Let’s try to gather ourselves as 2019 kicks off with an update on what has been happening in Brexit-land over the break.
You will recall that before Christmas the talk was all about Britain’s ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement and Theresa May’s huge problems therewith.
You will also recall that a major issue was with the time: to wit, there isn’t much.
May’s gambit in delaying the Meaningful Vote seemed only to make sense in pushing the rhetoric of her ‘Deal or No-Deal’: vote late, so there is no time for any alternatives.
Well, you will be shocked to hear that all this is still the case, just with a couple of weeks’ less time!
There has been no substantive change in any of this since everyone broke for Christmas:
- Theresa May’s policy is unchanged (and as her New Year Eve’s message suggests, will unchange);
- the European Union has not given any new language on the backstop (and won’t);
- and the Labour Party still hasn’t moved position.
This last is perhaps the most uncertain right now, as Professor Tim Bale’s research shows.
With clear majorities of Labour members both supporting a second referendum and a Remain vote, Jeremy Corbyn will find the next couple of weeks almost as tricky as Theresa May, as the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) tries to move him round to a formal policy shift.
I am doubtful they will succeed though, as Corbyn’s political reputation rests on his ‘authentic’ expression of what he thinks, and he clearly thinks the UK should leave the European Union.
Even if private polling of Momentum members shows the same pattern as Labour as a whole, it will be very much against their type to see such an explicit shift, not least as it will give Theresa May more ammunition to say he is flip-flopping.
If the Labour Party change is uncertain, then bigger the elephant in the room will be to the public opinion and its impact. That Labour polling suggests we might see further general shifts in support of a second referendum, which might shape the Westminster debate.
That said, if Corbyn is not moving, then it is a question of whether May comes to see that route as being of any value to her. And that is hugely unlikely.
For May, another referendum means a huge uncertainty of outcome, plus the re-activation of Remain as an outcome, which is much more of a threat to her Deal than to No-Deal.
So, I think pulling that cord will be a matter of absolute last resort for May (remember, there have been instances of her changing her mind before, but only when given no choice about it at all, which looks unlikely here).
The final point from Christmas to muse on is the No-Deal preparations. If you missed it, then you might read up on the small-yet-major case of emergency ferries, which may or may not exist.
As I, and others, stressed all through last year, a fundamental part of contingency planning is that you have to be aware of what you can do yourself and what you rely on others to do for you.
That means that the British government not only has to think about how and whether the European Union will get the UK out of various No-Deal holes with emergency deals, but also about how and whether the entire British economy is ready to address these too.
The retreat of the State since the 1980s means that there are huge areas of public life where the government contracts out to others on the provision of services and economic activity. That is not intrinsically bad, but it makes readying for No-Deal very much harder.
The ferry instance highlights all this quite neatly, but also points to the likely lack of comprehensive No-Deal readiness by 29 March.
Since I am a fully-signed-up member of the “cock-up, not conspiracy” club, I don’t think that it is intentional or designed to make No-Deal look even less attractive to MPs: 2018 saw a resolute movement among the latter away from No-Deal all by itself.
However, the framing doesn’t hurt Theresa May: no one can accuse her for hiding away roll-on/roll-off ferries just to sell her Deal, or of using Chris Grayling as an agent provocateur.
[checks internet. rolls eyes...]
To pull all this together, it is like Theresa May saying all the time: “Nothing has changed.”
And that is still a problem.
Since you will ask what is going to happen, my best guess remains that the Meaningful Vote is lost the week after next, Parliament has a bit of a flat spin, then comes back to May’s Deal as the least-worst option on the table, then signs up to it.
No-one will be happy about it, plus more Conservative MPs will have clocked that it doesn’t bind the path of the future relationship, so they will be getting ready for another big tussle about that in April, as they remove Theresa May.
Of course, my word counts for nothing in all this, so don’t go placing bets on it or anything. The one thing I am sure about is that however it plays out, the underlying problem will remain: there is no consensus about why any of this is happening.
Unless and until that happens, we will be falling from one crisis to another. And that it has not happened in the past 2.5 years suggests it will not happen soon.
Onwards, then, to 2019, which is going to be an absolute horror-show for all concerned.🔷
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(This piece was first published as a Twitter thread and turned into the above article, with the author’s consent, with the purpose of reaching a larger audience. It has been minorly edited and corrected.)