for her. We may yet look back on today as the point at which the tide definitively turned against Brexit.

Web of reaction

I’m sure I wasn’t alone last week in struggling to believe the news from New Zealand; no matter how many atrocities one hears about there is always shock at the latest one, especially when it occurs in just about the last place one might expect. I guess there have been a lot of stories in recent years extolling NZ as a haven from the turmoil of the world, which might attract the demographic that is anticipating an apocalyptic race war, but still, it is unsettling to learn that even a seemingly peaceful backwater like Christchurch apparently has a thriving white-supremacist scene.

It doesn’t seem so long ago that the internet, and social media in particular, was being hailed as an unstoppable force for progress, but now, as nazis live-stream massacres and shadowy corporations undermine liberal democracy, the consensus has shifted to view online culture as a menace to civilisation. As ever with these things, the truth will be somewhere in between, though the alt-right do seem to be weaponising the web more effectively than we leftists at the moment.

Departure delayed

A relatively straightforward day, by recent standards, with what appears to be a clear result; the UK will not, after all, be leaving the EU on the 29th of March, assuming that Brussels is good enough to let us stay for a bit longer.

How long depends on whether the ERG hold their nerve and vote down May’s deal when she brings it back for a third time next week. If they do we could stay in for another 2 years, or perhaps indefinitely. If they crumble, then we could be gone by the summer.

It seems counterintuitive that Brexit may end up being frustrated by its most ardent supporters, but I guess the die-hard leavers are calculating that they can still cause enough chaos to frustrate any sort of sensible deal, however long the delay, and they might be right. A lot depends on how many of them are willing to risk losing the prize altogether in pursuit of their hard departure.

It does seem like a big gamble; any pause the EU is minded to grant will surely be conditional on the existence of a realistic plan to end the deadlock, which means either a general election or another referendum. The former would be odds-on to return a Labour government, while polls suggest that the latter would deliver victory to the remain cause.

So I’m beginning to think that, against all expectations, May’s deal might just sneak through. Perhaps she is a political genius after all.

The deal that will not die

Not for the first time in this saga, what seemed settled 24 hours ago is now up in the air again. After a series of parliamentary votes chaotic even by recent standards, we seem to be in a position where it looks like Theresa May could yet salvage her deal.

The day started with the government tabling a motion supposedly ruling out a no-deal exit. Closer examination revealed that it did nothing of the sort. A backbench amendment which expressed unequivocal opposition to no-deal then narrowly passed, prompting May to abandon her promise of a free vote, and to attempt to whip her party against the now-amended motion. This failed, as numerous Tories, including cabinet ministers, defied her orders.

In response to this defeat May announced that, given that parliament had thrown out her deal, which is clearly the only deal on offer, the alternative was a lengthy postponement of the leaving date, with all that entails, including participation in the European elections, and perhaps the loss of Brexit altogether. She suggested that she would give those in her party who wished to avoid such an outcome one more chance to back the agreement they overwhelmingly rejected only yesterday.

Will this work? The early indications are that the hard-core of the ERG will maintain their opposition come what may, but some of the less fanatical Brexiters may be wavering.

Anything could happen though, since there are so many unknowns. Will the EU agree to any length of delay? Would the ERG be willing to bring down the government if there was another no-confidence vote? Might the government collapse of its own accord? Will May be deposed by a party rebellion? Would any new leader fare any better in solving what is, ultimately, an insoluble problem? Could May decide to just ignore the non-binding resolutions of parliament and press on with a no-deal exit regardless?

I’d say things might be clearer by tomorrow, but it’s likely the opposite will be the case. My money is still on a disorderly exit on the 29th, but I’m a little more hopeful that I might be wrong.

Deadlock redux

Well, it turned out that there was to be no miracle in Westminster tonight, as the government went down to a defeat which, while not as catastrophic as last month, was still emphatic enough to banish any idea that they could try to resuscitate the deal with a third vote.

What now? There is to be a vote tomorrow on a motion ruling out a no-deal exit, which seems likely to pass, especially as Tory MPs will be given a free vote on the issue, a concession Theresa May was forced to grant by the threat of half of her cabinet rebelling, and draining away what little remains of her political authority.

