ABHI Brexit Update: The Parliamentary Flex
Where there you go. Another New Year’s Honours list and still no sign of the Knighthood. Ho hum. On one soldiers. It could always be worse. I could be in the Prime Minister’s shoes. I do not know what was in her letter to the North Pole, but if it was to do with rabbits hurling themselves out of hats, there would only have been disappointment. It took me a little while to work it out after emerging from my mince pie and cider haze, but nothing much changed over the festive period. Whatever was hoped for and whatever was happening behind the scenes, aside for the very occasional positive word about what compromises might be offered by the EU, nothing has been forthcoming. Mrs. May still has a deal that nobody in the UK Parliament wants and that Brussels is not for changing.
Things were never going to get better for her once the new term started in Westminster, but she may have thought there would be at least some respite before the Brexit debate restarted on Wednesday. Not so. Tuesday saw the Finance Bill and a humiliating defeat for the Government. It was all a bit technical, even for me. But the gist is this. The Finance Bill is the vehicle by which commitments made in the Budget are enabled, and an amendment was tabled to restrict the Government’s ability to use taxation to support a no deal without the consent of Parliament. The actual technical significance of it is probably not that great, described as nothing more than an inconvenience by Government insiders. But it is the first time since 1978 that a Government has lost a vote on a Finance Bill, and the defeat illustrates the perilous nature of running a minority administration. Just 20 Conservative rebels were enough to do the job. And get this, 17 of the 20 were former Ministers. Talk about “Et tu, Brute?” if you produced that sort of response in your own 360 feedback, you would get a visit from HR and a fast track to Occy Health.
Then on Wednesday, it got worse. Out of nowhere a cross bench amendment to the Brexit debate business motion, forced the Government to move quickly to Plan B if the deal is rejected in the meaningful vote, now scheduled for next Tuesday. Quickly means three sitting days rather than the 21 plus seven as it currently stands. That is a big deal, because one of the more plausible conspiracy type theories has been that the PM is attempting to run the clock down in order to force Parliament to accept her deal rather than default to no deal. Additionally, if a new plan was to come back it would be fully amendable. Parliament could dictate the terms of the new deal.
Now, hand up time. I had no idea that you could amend a Government side business motion and start really messing with its business. In my defence it seems that the Government did not know either. When the amendment was tabled, Ministers were quite sure that the motion was unamendable and therefore no vote could be considered. Besides it would have to be called by the Speaker in the first place. Therein lies the Achilles heel of this administration. The current Speaker, as I have said here previously, is nothing if not independent, and parliamentary process is so arcane that much is ultimately at his discretion. Despite his political affiliations, I doubt many Christmas cards were exchanged between his Chamber and Ministerial offices. And so the amendment was allowed and the vote lost. Downing Street was furious and, doubtless, Mr. Bercow laughed all the way back to Buckingham and his memoirs.
What both votes have told us, if we did not already know it, is that Parliament is fiercely opposed to a no deal exit, and is prepared to flex its muscles to prevent one. It is hard to see how that is a possible, let alone likely outcome from here. It could be that all this means is that there will not even be a vote next week. Why would you if you think you will lose and then have only three days to perform a miracle. Granted the PM has said it will definitely happen, but she has hardly been Nostradamus in predicting things happening or otherwise. Even when she is the one making the decisions.
Still the official line is that the deal is the best one for Britain and MPs should support it. The charm offensive has now even reached the Labour benches, with Ministers offering to accept amendments guaranteeing workers’ rights post Brexit in an attempt to snaffle opposition votes. The numbers, however, look bleak and time is running out. Hence if I was advising the PM I would be looking to avoid the vote and spend the time on bended knee in Brussels.
On Monday I sent you an update on the latest information coming out from Westminster and Brussels with regard to contingency planning. It is perhaps also worthwhile highlighting that a third version of the “Partnership Pack” has been published. All relevant documents can be found on the Brexit resources page of our website. Watch out also for a series of workshops we will be putting on to help you prepare for any eventuality in the coming months.
In the meantime the newspapers are full of it again, stockpiling, delays etc. But DON’T PANIC! The Department for Transport has it covered. With some 10,000 lorries a day passing through our Channel ports, one of the major fears over the chaos associated with a no deal Brexit, is a traffic jam on the M20 that can be seen from Space. To avoid this, the DfT have come up with a cunning plan to deploy the disused Manston Airport, near Ramsgate in Kent, as an emergency lorry park. It does beg the question about using it as an airport again, but that is for another day. Manston could hold some 4,000 lorries a day and is just 20 miles from the Port of Dover. In an, on the face of it, sensible move, the DfT tested it out. Perfect prior preparation and all that. They gave us Operation Brock – TaDa. The only problem was that of the 150 vehicles originally intended to stress test the route, only 89, pocketing £550 each, bothered to turn up. The convoy passed along the A256 towards Dover uneventfully under the capable supervision of DfT, Kent County Council and the Police. So that is all right then. But 89 lorries to simulate an anticipated 4,000? It is all a bit Walmington-on-Sea is it not? So where do you think we are headed, Corporal Jones or Private Frazer?