EU Referendum

Brexit: the 12 days of Brexit (not)


I'm not the first and will not be the last to note that parliament confronts another round of voting on Brexit options on 1 April – April Fools' Day – in what may well set the seal on our exit, ensuring that we leave without a deal on 12 April. That I suppose, in another parallel, gives us the 12 days of Brexit (not).

With eight options on the table from which the speaker can choose for today's entertainment, we have roughly the same menu we had last time, although the Common Market 2.0 option is modified, getting madder with every successive iteration.

Still embedded in the option is the unnecessary encumbrance of a customs union – heavily disguised as a customs "arrangement" - which is included as an inducement to bring Labour MPs into the fold. This is a rather pathetic attempt to forge a cross-party "consensus", the Holy Grail which somehow transcends reality.

Additionally, the sponsors of CM2 seek to direct the government to do something which is outside the powers of parliament, directing the government to renegotiate the framework for the future relationship, as well as acceding to Efta, "having negotiated a derogation from Article 56(3) of the Efta Agreement", and then to enter the Efta pillar of the EEA.

With only relatively minor exceptions, the initiation of international agreements (treaties) is subject to Crown prerogative, and is not something that MPs can order. After the Miller judgement, parliament can under certain circumstances withhold approval for some actions, such as giving notice under Article 50, but it cannot instruct the government to enter into international negotiations, much less direct the course of those negotiations.

Furthermore, as regards accession to Efta and entry to the Efta pillar of the EEA, these actions are not even within the gift of government, requiring as they do the unanimous assent of the other parties.

Such niceties, however, are unlikely to influence the hon. members today. Without the Speaker or someone of like authority to hold their hand, they are unlikely to understand the significance of what they are doing – which doesn't much matter anyway as any motions agreed (and none so far have been) will not be binding on the government.

But the real point of today's exercise is somehow for parliament to indicate to the European Council (who are the only people who matter at this stage) that they support a coherent plan which could form the basis of a Brexit settlement, sufficient to warrant a further (prolonged) Article 50 extension.

As Mrs May has pointed out though, any such settlement must include a firm proposal for ratifying the Withdrawal Agreement, yet this is not even on today's agenda. Thus, even if a miracle happened, and the MPs managed to agree on a specific plan, it is still not enough to qualify as a "way forward" which will trigger an extension.

However, that gap may be filled by a fourth attempt to put the Withdrawal Agreement in front of the House, although how that is supposed to happen (or when) has not yet been specified. And even if by some procedural device, a fourth vote could be arranged, there is nothing at all to suggest that parliament is in a mood to approve it. We could just see yet another defeat for the government.

There is a remote possibility that this vote could be held as early as tomorrow (Tuesday) but, whether or not that happens, Wednesday could see a third round of indicative votes, with the numbers pared down to a few "favourites" in the hope that the elusive consensus can be reached and parliament will put its weight behind a single plan.

The trouble is here that MPs are still very much voting on tribal lines, with a rough split between Labour voting for a "soft" Brexit and the extreme Tories pushing for the harder options. If the tribal divide is maintained (and it's hard to see that it will not, given that the sides are squaring up for a general election), then there will be few hard-line Tory votes for a CM2 which includes a customs union.

This makes it all the less certain that the plan will prevail, especially as Kenneth Clarke's proposal for a "permanent and comprehensive UK-wide customs union" is still on the order paper. With that likely to take the lion's share of the Labour vote, the CM2 advocates feel that, if they dump the customs union, they will lose Tory support.

The intelligent way forward, of course, would have been to point out that rejoining the EEA and extending Article 10 of the Agreement to cover all goods (including agricultural produce), and then maintaining the commitment to adopting the EU's WTO tariff schedules, would have the effect of a customs union. It would remove the need for the UK to hold itself to ransom with a formal customs union agreement.

Unfortunately, the advocates have also misread the Irish protocol - the backstop - and have run away with the idea that, to secure a soft border for Ireland, the EU is specifying that there should be a customs union in place (for Northern Ireland, at the very least).

Within the protocol, though, there is only the requirement that the UK "respect the rules" of the customs union, which is emphatically not the same as creating a new EU-UK customs union on the lines of Turkey. The EEA agreement, with its tariff-free trade and the WTO schedules would easily conform with the requirements of the protocol, and thus remove the need for the backstop to kick in.

Yet, when it comes to George Eustice's straight Efta/EEA option, this is also on the order paper – carried over from last week. Interestingly, Eustice is backing two horses, having signed up to CM2 as well but, since he has failed to make the pitch about customs union equivalence, he is unlikely to get any Labour support for his plan.

Between the two groups, therefore, proponents of what started off as the "Norway option" have made a pig's ear of their respective pitches, splitting the vote and offering plans which, in themselves, lack the depth to convince the MP collective that they are worth backing.

But then, when we have a substantial number of MPs prepared to vote solely for a customs union as a solution to the UK's post-Brexit needs, we are clearly not dealing with the sharpest knives in the drawer.

Putting it somewhat more bluntly, you are struggling to match the IQ of an amoeba if you believe that a customs union is an answer to Brexit – into which category, it appears, hundreds of Labour MPs fall. It also makes you wonder what game Kenneth Clarke is playing and rules out any expectation that enough MPs have the brainpower to understand the Efta/EEA option, however well it is presented.

In a saner world, of course, the media would be taking a hand, explaining the options and bringing clarity to the debate. But I have yet to see a single newspaper or broadcaster make a credible fist out of explaining the "Norway option". As always, most continue to be obsessed with personality politics and court gossip, with talk of ministerial resignations, general elections and leadership challenges.

Small wonder, the EU is losing patience. In fact, Jean-Claude Juncker has confided with Italian state TV with something more than that, declaring that "patience runs out", after complaining that, "So far, we know what the British parliament says no to, but we don't know what it might say yes to".

We will see later today whether parliament is capable of saying yes to anything, and whether what it chooses is worth the bother, or turns out to be as meaningless as most of their activities. But, since the Withdrawal Agreement is still up in the air, any activity may turn out to be a waste of time and effort.

Financial Times commentator Wolfgang Münchau seems to believe that, when it comes to 10 April, the EU will have "little appetite to grant another Brexit extension", demonstrating once again that the legacy media gets there eventually.

Münchau makes the obvious points that the EU is wary about being dragged deeper and deeper into the maw of UK politics, but you can also see the frustration building from a speech by Barnier to the College of Europe last Friday, entitled "Europe after Brexit", before the third vote on the Withdrawal Agreement.

Referring to the UK vote , he stated: "Let me be frank: without a positive choice, the default option will be a no deal, which has become more likely. It was never our scenario, but the EU27 is now prepared". He then added: "It is the responsibility of each and every member of the House of Commons to tell us today what they want".

Not last week were, nor – it would appear - this week are, MPs prepared to make their wishes clear, some doubtless because they are quite incapable of so doing. And if the condition for a further extension to the Article 50 period is for the UK to propose a political way forward, as Wolfgang Münchau would have it, then there are rational and strategic arguments to be made against offering the UK more time.

Today then, the house of fools may deliver us something it believed it had ruled out – a no-deal Brexit. It will do so quite simply because it is unable to agree a way forward, leaving Mrs May with empty hands when she goes to Brussels on 10 April, probably for the last time as a head of government of an EU Member State.