The Brexit ship of fools

A try at an update on the evolving Brexit chaos.

Eight days to B-day on March 29! For amoral political junkies, it’s sheer heaven. The last fortnight at Westminster has been the most exciting since May 1940, if not quite as important. You could only keep up by 24/7 liveblogging. I can’t manage it, so consider this a Brexit open thread.

Last time I looked (ten minutes ago) the state of play is this:

1. PM Theresa May has negotiated a fat Withdrawal Agreement with the EU. At the EU’s insistence, This does not cover the future trading relationship, which is what most of the fuss is about. It does include the “Irish backstop”, resulting from the syllogism I and others noted a year ago:

No hard border at Dundalk → Northern Ireland must stay in the EU customs area and (for many other purposes) the EU Single Market → EITHER the whole of the UK applies the same rules OR there is a customs border in the Irish Sea.

2. May’s deal has been rejected twice by the House of Commons by large majorities, composed of a tactical alliance of Tory hard Brexiters and Labour, triangulating like mad and sort of promising a (completely pointless) soft Brexit to keep both Leaver and Remainer voters on board.

3. May would like a third bite at the cherry (another vote on her unpopular deal) but the Speaker, John Bercow, has rejected this unless there is something new on the table, because that’s the way it’s been done since 1604. Juncker has offered meaningless clarifications, which May argues should be enough for Bercow.

4. The Commons have twice passed resolutions (the Spelman amendment) opposing a disastrous no-deal Brexit, which is the default unless a deal is agreed. In the impasse, May has asked the EU for a 3-month extension of the deadline (letter here). She still hopes to get her deal through.

The collapse of parliamentary conventions is striking. May has not only lost control of her MPs, which has happened before, but rarely. She has lost control of her Cabinet: four members voted against her deal last time, with nine junior ministers. All but one junior are still in office.

What I am interested in is the chance of the whole stupid thing being called off. I’m no expert, but the clean path to this lies through a second referendum. Two intelligent Labour backbenchers, Peter Kyle and Phil Wilson, have drafted an amendment that involves the Commons passing May’s deal subject to a referendum on it. If the referendum fails, the UK stays in the EU. The amendment does not put No Deal on the ballot; understandable, as it’s completely irresponsible. The amendment has not yet been voted on but is gathering traction, particularly with the Labour leadership It also offers the now desperate May a face-saving rescue from her largely self-imposed Sarlac. It’s largely up to Bercow if and when the amendment put to a vote.

Polls of UK voters have consistently shown a small majority for Remain for the last 18 months. As a UK citizen resident in Spain, I and a million like me are disenfranchised and not polled. That’s on a simple stay/leave question, without the real threat of the No Deal alternative, and the defects of any actual deal on the table like May’s.

The chaos shows the inability of the British political class to think constitutionally. Opinions Differ on the shape of the British Constitution. Is any part of Magna Carta still relevant? Is the Lascelles letter to The Times of 1950? However, it’s indisputable that the Act of Union of 1707, passed by the now defunct Scottish Parliament, is part of the British constitution. The same surely holds for the Good Friday Agreement of April 1998 (pdf) on Northern Ireland, embedded in a treaty between the UK and Ireland. The GFA does not mention the EU, and has very little on economic issues, but in December 2017 the British government promised to avoid a hard border “for the protection of the 1998 Agreement” (citation here). This gives political, legal and constitutional support to the common sense observation that prosperity, mobility, and trade within the EU are crucial guarantees for continued peace in Ireland.

In hindsight, Cameron’s tactical decision in 2016 to call a referendum on Brexit, not on a clear proposal like the GFA, but a vague intention, looks breathtakingly irresponsible. It was like asking “Do you want to abolish the monarchy?” without specifying what sort of republic would replace it.

Tomorrow things will be different. Anything to add?

PS: Five-minute update: it looks as if the EU will only agree an Article 50 extension to May 22. Stay tuned.

