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MICHAEL WHITE: Has Brexit peaked?

Theresa May by Martin Rowson - Credit: Martin Rowson

MICHAEL WHITE: Lack of alternative leaders – on all sides – is narrowing the options

I’ve closed my eyes because I can’t bear the suspense. Is Theresa May still standing unchallenged and unbending in defence of the 585-page EU Withdrawal Agreement she co-authored with Michel Barnier and Oliver Robbins, but not with Dominic Raab? Or have the Keystone Cops of Brexit finally arm-twisted enough signatures (real or forged) from backbench geniuses to trigger a no confidence vote at this critical juncture? ‘Twenty-two names, 23, 34, 45, eleventyeight.’ Whoops, no. Start again.

Just kidding. May survived for want of a better idea, didn’t she? She felt safe enough to fly to Brussels to pin down the brief statement on future trade relations. Watching St Jacob of Mogg on a Westminster pavement re-enacting John Redwood’s disastrous leadership launch against John Major in 1995, I sensed immediately that the self-regarding political calculation that has long guided the Brexit crusade against modern Britain was about to suffer another painful collision with reality. Boris got the timing wrong too. Excellent. Does the botched coup suggest we have now reached Peak Brexit? It might, but don’t spray Prosecco on the cat just yet.

Didn’t the European Not Much Research Group (ERG) realise they’re not the only people capable of telling lies? Or that letter-writing campaign to overthrow Iain Duncan Smith in 2003 contained at least 19 forgeries, according to the MP who vetted them? Some backbenchers feel their talents are so undervalued that they will pledge themselves to anyone who shows an interest in what they think, adjusting their views to prolong the conversation if necessary. ‘Middle-aged men who feel their lives have not been exciting enough,’ as Ken Clarke once put it.

I have good reason to remember Redwood’s 1995 launch. Arriving late to the crowded committee room with its gorgeous-but-unsuitable-for-TV blue Pugin wallpaper, I was forced to park myself on Redwood’s desk for lack of alternative space. Next morning there I was, caught in the photograph on my own paper’s front page, next to Tony Marlow’s striped sports jacket and Redwood’s other backers. They and the candidate looked as bonkers as the ‘May Must Go’ list did this week.

Apart from new names (Steve Baker was still an RAF Flight Lieutenant in 1995), the only difference is that people who were once shouting on the eurosceptic-to-empire loyalist right of the Conservative party are now entrenched in positions of power and influence. It offers a disturbing parallel to the infiltration of the Labour leadership team by flaky idealists, hardline Marxists and Soviet apologists, all of whom were until recently considered beyond the pale of mainstream politics – and for good reason. On Sophy Ridge’s Sky show Jeremy ‘We can’t stop Brexit’ Corbyn was even feebler than May, a mixture of cynical and hopeless.

So where are we after the tumult of seven more ministerial resignations, including cabinet novices Raab and Esther McVey? After the DUP’s calculated Monday night tantrum in breaking its agreement to support May on finance bills, a breach that could allow May to cut off its bonus payments (but won’t)? The Briefly Famous Five – led by Rascal-to-Watch Michael Gove, and amateur pizza plotter Andrea Leadsom – seem to have backed off from their non-resignation holding position, the one which demanded tweaks to May’s withdrawal deal as the price of continued support. It was worth a try – why not? – but never likely to get off the tarmac.

I don’t blame them for staying – or Gove for refusing the DExEU poisoned chalice at this late stage. Trying to influence events from inside is more grown up than flouncing out, the signature move of the hard Brexit crew whenever they encounter a reality check or are asked to take responsibility for something. The surprise stayer this autumn has been Liam Fox, who hasn’t got much to show for his air miles and must know he’s in the cabinet’s Last Chance Wine Bar.

Any prospect of tweaking the Barnier-Robbins Pact (to Barnier’s surprise May let Olly clinch it when her presence might have extracted a small bonus concession from the other side) was diminished by loud cries of ‘None’ from all quarters, especially the ‘Nein’ from weary Angela Merkel. When Spain took its cue to raise fears about Gibraltar in Article 184 (it must be kept out of the future trade deal, says Madrid) and France sought guarantees of continued access to sovereign British fish, there was further reason for the Gove-ite revisionists to pull back. Neither issue will disappear – and sovereign Britain will concede. Who but Europeans buy most of our own catch?

In summary, May has got the grudging support of most of the cabinet for her messy, unloved bundle of compromises and retreats from those foolish red lines. She also earned some public sympathy for her dogged tenacity during a three-hour, largely friendless Commons grilling and elsewhere. Remember that St Sebastian, the early Christian martyr whom CoE’s May sometimes resembles in her stoicism, survived the hail of arrows for which he is remembered. He was only clubbed to death later for being persistently annoying.

As suspected, the war-weary and the ‘let’s get it over with’ crowd have joined forces with the ‘we need certainty, any certainty will do’ lobby in business and the City. That much was evident when May addressed 1,500 suits at the CBI conference, or ‘Confederation of European Business’ as one dissident called it. They didn’t like her misplaced message about tightening up immigration (wrong audience, Tess), but didn’t throw their cheese sandwiches at her either. They just need more staff, both above and below May’s £30,000 a year threshold. Let the haggling commence.