However this will leave parliament in the position of demanding a deal, while simultaneously refusing the only deal on offer. There will be a move to request a delay in the departure date, but it is far from clear that the EU will cooperate with this, since there is no consensus on what should be done with the extra time, and the prospect of this paralysis continuing for the next two, three, or however many months is not particularly appealing.

If there is anything that can be said with certainty about this process, it’s that no development, however outlandish, can ever be ruled out, but it does look like we’re running out of time for a happy ending. A few days ago I predicted that the UK would crash out of the EU on the 29th, and nothing tonight has made me change my mind.

Back from the edge?

So, predictably enough, Theresa May’s new and improved Brexit deal turned out to be functionally identical to her old Brexit deal, which might lead one to believe that it is destined to go down to the same ignominious defeat suffered by its predecessor, and that does look like the most likely outcome. There is a slim hope, I guess, that the window-dressing she has been able to apply might just be enough to give plausible cover to the more faint-hearted members of her party who are looking for an excuse to back down from the ridiculous position they have talked themselves into, but whether that will be enough to counterbalance the fanatical true believers on the right remains to be seen.

Remains to be seen in the next few minutes in fact; I’ll be back with an update soon.

Finally?

It’s with a decided sense of déjà vu that I report that tomorrow is absolutely the crunch day for Brexit. Reports from Strasbourg tonight are suggesting that Theresa May has managed to win some concessions on the vexed question of the Irish backstop, though it should be noted that the source of the more optimistic briefings is the UK government; the EU are rather more downbeat.

As I write the actual text of whatever has been agreed has not been released; a press conference is apparently imminent. It’s unlikely that anything short of a complete cave-in by Brussels would satisfy the more extreme Brexiteers in the Tory party though, so the chances of the vote tomorrow being the final word on the matter seem slim.

Endgame forecast

I had been planning to record some more observations on the Brexit process over the last couple of weeks, but to be honest I have almost entirely lost the will to write about it, since the stupidity of it all is just too depressing. However there is a sense that some sort of conclusion might be reached next week, so I guess I should try to think through the possible outcomes.

The first question will be settled next Tuesday, when MPs vote on Theresa May’s supposedly revised plan; unsurprisingly, the EU have not made any concessions, so the proposal will be essentially identical to the one that was roundly rejected in January. May’s only hope of success seems to rest on the hard-Leaver wing of her party losing their nerve and falling in behind her, out of fear that otherwise there might be no Brexit at all. This looks very unlikely, so firmly have the ERG and the DUP nailed their colours to the mast on the Irish backstop question, so, unless there is a major breakdown in Labour Party discipline, it seems inevitable that the deal will be blocked once again.

This will trigger another vote the following day, when Parliament will be asked if it wants to categorically rule out a no-deal exit, on the understanding that doing so will prompt the government to seek to delay the departure date. Opposition to no-deal does seem to be the one position that commands a majority, so this outcome looks rather more likely.

Of course an extension to article 50 would require the agreement of the EU, and this may not be forthcoming, unless there is some indication that the extra time will allow a compromise to emerge. There is no sign of such a consensus at the moment, and, despite the looming deadline, the opposing positions in the UK seem if anything to be hardening, so Brussels may well decide that it’s better to get the shock of Brexit over now, rather than dragging the uncertainty out any longer.

The only plausible way to break the impasse would seem to be another referendum. The Labour leadership have, belatedly, come out in support of this, though a significant section of the parliamentary party remains opposed. There is a plan that would see Labour allowing May’s deal to pass, on the condition that it is ratified by a popular vote. However this would raise the question of what should be the other option on the ballot; no-deal or no-Brexit? Perhaps both? Organising a vote would take time; a possible date for leaving would have to be put back months, which would then oblige the UK to participate in the European elections, a turn of events unlikely to calm passions. The referendum campaign itself would almost certainly be ugly, and divert political attention away from the actual running of the country. There is something to the argument that the original Brexit result has already been confirmed by the 2017 general election, and another plebiscite would only deepen popular alienation from the political process, fuelling reactionary populism. The “People’s Vote” option is far from a panacea, and the potential complications may render it unviable.