Updates 23 March:

  • The EU have given May only until April 22, enough time to get her deal rejected for a third time and then to think of something else that might work (second referendum or general election).
  •  An online petition to revoke the Article 50 notification has gathered 4m votes at the time of writing (4,105,117 as of 12:00 23/3 Madrid time), and has at times crashed the site. A competing no-deal Leaver petition has a mere 455,668 signatories. These are statutory petitions on a site run by Parliament. With more that 100,000 signatories, Parliament will normally debate them, though Bercow can fold the debate into another one on the same topic. Interestingly, disenfranchised expats like me can sign. I can’t see anything that stops minors like my two granddaughters in Lille (with dual nationality) from signing, though they will need their own email addresses for the confirmation link. And why not? It’s their future. Political junkies can pore over a map with signatories by parliamentary constituency.
  • AOC etc should take up this scheme for the US Congress. It does not change any constitution, and makes the legislature a little more responsive to public opinion and a little less responsive to money.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

3 thoughts on “The Brexit ship of fools”

  1. I have often heard the expression “like watching a car-crash”, without really understanding it, but this is the first time I have really seen what is a slow-motion car crash. Trump getting elected was done and dusted in all its horror for a day, but this one seems to run & run.

    It is true the British have been let down by not having a written Constitution. They did have an emphasis on the “primacy of Parliament” and a body of precedent. A referendum was pulled in with first allocating it any weight in the system, because Cameron assumed he would win it. In Ireland, we have a written Constitution, and have learned that referendums should be stated clearly, with (if possible) legislation published stating the legal outcome.

    Now Brexiteers claim their referendum result should never be re-run, which is nonsense. May cannot command a majority in the House of Commons for her major policy, so by tradition she should ask the Queen to dismiss Parliament and call a General Election. However, her own party do not want her to do that. Labour, of course, do.

    A clearing-of-the-air what-sort-of Brexit-do-you-want election would have been in the best British tradition, but no dice.

    The Primacy of Parliament was also called in question by May’s determination to keep bringing her deal forward until it was agreed. The Speaker of the House John Bercow, usually a debate chairman, had to stand up and forbid that - he said by a precedent that extended back to 1604. I think it is the first time the Speaker of the House of Commons has to assert the authority of the Legislature against the Executive since the days of Charles I and Cromwell. Shades of Nancy Pelosi vs Trump.

    But the battle for the House of Commons (or its more rational members) to wrest control of Brexit goes on.

    (Bercow is a Remainer, he got some notoriety a few years ago by forbidding an invitation for Trump to address the House. I think he will be the only Speaker mentioned in the history books since the 17th Century).

    The best I heard was from a Labour MP David Brent “The House is like Alice in Wonderland, but that had laughs”. The Scottish Nationalist leader in the House, Ian Blackford, annoyed that Labour had not supported their motion for a 2nd referendum said “A shiver ran down the Labour front bench, but could not find a spine to attach itself to”. Ouch!

    It is great political theatre - not much new technology (there are microphones) but Bercow has to bellow “Order! Order!” at the top of his voice to get control. The Bercow roar for a vote “Division! Clear the Lobbies! ” should become a catchphrase.

  2. The UK has to choose among three options:
    1) Rescind the Article 50 negotiation, effectively cancelling Brexit, at least for now.
    2) Accept the deal that May’s government negotiated with the EU.
    3) Exit without a deal.

    Requesting an extension just allows the UK to put off the decision until a later date; it doesn’t make the necessity for a decision go away.

    One problem with this choice is that it is a three-way choice, and there doesn’t appear to be a majority in Parliament willing to support any of the three. To her credit, Theresa May has at least made a choice. Corbyn, the leader of the primary opposition party, hasn’t, presumably because any decision would make some voters unhappy. It’s easy to make a case that Theresa May is not the person who should be leading the UK right now. It’s a lot harder to make a case that Corbyn would be any better.

    Although the EU has agreed to an extension, there is still a March 29 deadline of sorts. If the UK agrees to May’s deal by March 29, then the UK will exit on May 22. Otherwise, the UK will exit on April 12, unless the UK and EU agree to extend the deadline again.

    At least two automobile manufacturers scheduled factory shutdowns to start on March 30, so if a no deal Brexit happened they would have time to reestablish their supply chains. Only now if no deal Brexit happens, it will happen on April 12, just about the time the factories are scheduled to resume operation. We don’t know whether a no-deal exit will happen, but if it does, the UK has managed to find a way to make no-deal even worse than people anticipated.

  3. Hi James!

    I’m not saying you’re wrong. I don’t have a strong opinion on what the UK *should* do … but oddly these days I find myself thinking that just breaking certain laws may be better than breaking relationships. Maybe the UK would have been better off just resisting the EU by more indirect means. Then they could squabble but stay married (which to me sounds like the best answer).

    Also … I’ve said this before, I can’t *believe* how the EU escapes criticism!!! It’s uncanny. Half the ownership of this mess is theirs, imho from the bleachers.

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