Bri­tain’s block­age


The New European - - Agenda - JANE MERRICK

It was one of the quick­est turn­arounds in Bri­tish po­lit­i­cal his­tory. Just five days af­ter try­ing to top­ple the prime min­is­ter in a con­fi­dence vote, the ring-lead­ers of the coup de­clared their sup­port for Theresa May in any fresh bid to un­seat her. Even the morn­ing af­ter that con­fi­dence vote last week, when 117 Con­ser­va­tive MPS went against their prime min­is­ter ver­sus 200 who sup­ported her, Ja­cob Rees-mogg urged May to go and ten­der her res­ig­na­tion to the Queen. Yet on Mon­day, within hours of Jeremy Cor­byn try­ing to mount a sim­i­lar chal­lenge, Rees-mogg and his ally Steve Baker promised to re­spect the “demo­cratic re­sult” of the Tory con­fi­dence vote. Rees-mogg told Con­ser­va­tive­home: “I’m not in­ter­ested in be­ing an ir­rec­on­cil­able… the lead­er­ship ques­tion is set­tled.”

This pledge changes com­pletely the dy­namic of the House of Com­mons just 100 days be­fore the UK is due to leave the EU. It means that May can head into the Christ­mas break not only hav­ing seen off a re­bel­lion by her own MPS but with the threat of an op­po­si­tion chal­lenge re­ced­ing, given it would have needed some Con­ser­va­tive sup­port for it to pass.

None of this, how­ever, should per­mit May to toast her own premier­ship with an ex­tra large Bai­leys by the Christ­mas tree. It is still the case that the prime min­is­ter’s Brexit deal re­mains un­rat­i­fied by par­lia­ment. She may re­tain the con­fi­dence of her party but she does not have the con­fi­dence in her own Brexit plan to put it to the Com­mons. Yet she re­fuses to change it in or­der to se­cure par­lia­men­tary ap­proval. The PM also won’t to lis­ten to any­one of­fer­ing al­ter­na­tive plans that might see a con­sen­sus reached. She has be­come the great im­mov­able force in Bri­tish pol­i­tics, un­de­feated and yet ut­terly in­tran­si­gent.

Last week, in the wake of her un­easy vic­tory among Tory MPS – when a third of them voted against her – May went to Brus­sels to seek re­as­sur­ances on the North­ern Ire­land back­stop in the hope of quelling Brex­i­teer op­po­si­tion.

There were sooth­ing words from Euro­pean Coun­cil pres­i­dent Don­ald

Tusk, who said the prime min­is­ter should be re­as­sured that the back­stop would not last for­ever, but the EU could of­fer noth­ing new that was legally bind­ing. The With­drawal Agree­ment struck be­tween Brus­sels and the UK in Novem­ber would not be changed.

How­ever, at the end of the first day of the sum­mit, as Euro­pean Com­mis­sion pres­i­dent Jean-claude Juncker went off script – lay­ing into the UK gov­ern­ment’s “neb­u­lous” and “im­pre­cise” ne­go­ti­at­ing strat­egy – May got an op­por­tu­nity for what some in No.10 hoped might be her “hand­bag” mo­ment, redo­lent of Mar­garet Thatcher fac­ing down Brus­sels to se­cure the UK’S re­bate from the EU.

The fol­low­ing morn­ing, in scenes filmed by a pass­ing tele­vi­sion cam­era, she con­fronted Juncker in the Coun­cil build­ing de­mand­ing to know why he had called her “neb­u­lous”. He de­nied it, later in­sist­ing he had de­scribed the gov­ern­ment’s ap­proach that way, rather than May per­son­ally – and also claimed that once he had ex­plained him­self prop­erly “she was kiss­ing me”.

This some­what un­ortho­dox diplo­matic ap­proach from Juncker was not con­fined to the prime min­is­ter. Footage from the same sum­mit emerged of the Com­mis­sion pres­i­dent greet­ing a fe­male col­league by fluff­ing the back of her hair. The ef­fect of this sleazy be­hav­iour from Juncker – cou­pled with May’s de­fi­ant “hand­bag­ging” – on Con­ser­va­tive Brex­i­teers back home may be fas­ci­nat­ing to pro­po­nents of Nudge The­ory. While May did not se­cure any legally bind­ing changes to the With­drawal Agree­ment to sat­isfy Rees-mogg and his al­lies, the at­mo­spher­ics from the sum­mit al­most cer­tainly played into their chival­rous world­view.

More bla­tantly, while many Con­ser­va­tive MPS were keen last week to get rid of May from Down­ing Street, they are even keener to pre­vent Cor­byn from get­ting any­where near it. While the Labour leader is an in­stinc­tive euroscep­tic, the Con­ser­va­tive party views him as a tax-rais­ing so­cial­ist who would dam­age the Bri­tish econ­omy.

The nat­u­ral pro­gres­sion from a con­fi­dence vote in the Com­mons leads very quickly to a gen­eral elec­tion and the very real pos­si­bil­ity of the Labour leader be­com­ing prime min­is­ter.

