Concession on the Brexit “meaningful vote” has serious political implicationsby Peter Kellner / June 12, 2018 / Leave a comment
The government has surrendered; and the implications are immense.
Shortly before 1.30pm on Tuesday, David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, opposed a House of Lords amendment in no uncertain terms. Amendment 19 would enhance the powers of parliament in the Brexit process by making a Commons vote on the final withdrawal terms a “meaningful vote.”
Davis said this was a “no Brexit amendment” that amounted to “an unconstitutional shift that risks undermining our negotiations with the European Union. It enables parliament to dictate to the government their course of action in international negotiations.” He praised the academic Vernon Bogdanor, who had described the amendment as “a constitutional absurdity.”
These were the words of a minister expecting to win the vote. Had he feared defeat, he would surely have been more conciliatory. Instead, he used just about the most aggressive word in the parliamentary lexicon: “unconstitutional.”
Just three hours later, ministers caved in. They told the anti-hard-Brexit rebels that they would propose their own amendment that, in effect, gave them what they wanted. In three hours, a constitutional absurdity had become a political necessity. It had become clear that, for all the cajoling by the Tory whips, and the appeals to loyalty to Theresa May, the government was likely to lose the vote.
We should not be fooled by the overnight reports that the government has promised less than the rebels claim—that they have offered only talks about a new amendment, with no commitment to a greatly enhanced role for parliament in the Brexit process. If ministers go back on their word and serve up something insipid, then the rebels will revive their own plan, and are likely to win the backing of majorities in both the Lords and Commons. The death of the government’s ambition to keep parliament at bay is not in doubt; all that is left to determine are the words and timing of the funeral oration.
This fact matters even more than the detail of parliament’s powers, though that is also highly significant. The real lesson of the government’s climbdown is that there is now no chance of anything other than the softest of Brexits being approved by parliament. This prospect will strengthen the hopes of a deal that will be as good (or un-bad) as possible for British business, and will also keep the Irish border open.
However, those hopes could still be dashed—not so much by parliament as by the rest of the EU. The obvious mechanism for delivering a soft Brexit would be for the so-called “backstop” plan to be open-ended. That is, after the “implementation phase” ends in December 2020, there would be a new relationship designed to keep the Irish border open, whereby the UK would maintain the present rules of the customs union and single market, at least as far as goods are concerned.
Ministers might say that they “expect” this phase to last no more than 12 months; but nobody in the real world will be fooled: this “phase” could last indefinitely, just as Norway’s single market deal with the EU, which was intended to last just a few months in 1994, is still going strong 24 years later.
Now, getting Michel Barnier to accept this won’t be easy. He has already said that the “backstop” is intended to apply only to Northern Ireland, not the whole of the UK. He would demand a high price for widening the backstop arrangements to the British mainland.
What is the price the UK would have to pay? Here’s the likely list: full acceptance of all customs union and single market rules; no British trade deals with other non-EU countries; any future disputes over those rules to be settled, as now, by the European Court of Justice; continued payments into the EU budget as long as the “backstop” lasts; and continued UK acceptance of the principle of freedom of movement for EU citizens. (Maybe the UK could soften the edges of freedom of movement by reducing access for recent EU arrivals in the UK to welfare benefits, but freedom to take up jobs in the UK would be sacrosanct.)
That looks like something the UK government could not possibly accept. But so far it has surrendered every time push has come to shove. Nobody should be surprised if it ends up signing up to Barnier’s demands yet again, after promising to do no such thing.
What then? In principle, there should be a clear parliamentary majority for this version of Brexit. But raw politics may intervene. Readers with long memories will recall how pro-European Labour MPs joined forces with anti-EU Conservatives to disrupt the process of ratifying the Maastricht Treaty in 1993. This unholy alliance came very close to bringing down John Major’s government. Something similar might happen this time. Nobody can be certain how this story would end. Brexit going ahead? A split in the Tory Party? An early general election? A fresh referendum? Nothing can be ruled out.
But suppose the UK leaves the EU on the softest of terms—and suppose the “backstop” arrangement keeps going well beyond 2021. This raises an awkward question. The UK will then sign up to virtually all the economic rules that apply to EU members, and pay for the privilege, but without any real border controls over EU citizens coming to Britain to work—and without a seat in the EU Council of Ministers and hence no say in how those rules are amended or enforced. If that is the destination of our Brexit journey, what exactly is the point of leaving the EU at all?
This article was updated to include overnight political developments