ABHI Brexit Update: Omnishambles
Last Saturday, in what has become something of a tradition, albeit a necessarily ad hoc one, my closest personal friend of 35-years standing and I found ourselves in Belgravia. The Cadogan Hall to be precise. We were there to see a performance on the latest tour of the musical artist who, for more than four decades now, has been what you might call my guilty pleasure.
My friend and I go back a long way and had convened, midafternoon, in the absolute gem that is The Antelope on Eaton Square. After all, there was lunch to be consumed, rugby to be watched and tall stories to be recounted. The music finished about 10 O’clock but our evening continued, tandoori-style, into the wee hours. You will understand then, that next day I had recourse to read reviews of the concert. Just to be sure. It was apparently, after all, at least as good as I had (kind of) remembered. Neil McCormick certainly thought so. In a warm and glowing appraisal, the Telegraph’s music critic opened his assessment with a line I just so wish I had come up with first. “He came, he shook, he conquered.”
If only our Prime Minister, or our Attorney General, or our succession of Brexit Secretaries and their negotiating teams, had one iota of the ability of the world’s greatest living Rock n’ Roll singer to deliver, then we might not be where we are now. The only thing that is surprising me is that none of the hacks I have read have yet used the (non) word “omnishambles.”
I know you will have followed events in Westminster this week as closely as I followed those at Cadogan Hall on Saturday night, but for completeness I probably should at least rehearse them. Just to be sure. The PM and Geoffrey Cox returned from Brussels with nothing that looked remotely different from the withdrawal agreement that was so embarrassingly rejected in the last meaningful vote in January. Some MPs were convinced by her warnings about losing control and his mutterings about being legally binding. But not many. The inevitable defeat in Tuesday’s second meaningful vote was not as heavy as last time. But not by much.
May immediately indicated that the following day there would be a free vote on a motion to prevent no deal, and that she would support the motion herself. Then things got a little funky. The PM chose to phrase the motion in negative terms, opposing no deal, rather than pursuing it, but then adding a caveat that it will still be left on the table as the default option. It stated: “That this House declines to approve leaving the European Union without a Withdrawal Agreement and a Framework for the Future Relationship on 29 March 2019; and notes that leaving without a deal remains the default in UK and EU law unless this House and the EU ratify an agreement.” That got a few MPs a bit worked up, they felt it was ambiguous. Before MPs voted on the motion, they backed an amendment tabled by FLL rejecting a no-deal Brexit under any circumstances. It was tight, just four votes in it, but it was unexpected and it stung. That in turn got the PM worked up, the free vote was off and MPs on the government benches were ordered to vote against the government motion. Not all of them obeyed, Ministers abstained and the amended motion was passed. But still the PM did not seem to get it, "the options before us are the same as they always have been" she said. “The legal default in EU and UK law is that the UK will leave without a deal unless something else is agreed. The onus is now on every one of us in this House to find out what that is.”
What she is actually saying is that nothing has changed, the vote is not legally binding and that she is going to bring her plan back again next week to try again. You do have to smile. Talk about the people speaking, but what about parliamentary democracy? Those on the Leave side of this bitter divide have long held the conspiracy theory that the liberal elite are trying to do an Ireland. That is to keep holding referendums until they get the right answer. I am not quite sure how the PM’s approach in bringing back her plan for a third time is any different. If you remember her plan is essentially the Chequers Agreement that all and sundry said at the time would never get through the Commons. If you think that sounds wrong and should not be allowed, then technically it is not. Mechanisms are in place to prevent Parliament repeatedly debating the same motion. As with a lot of things, the decision on where to draw the line lies with the speaker, old you-know-who. Hold that thought for a moment.
So, as widely predicted, the Withdrawal Agreement having been rejected (again) on Tuesday, no deal (sort of) taken off the table on Wednesday, Thursday was the day that Parliament agreed to seek permission from the EU to extend Article 50. Initially that is until 30th June, but that is contingent on the deal being ratified in that third meaningful vote next Tuesday. If the plan gets rejected again, then a longer extension will be required and that almost certainly means the UK taking part in the European Parliament elections. And if that sounds a bit bonkers, it is supposed to. The PM’s hope is that faced with her deal or a delay of what could be a number of years, the DUP, Tory hardliners and Labour MPs from Leave-voting constituencies will capitulate. It is now hard not to see Mrs May’s strategy as a cynical attempt to run the clock down to the point where her deal is the least horrible option left.
In fact there was a bit more to yesterday’s shenanigans than just the extension. The vote on the extension motion, a government one remember, was actually opposed by the Brexit Secretary moments after he had called on the House to support it. A host of other front benchers joined him. Labour whipped against another amendment seeking a second referendum, although that remains Party policy. It is just that apparently the time is not right. It could also have been a bit better or a whole lot worse for Her Majesty’s Government. Chair of the Brexit Select Committee, Hilary Benn, had tabled an amendment to the extension motion that would have handed power to Parliament on 20th March had the deal not been ratified by then. That would have spelt big trouble for the Government, but they avoided it. By two votes. Labour MP, Chris Bryant, also chose not to pursue his amendment that would have prevented the PM coming back for version three. That might yet haunt the Government. Had the amendment been voted on and defeated, the PM would have a clear run. As it is, it is now down to the Speaker (see above). He would be well within in his rights, but whether or not he has the nerve is another matter.
Confused? My head really hurts just having to write all that down. But we are in good company. The news programmes these past couple of nights have featured experienced lobby hacks with bemused looks on their faces talking about chaos.
Still amongst it all I find reasons to be cheerful. Despite the genealogical and lifestyle odds being stacked massively against me, this weekend will see me make it to another birthday. Unfortunately merely being born on St. Patrick’s Day does not automatically qualify me for an Irish passport, and, although I think it should, I remain upbeat. I am flying with my girls up to Edinburgh, suite in the Caledonian, spa treatments etc. It will also be a significant event for my daughter, who will become the third generation of her family to see her father’s guilty pleasure live on stage. We might just make a tradition of it.