With Brus­sels re­fus­ing to give way and of­fer legally bind­ing con­ces­sions, cabi­net min­is­ters and Tory MPS spent the week­end float­ing al­ter­na­tive ideas to May’s Brexit plan which might break through the Com­mons stale­mate. Am­ber Rudd, the work and pen­sions sec­re­tary, urged the prime min­is­ter to “try some­thing dif­fer­ent” be­cause Brexit was “in dan­ger of get­ting stuck”.

She called for a “prac­ti­cal, sen­si­ble and heal­ing ap­proach” to try to reach con­sen­sus among MPS of all par­ties on a re­jigged Brexit deal that would pre­vent the UK crash­ing out of the EU on March 29. This would re­move the need for May re­ly­ing on sup­port of Brex­i­teers and the DUP, who are de­mand­ing the North­ern Ire­land back­stop is wa­tered down, or even stripped from the With­drawal Agree­ment com­pletely, and in­stead co­a­lesce around softer Brexit and Re­main-sup­port­ing Tories, as well as Labour and other op­po­si­tion MPS, po­ten­tially back­ing a Nor­way Plus ar­range­ment. This idea has gained ground among ‘mod­er­ate’ Con­ser­va­tive MPS in­side the cabi­net and out, as a way of fend­ing off a no-deal sce­nario.

A group of se­nior soft Brexit cabi­net min­is­ters, in­clud­ing Rudd, the chan­cel­lor Philip Ham­mond, ed­u­ca­tion sec­re­tary Damian Hinds, jus­tice sec­re­tary David Gauke and busi­ness sec­re­tary Greg

Clark, are push­ing for an ‘in­dica­tive vote’ in the Com­mons to try to reach con­sen­sus on what sort of plan would win a par­lia­men­tary ma­jor­ity.

This type of vote would not be legally bind­ing, but would al­low MPS to vote freely – with­out hav­ing to ad­here to a three-line whip along party lines – on a se­ries of mo­tions. In 2003, the Blair gov­ern­ment al­lowed in­dica­tive votes on re­form of the House of Lords, but in the event the Com­mons could not agree on any of the op­tions put for­ward, and it was sev­eral years be­fore Lords re­form was de­bated again.

This time, the gov­ern­ment does not have the lux­ury of time. There are con­cerns that a sim­i­lar no-op­tion out­come would hap­pen with in­dica­tive votes on Brexit, lead­ing to a deep­en­ing of the stale­mate and the risk of wast­ing more time.

How­ever, pro­po­nents ar­gue that, in the ab­sence of sup­port for the deal cur­rently on the ta­ble, it is bet­ter than noth­ing – or, more per­ti­nently, bet­ter than no-deal.

Amid all this dis­cus­sion comes re­ports that some of May’s clos­est aides have been pre­par­ing for a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum if her deal does not make it through the Com­mons. A Sky News poll re­vealed that 53% of peo­ple would be in favour of a Peo­ple’s Vote. The prime min­is­ter’s chief of staff, Gavin Bar­well, pub­licly de­nied on Twit­ter that he “wanted” a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum – but that is a dif­fer­ent thing al­to­gether than pre­par­ing for one.

In­deed, many se­nior gov­ern­ment fig­ures agree it would be mad­ness to pro­ceed into the New Year with­out ex­am­in­ing all the op­tions. Yet the prime min­is­ter un­leashed a highly un­usual at­tack on one of her pre­de­ces­sors by crit­i­cis­ing Tony Blair for call­ing for a Peo­ple’s Vote. There were also re­ports about the in­volve­ment of an­other for­mer in­hab­i­tant of No10, David Cameron – who has been of­fer­ing ad­vice as a “back­seat driver” to May on Brexit.

On Mon­day, as May pre­pared to ad­dress the Com­mons in yet an­other prime min­is­te­rial Brexit state­ment, Labour an­nounced plans to launch a mo­tion of no con­fi­dence in the PM un­less she an­nounced the date for the mean­ing­ful vote on her deal. Cru­cially, the mo­tion would be on the prime min­is­ter in­di­vid­u­ally, rather than the gov­ern­ment as a whole, and as such would carry no statu­tory back­ing, but in­stead be a sym­bolic vote of cen­sure.

Just af­ter get­ting to her feet at 3.30pm, May did in­deed give a date for the mean­ing­ful vote on her deal – it would take place in the week be­gin­ning Jan­uary 14. Min­utes later, Cor­byn aban­doned plans for the con­fi­dence vote, declar­ing that Labour had forced May into pin­ning down the date. Yet just be­fore 6pm, more than two hours into the de­bate, Cor­byn took to the despatch box to an­nounce he would, in fact, be tabling a mo­tion of no con­fi­dence in May.

