We’ve had “crush the saboteurs” and “the enemies of the people”. Now anyone who questions the merits of hard Brexit is a “collaborator” (today’s Daily Mail) or a “mutineer” (The Daily Telegraph). And this after day one of a marathon 64-hour debate on the first of about 10 Brexit Bills. Things can only get bitter.
The specious excuse for the latest headlines is that up to 20 Conservative MPs with pro-European instincts dared to challenge Theresa May for pandering to the hardline Brexiteers on her backbenches who threaten to topple her if she strays from their true path. She has announced that the precise time of the UK’s exit – 11pm on 29 March 2019 – will be written into the EU (Withdrawal) Bill now being debated by MPs.
It needs to be seen in conjunction with another government pledge – to bring in a separate bill to approve an EU withdrawal agreement. This was dressed up as a gift to the pro-EU Tories, but was nothing of the sort. David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, admitted the Hobson’s choice for Parliament would remain the same: either May’s EU deal or (if they reject it) no deal. He did not promise a Commons vote if no agreement is reached – a growing possibility, given the deadlock over the UK’s divorce payment. So MPs will not get the “meaningful vote” on the exit terms they deserve; unless they toughen up the Withdrawal Bill, it will be meaningless. So much for the Brexiteers’ promises of Parliament “taking back control.”
The double manoeuvre might have seemed a clever wheeze in Downing Street. It would close off any move to extend the two-year exit negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty – which hardliners, paranoid that Brexit will be halted, fear might be used as a ruse to keep us in the EU.
But May’s move has backfired, illustrating her impossible balancing act. The pro-Europeans threaten to vote down the attempt to write the exit date into the Withdrawal Bill. By joining forces with opposition parties, they could have the numbers to defeat the Government next month. This is now the biggest threat to the Bill during its Commons passage – a self-inflicted problem, as if May did not already have enough. For good measure, she has upset cabinet ministers who were not consulted about the move.
The Gang of 20 are rightly angry that the new Tory chief whip Julian Smith accused them at a stormy meeting of being in favour of “remaining in the EU”. This was cack-handed, since only one of them – Kenneth Clarke – voted against invoking Article 50. They are hardly mutineers. What most of them want is a sensible Brexit with close economic ties to the UK’s biggest trading partner. That is anathema to the hardliners, who claim they want an agreement with the EU, even though many would privately prefer to crash out in 2019 and revert to the World Trade Organisation’s tariff-based regime.
The pressure being piled on the pro-Europeans is disproportionate to their alleged offence. They point out that setting the exit date in stone could prevent an agreement. Everyone knows the negotiations will go to the wire; the EU’s mantra is “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”. This explains why May and Davis will not announce a figure or formula for the divorce payment now; they want something up their sleeve for the last lap.
The pro-EU Tories are right to warn that an extra few days or weeks after March 2019 might make all the difference and secure an agreement. Another possible reason for a bit of extra time is a last-minute hitch in a deal being ratified by the European Parliament or EU member states. Having expended so much energy in trying to get an agreement, it would be crazy to fall at the last hurdle because of an arbitrary time limit. Ministers know this, and have drawn up an amendment to the Withdrawal Bill to give them a reserve power to change the departure date. Which exposes the move to write it into law as a silly sop to the hardliners. Pointing this out hardly amounts to treachery.
Much more pressure will be heaped on the pro-EU Tories, like the rogues gallery on The Telegraph’s front page today. The whips will hope their local party members tell the “mutineers” to pipe down, with an implied threat that they could be dropped at the next election if they cause trouble. At some point the whips will play the “Corbyn card”, warning the rebels they will be held responsible for installing the most left-wing government in our history. This is a scare story: defeating the Government over the exit day or securing a meaningful vote on the deal would not be seen as a confidence issue which therefore provoked a general election. The “mutineers” would support the Government in a confidence vote tabled by Labour to try to force an election (as would the Democratic Unionist Party).
In the past, threatened rebellions by pro-European Tories have melted away under pressure from the whips and Downing Street. This time, they should have the courage to stand firm and put their country before their party.
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