A POLICY-MAKING CAROUSEL
The Telegraph, 8th January 2019
One of my children was given a very pretty miniature carousel for Christmas, with lights and fairground tunes. It happily goes round and round but nothing ever really changes – rather like the Withdrawal Agreement. Mrs May’s deal was not going to pass through the House of Commons in December, and it is difficult to see why it would in January. It seems as likely as a horse riding off from the carousel, which may have happened in Mary Poppins but otherwise is an unusual occurrence.
The problems with the Agreement have not changed one iota. The potentially endless Customs Union, the separation between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, and the risk of paying £39 billion for nothing are all still there.
Over Christmas, the view of the country and especially Conservative Members seems to have hardened against the proposal. Certainly, the hope that members of the public would tell MPs to back Mrs May has proved forlorn. Those who came up to me urged me to back Brexit and the Referendum result. Likewise, the fear of reverting to World Trade Organisation rules has dissipated as no deal preparations speed up. Against this background there appears to be no engagement from the European Union and no willingness to change the text of the Withdrawal Agreement.
The Government briefs optimistically about obtaining an ECJ opinion that would give some reassurance that the backstop is genuinely temporary. Their optimism is misplaced; if the court were to produce one it would be counterproductive, confirming suspicions that it is more a political than legal court. Even less convincing are assurances of more Parliamentary involvement in the application of the Agreement, when Article 4 of that very document states that EU law would be superior, making the views of our elected representatives merely advisory.
Perhaps the Government’s most convincing argument is that there is no other deal available, and the consequences of rejecting it will take us into uncharted waters. Even this is a thin one, and was conclusively squashed by a brilliant letter to the Telegraph from Mr Jerry Doyle of Liverpool, who wrote in to point out that: “Britain became a superpower by exploring uncharted waters.”
With no arguments in favour of the deal, apparently the Government’s new, although hardly credible, strategy is to make the House of Commons vote again and again until eventually it tires of the issue and passes the Agreement. Yet under parliamentary procedure, the same question may not normally be put twice in a session. It would certainly not be in order to propose the same motion every day for a month.
This leaves the Government reduced to threating Leavers and Remainers alike. The former are told “fail to back the deal and we will not leave,” the latter that we will “crash out” if the Agreement is not passed. Unfortunately, these two sides talk to each other and have realised that they are being played. The only real chance for the Government is, as it has always been, to say to the EU that if it wants our £39 billion it must in return give the UK a trade deal and a smooth transition. Instead of pursuing this the Government ploughs on regardless.
Many MPs who voted to leave want to deliver on the referendum result and will not back a deal that fails to do that, especially one that leaves EU law superior to our own. In this context I am far from being the most hard-line within the European Research Group. If some magical formula could be found to persuade me of this deal’s virtues, there are 40 more members who would still not support it.
Even if Mrs May managed to win them all round, there remains the DUP, which will never agree to a deal that splits the UK. Were the agreement somehow to make it through the Commons, they would most likely abandon the Government which would fall as a result.
There is a quotation often attributed to Einstein, that the definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results. We can only hope it does not apply to Her Majesty’s Government.