Richard North, 22/05/2019  
 


The one thing Mrs May has managed to do with her speech – with not a milkshake in sight – is to demonstrate beyond peradventure the irrelevance of the Euro-elections.

Initially, I thought she would hold off until the election results had been declared, presenting her agenda by way of damage limitation. The current timing, however, puts the Withdrawal Agreement back on the agenda with a vengeance and reminds us of what is really important.

That said, the speech doesn't seem to have done Mrs May an awful lot of good. To judge from the general reaction, MPs aren't buying it. And that means she's no further forward with her plans to get parliamentary approval for the Withdrawal Agreement.

One major sticking point seems to be what appears to be a commitment to a "second" referendum by including in the Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB) a requirement to vote on whether to hold one. As the Bill will stand, the vote must take place before the Withdrawal Agreement can be ratified.

Here, it then gets a little bit confusing. As I understood it, the vote on the WAB was being used as a proxy for ratification of the withdrawal deal. But Mrs May goes on to say that those MPs who want a second referendum to confirm the deal "need a deal and therefore a Withdrawal Agreement Bill to make it happen".

On this basis, Mrs May then asks these MPs to let the Bill have its Second Reading. Then, she says, "make your case to Parliament".

There is something there, though, that doesn't quite make sense. Reading it literally, Mrs May seems to be saying to MPs that if you want a referendum to ratify the deal, you must first ratify the deal – and then you get a chance to argue in parliament for a referendum.

Questioning after the speech didn't seem to clarify matters much. Asked whether she was making a "commitment" to a referendum, Mrs May managed to evade the question altogether. We were none the wiser.

At least, though, there is to be a statement in parliament today, and the WAB is to be published in the next few days. By then, one hopes, the mystery will be cleared up – or not. When Mrs May starts talking with the words "let me be clear", just about anything can happen.

Anyway, pending clarification, much of the legacy media is taking it that Mrs May is offering a "confirmatory referendum". This, according to the Telegraph has "provoked fury", and calls for her to resign "immediately" in what is being branded a "sellout" attempt to save her Brexit deal.

Tory Eurosceptics are describing the offer as "outrageous" and more than 50 are said to be prepared to vote against it. Among them were at least twenty who had previously backed the deal, including the Oaf and Dominic Raab, potential leadership candidates.

Brexiteer cabinet ministers are expected to urge Mrs May to abandon what they describe as a "doomed and irresponsible" last throw of the dice. They want, or so it is claimed, the prime minister to allow her successor to find a way through the impasse.

Such responses are enough to have many of the pundits declaring that Mrs May's bold "new deal" is already dead in the water, before even her ten points are put formally to parliament. But, in fact, if it wasn't the referendum, opposition to many of the others could be enough to torpedo the package.

For a start, Mrs May in her summary of the points, is dwelling in unicorn territory, pledging that the government will "seek to conclude" Alternative Arrangements to replace the infamous Irish backstop by December 2020, so that it never needs to be used.

But, as her second point, she asserts that, should the backstop come into force, the Government will ensure that Great Britain will stay aligned with Northern Ireland – effectively meaning that we stay aligned to the customs union and the Single Market.

Third, she says that the negotiating objectives and final treaties for our future relationship with the EU will have to be approved by MPs, the latter being a statutory requirement anyway, so it is hardly a concession.

As a sop to Labour MPs, her fourth point covers a new Workers' Rights Bill that guarantees rights no less favourable than those workers enjoy in the EU. Five has it that there will be no change in the level of environmental protection when we leave the EU- which presumably also includes commitments on climate change.

Her sixth point is undoubtedly contentious as she pledges that the UK "will seek as close to frictionless trade in goods with the EU as possible" while outside the Single Market and ending free movement. This can be roughly translated as doing everything possible to ensure frictionless trade, short of doing anything that will actually secure frictionless trade – with nothing said about the upkeep of the regulatory ecosystem.

There is a hint of this, though, in point seven , where Mrs May says we will "keep up to date with EU rules for goods and agri-food products that are relevant to checks at border", thus "protecting the thousands of jobs that depend on just-in-time supply chains".

For her eighth point, we learn that the government will bring forward a customs compromise for MPs to decide on to break the deadlock. This will be at the next election – precisely the compromise that Mr Corbyn has already rejected.

Ninth in her summary confirms that there will be a vote for MPs on whether the deal should be subject to a referendum and, to finish up, there will be a legal duty to secure changes to the political declaration to reflect her new deal. By this means, a declaration that is binding on neither party under international law, becomes binding on one party – the UK – before the negotiations start. This hardly seems the best way of proceeding.

Whether good or bad, by whatever measure you care to choose, the "new deal" clearly isn't a game changer. Says the Guardian, MPs across the House of Commons were unpersuaded by the proposals and, by yesterday evening not a single MP who opposed the deal last time had come out to support it.

Corbyn then put the boot in, saying: " We won't back a repackaged version of the same old deal – and it's clear that this weak and disintegrating government is unable deliver on its own commitments".

Nevertheless, Mrs May didn't come entirely unprepared for rejection. Inside that smooth, soft glove was a rather rusty old cast-iron fist, as she warned MPs of the consequences of voting against the Second Reading of the WAB. They would be voting to stop Brexit, she declared.

And although some suggest leaving without a deal, Mrs May noted that parliament "has been clear it will do all it can to stop it", herself stopping short of conceding that parliament can actually stop it – which it can't. But, if there is no deal, says Mrs May, "then it would have to be a general election or a second referendum that could lead to revocation – and no Brexit at all".

That rather begs the question of what will happen if there is a no-deal Brexit. Would we go without a general election, especially as the prime minister believes it would not be in the national interest? We would certainly have no referendum and a revocation could hardly be possible.

Despite all this, MPs are hardly in a mood to listen. David Jones, former Brexit minister has told the Telegraph, "I have been an MP for 14 years and I have never seen such anger among colleagues. She is desperate, she is deluded and she is doomed". Those "three Ds" now grace the front page of the comic.

What none of those airing their indignation may have realised though was that yesterday's speech was only partially addressed to MPs. She concluded it by saying to "every MP of every party", "I have compromised. Now I ask you to compromise too", but the next sentences were directed at the electorate.

"We have been given a clear instruction by the people we are supposed to represent", she said, adding: "So help me find a way to honour that instruction, move our country and our politics forward, and build the better future that all of us want to see". 

The barb "supposed" is interesting, and marks out the tenor of her comments. She is attempting to position herself on the side of the people, putting parliament in the frame for any failure to deliver Brexit. This will probably not work – completely. But it could do damage. Mrs May is certainly going down, but it looks as if she is intent on taking parliament with her.






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