So, for the record, what do I predict is going to happen? I think that: the vote on Tuesday will go against the government by a large margin; the Commons will vote to rule out no-deal, but will be unable to agree on an alternative; Theresa May will half-heartedly ask the EU for more time; Brussels will refuse a short extension and May will decline to request a longer one; the clock will run down and the UK will crash out of the EU on the 29th of March 2019.

Where might I be wrong? If the vote on Tuesday is relatively close, May could try again the following week, and manage to cajole enough waverers to get it over the line. Alternatively, she could abandon the right of her party, and compromise with Labour on a soft-Brexit plan. There might turn out to be a majority in favour of a second referendum. The EU could to agree a short delay, and, chastened by the brush with disaster, our politicians may use the time to negotiate a sensible solution.

Or maybe I’ll wake up, and it will all turn out to have been nothing but a bad dream…

More delay

I had hoped that this might have been the week that we finally got some clarity on just how badly the country was going to be hit by the Brexit tsunami, but, true to form, Theresa May has postponed a decision yet again, until the 12th of March this time. Since this is barely two weeks before the deadline, and she has, entirely predictably, made no further progress towards a deal, it is looking ever more likely that we will end up with the worst of possible outcomes.

In these circumstances one might expect that our elected representatives would do something constructive, but instead we’re getting a doomed centrist realignment, which isn’t really what is needed.

Still, it is just about possible to imagine a way out; Labour propose a suspension of article 50, enough MPs from the relatively sensible wing of the Tory party support the idea to see it carried, the EU agree to this on the condition that the delay is long enough to actually work out a deal, this allows time for momentum to build behind the demand for a second referendum, which results in a clear majority for remain, allowing the nation to move on from the whole sorry episode.

I’d have to concede that this scenario is unlikely, and even if it unfolds exactly as I predict there would still be the not inconsiderable problem of a sizeable and emboldened far-right armed with a convenient betrayal narrative. I’d take that though, since the alternative is no-deal, and a triumphant far-right ready to exploit the subsequent economic implosion.

State in denial

It’s a little ironic that, while over in the US Donald Trump is attempting to evade constitutional checks and balances by declaring a patently bogus state of emergency, this country, which really is facing a national catastrophe, has a political class which seems to have collectively lost any sense of urgency.

Despite multiple signs of impending doom, parliament has agreed to give the government until the end of the month to come up with an escape plan, even though there is no indication that Theresa May is going to use the extra two weeks any more fruitfully than she has done the last two years.

May’s strategy has been to play both sides against the centre – threatening Europhiles by hinting that she is prepared to countenance a no-deal exit if they don’t back her, while simultaneously telling Brexiters that she might just abandon the whole thing if she doesn’t get their support. This sort of duplicitous diplomacy might have had a slim chance of success in medieval Europe, when the population was largely illiterate, and information took months to spread around the country, but hoping that it could work in the modern world of hyper-connected 24-hour news-feeds seems optimistic to say the least.

The latest reports suggest that the government is going to abandon even the pretence of negotiating a new plan, which is not surprising, since any leverage they might have hoped to have with Brussels disappeared when the fragile Tory truce fell apart last week, exposing the fact that no concession from the EU will be enough to appease the likes of the ERG. Come February 28th May will just present the Commons with the same deal they roundly rejected last month, in effect daring them to crash the economy by turning it down again. However it seems likely that this gambit will fail, since Tory hard-Brexiters don’t believe (or don’t care) that no-deal will be so bad, and the opposition parties are reluctant to let May off the hook by taking even partial political ownership of the whole debacle.

The only way I can see a majority being assembled in support of May’s deal is if it is made conditional on ratification by a new referendum. This idea has some traction in the liberal press, though nowhere else as yet, but the prospect of passing responsibility for Brexit back to the electorate might start to appeal to MPs once they finally realise that the alternative is taking the blame themselves.