Richard North, 09/12/2018  

When it comes to Mrs May and Brexit, I've already done all the variations on the theme of a prime minister trapped between "a rock and a hard place" on this blog, which rather rules out using the theme again. But it is nevertheless fair to say that she is trapped.

On the one hand, she is driven by her determination to see the withdrawal agreement ratified and, on the other, she is paralysed by her refusal to look at any alternatives.

In that context, there is the possibility of another referendum being touted and then there is that infamous "Plan B" which apparently has the support of an undisclosed number of MPs, the essence of which is one or other of the editions of Nick Boles's "Norway Plus".

At a pinch, we could see the referendum giving Mrs May an escape route. Assuming that the ECJ does rule that the Article 50 notification can be revoked unilaterally, the expected refusal by parliament to ratify the agreement could lead to the prime minister asking the European Council to extend the two year period to give enough time for the vote.

If one assumes that the referendum could give a straight choice of "leave" or "remain", Mrs May might assure the Council that, if the nation votes for "remain", she will revoke the Article 50 notification. In the event of a "leave" win, the prime minister would have to do nothing. We would automatically drop out of the EU when the extended Article 50 period expired.

As to "Norway Plus", although it is being touted as an alternative, it was never a runner – even if it wasn't the dog's dinner that Mr Boles has created. For it to be contemplated, the EU would have to reopen the negotiations – something (Mr Prodi aside) it has repeatedly said it will not do.

Boles's answer to that is for parliament to support the withdrawal agreement and for us then to negotiate the implementation of his plan during the interim period. But I don't see parliament buying that. There are simply no assurances that Mrs May could give that would guarantee that happening.

Then, of course, there is that minor problem of it being a crap plan, so lacking in coherence that it could not possibly be put into action. And any properly structured Efta/EEA option would most certainly take more than three years to negotiate, assuming that the Efta states would allow us to rejoin Efta in the first place.

However, from recent events, and the behaviour of some of the advocates of a "Norway-style" option, it seems increasingly unlikely that all four Efta states would unanimously agree to allow the UK to enter into their ranks. That would leave us with an uncertain situation over which Mrs May had no control.

One could not rule out the possibility, though, that a refusal might be engineered. I am sure that, if Mrs May asked nicely to be refused, the Norwegian prime minister would happily oblige by stating that the UK was not ready to rejoin Efta – or some such diplomatic rebuff.

Personally, if it is going to go anywhere, I feel that the negotiating environment has been so polluted that, if it is to progress, the EEA concept has to be lifted from its Efta/EU home and transplanted into a wider arena. Yet, for the moment, that is premature and far too ambitious a leap for the parties even to consider. It could be that the amateur thrashing of the likes of Nick Boles have closed off this route for the foreseeable future.

With "Norway" ruled out, if Mrs May resists the pressure to call a new referendum after a "no" vote, that leaves her the task of trying to change parliament's mind and reverse its initial refusal. A further failure could lead us down the path of a general election, at which point sensible analysts give up trying to predict a path. There are still too many variables.

Nevertheless, that does leave the "do nothing" option, where Mrs May sits on her hands – or simply goes through the motions without any commitment to the success of any of her actions. Parliament may huff and puff, but it can't force her to succeed. If they instruct her to go to Brussels and reopen negotiations, or to extend the Article, she only has to come back with the message: "Mr Juncker, he say no". What is parliament to do then? Invade Belgium?

Ostensibly, an across-the-board rejection from Brussels would leave the MPs with but one option – to ratify the agreement. If they do not, on 29 March 2019 we drop out of the EU. The ball is in parliament's court.

That makes one wonder whether, despite all the talk of Mrs May's vulnerabilities, she actually has the whip hand. If she stands back and lets the "Ultras" have their own way, and we drop into a full-frontal "no deal" scenario as a result, she only has to smile sweetly and say "I told you so".

The "Ultras" are mad enough to go for the "no deal" bait, with David Davis still burbling on about dumping EU trade and seizing "the opportunities Brexit presents for us to be a truly Global Britain".

When the Channel ports are blocked, the flights are grounded and the pound crashes, the likes of Davis will have to eat their words. All the MPs who blocked Mrs May's deal can then explain to their constituents why they have brought the country to the brink of ruin.

This will not only apply to individual MPs. If Mr Corbyn's Labour Party has been instrumental in forcing the country into a damaging "no deal" scenario, this could weaken its chances of success at the next general election. In fact, an emboldened Mrs May, having successfully brokered emergency negotiations with Brussels to keep the show on the road, might look forward to another term of office.

In the meantime, it looks as if we might be about to see a little more theatre, with The Sunday Times claiming that Mrs May is about to emulate Margaret Thatcher by travelling to Brussels to demand a better Brexit deal "in a last-ditch attempt to save her government from collapse".

I'm not sure that was ever Mrs Thatcher's role but we are led to believe that ministers and aides have convinced the prime minister that she needs "a handbag moment" with the EU if she is to have any chance of persuading her own MPs to support her.

We are now supposed to expect Mrs May to announce on Monday that that she will launch "a final throw of the diplomatic dice" with a dash to Brussels to ask the "colleagues" if they will concede a time limit or a unilateral exit provision to the "backstop".

Even though any prospect of delay has been rejected by No.10, the ST has revived speculation that Tuesday's vote might be postponed, to give time for further negotiations or even a referendum.

In a further variation of the referendum theme, we might be looking at the "leave/remain" poll, followed by a second question as to whether we prefer May's deal or no deal.

Whether the combined questions would pass the Electoral Commission's intelligibility test (see Section 104) remains to be seen. But, to my recollection, there has never been a multi-question referendum and designing the questions so as to avoid any confusion is not going to be easy.

It could be the case, for instance, that voters would prefer Mrs May's deal to crashing out, but would prefer to remain rather than face the "no deal" scenario. How does one then stop a straight "leave/remain" question being tainted by sentiment bleeding over from the first question. And then, how would voting be affected if the order of the questions was changed? What precisely would the referendum be measuring?

All that, though, pre-supposes that the EU would extend the Article 50 timescale, which simply cannot be assured. It takes just one Member State to refuse and we're back to square one.

Whether the ST story even survives the day without being rebutted by No.10 is anybody's guess. Unaware of the ST "scoop", The Sunday Telegraph has an official saying they were "100 percent" certain that the Tuesday vote will be held on time, while the Independent was reporting at 1am this morning a Downing Street "denial" that there will be any delay.

True or not, the story gives the Sunday broadcasters something to be going on with, breaking out of an agenda that is getting tediously repetitive – if only for the morning. And, once again, The Sunday Times gets to set the news agenda for the day, which is all that really matters.

One can, though, never discount the power of well-crafted theatre. An essentially venal media, wedded to trivia, is quite capable of running with a "last minute dash" soap opera. And the image of our "plucky prime minister" bearding the "Euro-bullies" in their lair in Brussels could have a powerful effect on voting intentions in Westminster.

The same dynamic could even be enough to bounce the Commission into offering headline "concessions" of such opacity that no one will have worked out that they are meaningless before the Tuesday vote. A media that can sell Mr Cameron's phantom veto to the public shouldn't have much of a problem selling a May victory as she steps off her RAF transport, making waves.

Perhaps that is all it does need – a little bit of drama, a sheet of paper, and history is made. What possibly can go wrong?

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