The Troublesome 5%
On 22 October Theresa May told MPs that 95% of the withdrawal agreement had been settled. That may be so, although she wasn’t wholly forthcoming about what has actually been agreed. The problem is the remaining 5%, which she admitted is largely the thorny problem of the Irish border. The UK and EU have proposed a backstop in Northern Ireland which avoids a hard border if a trade deal cannot be signed before the end of the transition period.
The potentially insuperable obstacle concerns the timing. The UK insists on a time limit to the backstop, until the end of 2021 when the transition period terminates. The EU however is adamant that there should be no time limit. This will effectively keep Northern Ireland in the customs union under single market regulations for an indefinite period, to be determined by the EU. The hard Brexiteers will not tolerate this. And Theresa May’s red lines do not allow for it. So what is to be done?
May’s proposal, outlined in her speech on 22 October, is for a legally binding temporary UK-EU joint customs union so that a Northern Ireland-only solution is no longer needed, but only if a free trade deal is not agreed. This means that the UK will live under EU rules beyond the 21 months transition period so far agreed. An all-UK ‘backstop’ has to be part of the withdrawal agreement that must be signed before the end of March next year. Naturally, there is concern among the Brexiteers that this could keep the UK in the customs union permanently; a measure of their lack of trust in Theresa May.
The hard Brexiteers insist that a hard border can be avoided by the use of technology. Boris Johnson is on record as saying that as technology solved the problem of road congestion in London, so technology can overcome what he refers to as the irritant of the Irish border. But technology for border control is untried in the UK and experts say that nowhere in the world has it operated successfully.
Without a majority in Parliament for the past 18 months May has been dependent on the support of the ten DUP members who insist that Northern Ireland must not be treated separately from the rest of the UK. At present, without knowing which way a number of MPs will vote it is difficult to know what will happen when May presents the final deal to Parliament. Although it is predicted she will need the support of a number of Labour members to get the deal through. Someone has done the maths and estimates that at least 14 will be required.
It’s widely assumed that her offer to MPs will be My deal or No deal. A binary choice that will be welcomed by the hard Brexiteers. But a no-deal Brexit could have serious negative consequences for the UK. The Director General of the International Monetary Fund has said that it would be a poor outcome for the UK, involving a lot of pain. On the other hand, Theresa May believes that a no-deal Brexit would be preferable to a Canada-style free trade agreement, the preferred choice of the hard Brexiteers.
A number of MPs however believe a final deal should be put to the people in a further referendum. But this presents problems. What form would the question take? A final deal with its complex detail could result in voter confusion resulting in widespread dissatisfaction. And it would be seen as an attempt to reverse the referendum result of June 2016, undermining voter trust in the parliamentary system.
Referenda per se undermine the authority of Parliament. The UK is a representative parliamentary democracy. MPs are elected to make decisions on behalf of their electors. They are representatives, not delegates. The final say on the Brexit deal should therefore be left to the elected representatives of the people, not the people themselves. Under section 13 of the EU (Withdrawal) Act 2018, Parliament is entitled to a meaningful vote on the outcome of the negotiations. And Theresa May has said this will be honoured before the end of March 2019.
Europe has been a divisive issue for the Conservative party since Ted Heath took the UK into the EEC, as it was then known, in 1973. Now the party is in total disarray tearing itself apart over EU membership. There is a lack of trust in Theresa May among Conservative backbenchers to deliver what the hard Brexiteers claim the people voted for in June 2016. The Brexit knives are out for May. One backbencher has said that she should bring her own noose to the 1922 Committee, to which all Conservative MPs belong. Others have said May must go and they would be prepared to put the knife in to ensure it happens.
Speculation about a leadership challenge to May has been mounting for months. So far no stalking horse has come forward, but Boris Johnson’s ambitions are well known. But even if the required 48 letters are delivered to the Conservative Chief Whip triggering a leadership contest, it is extremely unlikely he would unseat May. This would require 158 of the 315 Conservative MPs to vote against her. Johnson may be popular with the membership, but he is seen as a loose cannon by many of his parliamentary colleagues.
Labour has the opportunity to speak for the nation as a whole. But it is mostly silent on the most crucial issue facing the UK in decades. Labour simply insists that any deal must pass its six tests. One of which is that a deal must offer “the exact same benefits as membership of the single market and customs union”. This will be widely seen as support for the UK remaining in the EU permanently. Should Labour insist on this it is possible that Leave supporters in Labour held constituencies will turn away from the party at the next general election.
The clock is ticking and the time needed to get the legislation through parliament is tighter by the day. There is a danger that debate will be curtailed, thus preventing incisive scrutiny of a deal, should there be one. Labour needs to up the ante and press May on the fine detail of the 95% of the withdrawal agreement she claims has been settled. What for example has been settled on EU citizens’ rights? What will happen to UK citizens in Europe when the UK leaves? Will they continue to receive an increase in their UK state pension? These and other issues affecting UK citizens living in Europe require honest answers from May. Labour needs to stand up for them as well as those who remain in the UK.
If a final deal cannot be supported in Parliament, Labour’s preferred option is for a general election. But it is difficult to see Conservative MPs, fearing the election of a Corbyn-led Labour government, voting in favour. The priority for Labour members is to unite around the leadership and assert as strongly as possible a radical social and economic programme which will sweep away the gross inequality and injustice that lies at the heart of British society.