What fol­lowed were two hours of spec­u­la­tion that No.10 would al­low the vote to take place, be­fore they blocked it on the grounds that it was a po­lit­i­cal “stunt”. The ef­fect of this ban was tan­ta­mount to the prime min­is­ter dar­ing Cor­byn to is­sue a more po­tent mo­tion of no con­fi­dence in the gov­ern­ment as a whole which, if this were to pass, would mean the gov­ern­ment would fall and po­ten­tially trig­ger a gen­eral elec­tion within two weeks, if the op­po­si­tion could not form a new ad­min­is­tra­tion.

How­ever, it would be un­likely that a mo­tion of no con­fi­dence in the gov­ern­ment would be ap­proved by the Com­mons be­cause even the most re­bel­lious Brex­i­teer Con­ser­va­tive MPS would not vote against their own gov­ern­ment and to pave the way for a Cor­byn gov­ern­ment.

This par­lia­men­tary up­hill strug­gle for the op­po­si­tion helps ex­plain why Labour has re­fused to push for the gov­ern­ment con­fi­dence mo­tion – be­cause it would merely set a trap and al­low May to

The nat­u­ral pro­gres­sion from a con­fi­dence vote in the Com­mons leads very quickly to a gen­eral elec­tion and the very real pos­si­bil­ity of the Labour leader be­com­ing prime min­is­ter

de­clare yet an­other vic­tory.

May’s se­nior al­lies deny that she is de­lib­er­ately dis­miss­ing all al­ter­na­tives and is in­tent on run­ning down the clock in or­der to pres­surise the Com­mons into back­ing her deal, with the thinly-veiled threat of a no-deal hang­ing over the House, but nev­er­the­less this week the Cabi­net stepped up its plan­ning for a no-deal out­come.

Cabi­net min­is­ters dis­cussed whether to make con­tin­gency plan­ning for such an even­tu­al­ity part of its cen­tral strat­egy. Liz Truss, the chief sec­re­tary to the Trea­sury, sug­gested that the gov­ern­ment’s emer­gency com­mit­tee, Co­bra, should be con­vened ev­ery day from the New Year to ready the au­thor­i­ties.

Af­ter the cabi­net meet­ing, No.10 an­nounced that the gov­ern­ment would be im­ple­ment­ing its no-deal plans “in full”.

With the like­li­hood of that sce­nario in­creas­ing, more than 60 MPS from four po­lit­i­cal par­ties signed a let­ter to the prime min­is­ter call­ing for the op­tion of leav­ing the EU with­out a deal to be ex­plic­itly ruled out now.

In re­al­ity, if there is a Com­mons ma­jor­ity for any­thing, it would be to pre­vent a no-deal. Yet fears are grow­ing by the day that it will hap­pen by de­fault. In fact, sup­port from Tory Brex­i­teers for a so-called ‘man­aged no-deal’ ar­range­ment is also grow­ing.

For­eign sec­re­tary Jeremy Hunt, who voted Re­main in the ref­er­en­dum but has been at­tempt­ing to bur­nish his Brex­i­teer cre­den­tials in prepa­ra­tion for a fu­ture lead­er­ship bid, gave an in­ter­view to the Sun­day Tele­graph in which he said: “I’ve al­ways thought that even in a no-deal sit­u­a­tion, this is a great coun­try, we’ll find a way to flour­ish and pros­per.” And Penny Mor­daunt, the in­ter­na­tional de­vel­op­ment sec­re­tary, pre­sented such an al­ter­na­tive plan. Un­der this ar­range­ment, Bri­tain would leave the EU on March 29 with­out a deal but the tran­si­tion pe­riod would still ap­ply, al­low­ing for what she de­scribed as a “man­aged glide­path” un­der which, the min­is­ter claimed, the UK econ­omy would not be da­m­aged.

This rhetoric drew the anger of Guy Ver­hof­s­tadt, the Euro­pean par­lia­ment’s ne­go­tia­tor on Brexit, who tweeted that those like Mor­daunt and Hunt who “glo­rify a no-deal Brexit are to­tally ir­re­spon­si­ble”. He added: “It is not the job of politi­cians to make the peo­ple they lead poorer, re­move op­por­tu­ni­ties, rights and make lives more un­cer­tain. There is no such thing as a ‘man­aged no deal’.” Yet lead­ing Brex­i­teer Iain Dun­can Smith wel­comed these com­ments as a sign that Brus­sels was now start­ing to fear such an out­come – which would play to the UK’S strengths in ne­go­ti­a­tions.

May is not short of of­fers of ad­vice – from for­mer prime min­is­ters, her cabi­net min­is­ters, back­bench MPS and the op­po­si­tion par­ties. But what she is short of is time. When the Com­mons fi­nally gets to vote on her deal, nearly two months af­ter it was agreed with Brus­sels, there will be around 80 days left un­til Brexit day.

The prime min­is­ter has shown she can de­feat all at­tempts to top­ple her from power, but she can­not es­cape the un­pop­u­lar­ity of her own deal.

Photo: Getty Im­ages

OFF SCRIPT: Euro­pean Com­mis­sion pres­i­dent JeanClaude Juncker

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