The New European’s editor-at-large on why January is set to be the biggest month in Brexit since June 2016
‘Do you not worry,’ asked the LBC presenter as the New Year neared, ‘that the campaign for the People’s Vote is losing momentum?’ It’s funny how media moods develop, without much evidence of a change to have brought it about. No, I don’t, not in the grand scheme of things.
When 2018 started, the People’s Vote barely existed as a campaign, and those pushing for one were viewed as being on the wrong side of eccentric. When 2018 ended, the campaign had broken through with MPs and public sufficient for the prime minister to feel the need to dig deep into her arsenal of angry political rhetoric to fire off a full-throated salvo against it, and against all of us anti-democrats (sic) who want to do that terrible thing of putting her ‘deal’ to a proper democratic test.
So no, given the progress made for the People’s Vote campaign in recent months, I feel the momentum is very much with us, and her pulling of the vote on her ‘deal’ just before Christmas pretty compelling evidence that momentum has been very much not with her.
The media mood music suggesting Theresa May begins 2019 in better shape than she ended 2018 is based on little more than the fact that the clock continued to tick forward (that is what clocks do), the Christmas break had thrown up no fresh disasters for her and observers made a link between Sir Edward Leigh delivering warmish words in the Commons shortly before the recess, and his ‘elevation’ to the Privy Council, something of which he was already aware at the time, but which the rest of us first learned about in the ‘Redwood honours list’.
Sir John, as he will now delight in being called, did at least come out and say he was still committed to opposing the deal, gong or no gong. If Sir Edward (I don’t normally bother with these titles but during this whole saga it is worth reminding ourselves of what a ridiculous image of ourselves we are projecting to the world) did indeed soften his tone because he will now be called ‘Right Honourable’ when the speaker calls him in the Commons, then might I suggest that were such a thing to happen in the legislature of a developing country we might very well call it ‘corruption’. But I am sure, am I not, that he will not be influenced by something as irrelevant to his constituents as membership of the Privy Council.
May is nothing if not determined. Tory MPs were surprised to get an embossed invitation over the break inviting them to bring a plus-one to a reception in Downing Street on their first day back after the recess. Given all the cash that is needed for her urgent no-deal planning, and as this is clearly a political event, I trust that no public money is being used for it, and that perhaps a knighted Tory Party donor is picking up the tab instead.
Having attended a few No.10 receptions in my time, I find it hard to imagine that swallowing a few nibbles and a couple of glasses of wine could induce an MP to swallow the words uttered to their constituents or their whip that there was no way they could support her dog’s dinner of a ‘deal’. Given May is not the most social of socialites, we can be pretty sure she is hoping that some might, though I was pleased to hear about an MP who has declined the kind invitation on the basis that it is all a bit too desperate and blatant, and detected equally blatant insincerity in the claim that ‘the pleasure of my wife’s company was suddenly being requested after a couple of decades’.
None of this is the behaviour of a prime minister who feels the wind in her sails. Indeed, the very subject of the interview I was doing with LBC – Liam Fox’s latest pronouncements – underlined the sense that the dynamics around the Brexit debate have changed in the course of the last year. Cast your mind back to the turn of 2017/2018. Would there have been any possibility at all that a cabinet minister such as Fox would have issued a warning to Brexiteers that their whole project was at risk?
Because that is what he was doing at the weekend when he said there was now only a ’50-50′ chance of Brexit happening at all unless MPs voted for what is routinely called ‘Theresa May’s deal’, but which is actually a very expensive divorce settlement accompanied by a vague list of aspirations for the future ‘deal’ when the really difficult issues are addressed.
Fox’s intervention was all part of the strategy May had launched when she pulled the vote on ‘the best deal, the only deal available’, then went off to Brussels because she suddenly realised there was a different, better deal to be had, and then came back empty-handed having discovered she was right first time round, and so switched into the twin attack of shooting down the People’s Vote and cranking up fears of leaving without a deal. Again, the impression given was not of a thought-through strategy being rolled out in a smooth and orderly fashion as a deadline neared.
Fox’s predictions are not exactly the highest form of currency in political debate, he having been the man to foresee that our trade deal with the EU would be ‘the easiest in human history’. And this leads us back to the reason why I don’t buy the premise of the LBC question with which I kicked off this piece – the fundamentals have not changed. What has happened since she pulled the vote that would have changed an MP’s mind about the merits and demerits of the deal? Has anyone seen or heard evidence of the existence of such MPs? And have MPs become more or less likely to countenance no-deal as a consequence of the costs, the warnings and the ferry-less ferry companies since?
So her political strategy, her New Year message that was less a message to the nation than more begging to her MPs, her panic party that she will be wanting to end the moment the first guests arrive, her ropy honours, taking the ball down to the corner flag as injury time nears, none of it works unless MPs really believe no-deal can happen. They don’t. They are determined to ensure it is in their hands that it doesn’t.
People can like or dislike, respect or disrespect MPs as much as they want. But another unchanged fundamental is that is a very, very big thing for an MP to walk through a lobby and vote for something he or she knows will make the country weaker and make their constituents poorer.
There is a lot of focus on the Northern Ireland backstop. But it was just one of the reasons MPs gave to whips and constituents to explain why they could not support May’s deal. The lack of certainty about what our future trade relations will be remains. There has been no advance. Zero. Blindfold Brexit. The blindfold remains. The ‘rule taker not a rule maker’ problem remains. The half-in/half-out limbo-land remains. The reality of May’s broken promises that she would not pay the divorce bill without a guarantee of frictionless trade remains. The backstop, and the surrender of sovereignty it carries is reason enough to vote against the deal given all the promises made. But there are plenty more.
Does any of this mean the People’s Vote is definitely going to happen? No. Nothing is certain. But it is as likely as any of the other options, including the passage of her own deal, and an awful lot likelier than no-deal. That is what the momentum of the last 12 months has given us. We are still very much in the game as we enter perhaps the most crucial month since June 2016. Keep the faith. Keep fighting. Happy New Year.