I actually like Theresa May and admire most of what she has done, but her legacy will fall on the mishandling of Britain’s departure from the European Union. She is in a difficult position and her replacement with a more Brexit-friendly leader will not remove all of that, but there have been fatal mistakes, which I have recounted before. Mrs May deserves a better write-up in history than she will receive, but her chief characteristic is to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, which she has done several times.
It would have been possible to rescue the Withdrawal Agreement. The analysis on this site shows that it is not as bad as hard-line Brexiteers have portrayed it, with the Transition Period shrinking to what would be just 18 months (and after 40 years of membership, that is not much). Mrs May’s speech yesterday was intended to bring a reconciliation, but it appears to have had the opposite effect.
Logic would dictate that the Withdrawal Agreement should get through: for Brexiteers, an early agreement means an early departure, and no more games from the Remoaners; for Labour, they have argued that there must be a deal and that no better deal with come to the table; for DUP, the deal would ensure exit and an open border with the Republic, and the backstop can simply not be enacted; for the LibDems, they want close relations with Europe and the Deal is the best way to continue relations. The Nationalists alone would logically oppose as stirring hatred and discord is their sole aim anyway. However, logic does not govern in the House of Commons.
As with other speeches, most of it is fine, but it contains its own destruction.
It is a pitch for Labour votes, quite openly. It points to their own manifesto pledghes. Then comes a half-truth: “if just 30 MPs had voted differently we would have passed the Withdrawal Agreement and we would be leaving the EU” – actually, while the mathematics is correct, it is Mrs May’s decision to ask for an extension which stopped us leaving the EU.
The new Brexit deal is the heart of the proposal
- A legal obligation to seek to conclude Alternative Arrangements by December 2020 so as to avoid the backstop coming into force: good, and necessary for backbench Conservative and Unionist votes. Legally unenforceable if the EU, does not play ball, but necessary.
- Should the backstop come into force, Great Britain to stay aligned with Northern Ireland: which is to say bound by all relevant EU rules.
- Prohibit the splitting of Northern Ireland from the UK’s customs territory: already in the Agreement actually.
- The Northern Ireland Assembly to consent for new regulations which are added to the backstop: well, yes, but better still if the Assembly could have a veto EU rules that would be added within the backstop.
- A new Workers’ Rights Bill to ensure UK workers enjoy rights that are every bit as good as, or better than, those provided for by EU rules: fine, and what has been argued from the beginning, namely that primary legislation should be required to change laws which affect ordinary working people.
- No change in the level of environmental protection when we leave the EU: thank you Mr Gove, and Greta.
- A legal duty on the Government to seek as close to frictionless trade with the EU in goods as possible, subject to being outside the Single Market and ending freedom of movement: good, and just what every Brexiteer has been arguing for.
- To deliver this, the UK will maintain common rules with the EU for goods and agri-food products: Ouch: that requires a form of vassalage.
- Parliament to have a vote on a temporary customs union or a more fixed customs union: this idea was rubbished by Mrs May as she said it, even though she also contradicted that rubbishing in relation to the proposals affecting Ulster. Procedurally we may consider that the debate would have to be a debate – define a “customs union” and the endless variations that may be contained within it, and that itself will delay the process by months. It may be in vain anyway: Parliament may be sovereign within our shores, but it cannot command a foreign power to sign a treaty it does not want to.
- A Second Referendum to be an option for Parliament to decide, which must take place before the Withdrawal Agreement can be ratified. – and there we have the point which has alienated all sides. It gives extreme Remainers the chance they want, has legitimised what was always a lunatic-fringe idea, and if chosen would delay Brexit itself for a year or two., closing in on a General Election with the Conservative vote hovering around 20% if that.
The logical response would be for Labour and the ERG both to vote for the Bill; Labour to protect their tumbling poll ratings by getting Brexit out of the way, and the ERG to ensure that Brexit happens, and for both to vote down the two final, mad ideas.
If though the debate on the meaning of a customs union would take the Commons past Reformation Day (31 October) 2019, it could trigger yet another delay, and kill the Conservative Party, so voting it down early or voting it through early would be the choice.
Logic though is not governing any of this process.