ABHI Brexit Update: The Second Referendum?
I have to admit to having a bit of a fright on Wednesday morning. After a rather unexpected, but very agreeable dinner out with my girls on Tuesday night, I had fallen asleep listening to the breaking news coverage about negotiators reaching a deal on the Withdrawal Agreement in Brussels. When I emerged from the shower early next day, Radio 4 was playing the National Anthem. I had what you might call a mild panic attack. The National Anthem? I had always believed that this was some sort signal to our fleet of nuclear subs. What had happened? Just how bad was the deal? Happily it was just one of those moments when the BBC takes us back to 1950s levels of deference, and was playing, what one day will be his tune, to mark the 70th birthday of HRH, The Prince of Wales. It is probably too late to salvage the Knighthood now, but a very Happy Birthday anyway Sir.
In fact, to answer my own question, the deal was bad enough for the guy that was supposed to have negotiated it to resign because he could not support it. I am not sure how that works exactly, but I do not think we need to summon Slipper of The Yard to help us establish that Dominic Raab did not negotiate the deal. He was, to coin a phrase, Brexit Secretary in name only. Having now lost two, the PM should probably give up the pretence that someone else in in charge of relations with Brussels, and just get on with leading things from Downing Street. As I write, other resignations follow, but not yet of the scale and significance that would precipitate any sudden dramas. The really difficult decisions have, once again, been deferred a little longer, not least because nobody in the Cabinet really knew what would happen if they rejected the deal. The soundtrack of the Brexit process has been that of a can bouncing along the tarmac.
You may have seen my note yesterday on what happens now. Firstly the EU27 members have to agree that they are happy with the text. This is not as straightforward as it might appear. Some have concerns that aspects of the agreement could give the UK economic advantages in certain areas, and want to consider the content in detail for themselves. Assuming that particular hurdle is cleared, a Summit will take place on 25th November at which the withdrawal agreement will be formally accepted. Accompanying that will be, acronym alert, an Outline Political Declaration (OPD) on future arrangements. Then, as Justin Currie once sang, in the fun house the fun starts. The deal will need to be ratified by both the EU and UK Parliaments. The scale of this task for Theresa May was highlighted by the fact that any number of people, leavers, remainers, the Labour Party, SNP, DUP and Uncle Tom, all came out of the woodwork to denounce the deal, saying they would vote against it.
And this was on Tuesday, before anyone had even seen the actual text of the agreement. If you have got nothing on at the weekend and you fancy taking on the full 585 pages, you can find it here. In fact if you have ever had aspirations to be an MP you should definitely give it a go. Because being an MP is not like it is in the movies, its looking at things like this. Mountains of mind numbing text in which the semi colons have to be rearranged. My reading, for what it is worth, is that there are no real surprises. The sticking points remain the sticking points and were always going to remain the sticking points, because some basic truths still apply. Without some form of customs union there will be a hard border in Ireland and that is to be avoided. We need, therefore, a backstop position in the event of no deal to prevent the watch towers reappearing. What appears in the this text is a backstop that would keep the entire UK in the customs union, although, as commentators tried to explain with a swimming pool analogy, the relationship that Northern Ireland would have with the EU would be deeper (get it?) than that enjoyed by the rest of the UK. There would also be no time limit on how long the backstop would last and we could only leave it with the agreement of the EU. That is why Raab resigned and why the Brexiteers could never support it.
And so, as it stands, it is difficult to see how the Government could get the deal through Parliament. That was also apparent in the House of Commons yesterday as the PM steadfastly defended the deal. The same few answers followed the same few questions. No there will not be a second referendum. No we do not anticipate needing the Irish backstop. Yes the backstop will temporary. But, and this is her problem, there was very little support for the actual deal as written. The only succour the PM could draw was the fact that virtually all MPs acknowledged her integrity and diligence. The odds on the deal getting passed are lengthening, but we have been here before and it is not a problem that will have to be faced until December when Parliament will likely vote on it. That is assuming that in the meantime, Jacob Rees-Mogg et al do not force a Tory leadership contest via those letters to the 1922 Committee I told you about. It is unlikely they would actually be able to oust her, but it would start messing with a very tight timetable.
It is impossible to predict where we go from here, but there are other things happening that suggest the mood of the House might be changing. This time last week I left you with a “Who’d have thunk it.” Within hours of my blog going live, my colleagues were, a little too gleefully for my liking actually, pointing out that the Brexit saga had thrown up one of its own.
Ordinarily, the resignation of a middling junior Minister on a matter of principle would not count for much in the grand scheme. It may not have passed entirely unnoticed, but neither would it have created much of a ripple. On this occasion, however, the Minister’s name was Johnson.
The Johnsons are the modern day, life imitates art equivalent of the Jacksons in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop. Younger readers may want, perhaps, to consider the Kardashians. Love them or loathe them, try as you might, it is very hard not to notice them or get drawn, moth like and guiltily to the flame that illuminates their improbable, often questionable antics.
Now, whilst I am not totally convinced that everyone on the Clapham Omnibus would be fully aware of the existence of Jo Johnson, or be able to connect the dots to his noisier sibling, it certainly got us chattering classes going. The “well I never” element here is the prospect that Jo’s resignation, and his use of it as a platform to call for a second referendum, could ultimately be far more significant than the preposterous, stage managed version affected by his big brother. Boris, you will recall, went to the length of hiring a professional photographer to capture the moment he signed his own letter to the PM. Now there was not actually a procession of other MPs following the junior Johnson’s lead, and it might be that the whole Waugh / Kardashian thing has caused us to overestimate the importance. Johnson’s, though, is one of a number of otherwise moderate voices, arguing that the greater risk to democracy is not to fail to deliver the result of the 2016 referendum, but rather to deny the country a final say on the deal it will have to live with for the foreseeable future. It was a sentiment that the PM heard repeatedly yesterday.
Earlier in the week and facing a certain defeat, the Government did not contest a motion tabled by Labour, Tory Brexiteers and the DUP, that forces the publication of full details of the legal advice on the Irish backstop received by Ministers. It was an embarrassing climb down, after Minister for the Cabinet Office, David Liddington had proposed a compromise, and illustrates the fragile nature of Theresa May’s grasp on power. There is more to come. A raft of MPs are supporting an amendment to the Finance Bill that would oblige any impact analysis to consider not deal versus no deal, but deal versus current arrangements. I sense that there is a real groundswell of MPs willing to argue that the best deal on offer is the one we currently enjoy.
Theresa may have said no to it countless times from the dispatch box yesterday, and last night she was impressively resolute during her Downing Street press conference, but if this deal gets rejected in December, she may not be able to resist a second referendum.