The Prime Minister deserves a fulsome apology from those of his critics who claimed he was conducting ‘sham negotiations’ and was not serious about striking a deal with the EU. He was told that he was on a hiding to nothing in his efforts to re-open the Withdrawal Agreement and solve the ‘backstop trap’. Yet he managed to do all these things, accomplishing in fewer than 90 days what eluded his predecessor in almost three years.
This week also saw an important milestone on our progress out of the European Union, namely the successful passage of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, which enacts the legislation required for the Withdrawal Agreement, through its Second Reading. It was passed by the healthy margin of 30 votes, with nearly 20 Labour MPs supporting it. When push comes to shove, a core of opposition MPs recognise the importance of respecting the referendum result, and the corrosive effects on our democratic system if the biggest single democratic exercise in our history is simply set aside – as the Liberal Democrats would have it.
Whereas I had voted three times against the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated by Theresa May, both on Saturday and Tuesday I voted with the Government. Why?
The new deal has done away with the anti-democratic backstop, which risked trapping the UK in a potentially indefinite customs union with the EU – out of which we could only escape at a time of EU choosing. The knowledge that the UK could be safely kept neutered within the EU’s orbit would have dulled the EU’s incentive to reach a good trade agreement with the UK.
The new arrangements are a vast improvement. The people of Northern Ireland gain a democratic exit mechanism from the backstop, and the new deal ensures that Northern Ireland remains an integral part of the United Kingdom, able to benefit from future free trade deals between the UK and other countries. Furthermore, by avoiding the UK being potentially sucked into a customs union at the end of the transition period should trade talks be unsuccessful, both the EU and UK have a very strong incentive to strike the excellent free trade deal that we all wish to achieve.
Sadly the success of the Second Reading was immediately followed by the failure of the Commons to pass the Bill’s Programme Motion, so that the legislation could be enacted in time for Brexit. Opposition MPs, including some former Conservatives, voted against the Bill on the grounds they believed it required more Parliamentary time for scrutiny than the Government was offering. Yet the new Withdrawal Agreement is 95% the same as the version published in November 2018, considered and debated by MPs over the months that followed. I need hardly point out that most journalists appeared to have little problems in digesting its main points overnight.
What happens now is unclear, and will largely be governed by the EU’s response to the extension request the Prime Minister was compelled to send by the ‘Surrender Act’. This was triggered by the amendment tabled by Sir Oliver Letwin for last Saturday’s exceptional sitting. Whilst the Letwin amendment did not itself delay the Brexit process, it has served to take off much of the pressure on MPs and Peers to get Brexit done by the end of this month.
An early General Election may be the quickest way out of this logjam. Every election is a gamble, but as long as the Prime Minister can maintain the narrative that he is battling against the Forces of Remain, and remains committed to exiting the EU as soon as Parliament authorises it, there is every chance that the Conservatives will do well. In any case, it is not helpful that this indecisive Parliament limps on – decisions must be made one way or the other.