I think we can assume that on Sunday the EU27 will sign off with a sigh of relief on Barnier’s handiwork, a Herculean achievement which may help him win the presidency of the European Commission if Jean-Claude Juncker ever steps down. Barnier has even offered to extend the 21-month Brexit transition – March 29 next year to December 2020 – until December 2022. Greg Clark, the business secretary, seems to think it a good idea. Who knows, perhaps an extension will become acceptable to all sides for reasons of complexity yet to emerge. We just don’t know how everything will work out in practice – whatever everything turns out to be. No one really does.

As things stand it’s politically a very bad idea for No.10, which was quick to dismiss a long extension, though not a tiny one. Why? Because it would tie Britain into EU budget payments – an extra £10billion? – and restrict May’s proclaimed freedoms from pesky EU freedoms, notably free movement of people. Polls confirm that it still alarms many Brexit voters who still haven’t grasped that their legitimate worry should be focussed on profound changes in the wider world. But an extension is no position the Tories would want to fight an election on in June 2022, even if an unmodified Corbynite stance on immigration would be even more provocative.

In any case, such speculation runs too far ahead of parliament’s ‘meaningful vote’ which some have pencilled in for December 10, after extensive debate as part of the official legislation to put the withdrawal treaty into law. How long a debate and how will the vote be taken are still the subject of Westminster wrangling – as, of course, is the over-arching question of the result.

Newspapers and television, whose editors prefer the low-hanging fruit of personality politics and so-called ‘leadership challenges’, have finally begun to publish calculations on the way varying factions in all the split parties might vote on the options, if they get the chance. Such researches sensibly conclude it’s impossible to tell – as the bungled Mogg leadership coup illustrates. So let’s park it for now while noting that my current tip remains the ‘TARP scenario’, whereby May’s text prevails only after stalemate triggers a market meltdown, as happened in the ideologically-constipated US Congress after the bank meltdown in 2008. It emerged on Tuesday that EU governments are shifting the focus of their bond sales from the City of London to Milan.

In a little-noticed report last week the cross-party Commons procedure committee, chaired by pro-Brexit Charles Walker, rejected ministerial demands to allow its own motion to be accepted or rejected without prior chance to amend it. The order in which rival amendments will be taken is still to be thrashed out. It matters because those campaigning for Remain are keen that Labour’s pie-in-sky demand for a general election, the flimsy bit of sellotape which holds warring factions together, is taken first – and defeated, as it will be by the coalition’s two-thirds rule.

It will force the Labour leadership – the real leadership – off a fence it has been parked on in the hope of electoral gain. Only then may – may – the People’s Vote campaign get a chance to rally anti-Brexit MPs of all parties behind the second referendum option that now has an advocate back in cabinet: Amber Rudd’s exile was ended by McVey’s departure at the DWP. May’s binary choice – ‘my flawed Brexit or a hard Brexit’ – is thereby expanded. There may – or may not – be a Commons majority for the Barnier-May deal, but there is definitely not one for a hard Brexit.

So MPs retain the power to prevent what the hard Brexit filibuster has sought all along, Britain stumbling out of the EU on vestigial World Trade Organisation (WTO) terms on March 29. Most informed authorities fear this chaotic option most. When Lord Peter Lilley – in my book he’s the most articulate and impressive of Brexit veterans – floated it on Radio 4’s Today mid-week he got himself caught out when challenged by the BBC’s in-house expert, Chris Morris.

In effect, May’s ‘No deal is better than a bad deal’ mantra of 2016-17 has been both upended and expanded. No.10 is now telling MPs that ‘a bad deal is better than no-deal’ after all. Pro-Remain resigner Jo Johnson and his renegade brother Boris both reject this conclusion for opposite reasons. There’s still time to do a ‘Norway for Now’ deal, say the likes of Gove ally Nick Boles, who this week denounced the ‘plummy-toned Old Etonians’ trying to bully a decent woman out of a job. There’s still time to do a ‘Canada+’ deal like the one Poland’s Donald Tusk floated, insists Peter Lilley, who is a former trade secretary.

Or leave on WTO terms, he adds. Not all Brexit diehards agree. ‘Better to stay in the EU than back this,’ says Boris, which is interesting because everyone knows he almost backed Remain back in 2016. It smacks to me of classic Brexit-ducking-of-responsibility-for-awkward-compromises to me, a bit like Nigel Farage’s strange Sunday Times interview, the one in which he said the deal was awful but seemed oddly not really upset.

Faced with the ERG’s embarrassing failure to get the necessary 48 ‘May Must Go’ letters, Rees-Mogg keeps digging, warning MPs – on no evidence – that unless they knife May now she will lead the Tories into the 2022 election. He clearly doesn’t know his St Sebastian. The ERG also published a conventional analysis of where May’s deal fails: it doesn’t give us any trade guarantees in return for the £39bn ‘divorce’ deal; it leaves us a rule-taker; it provides no UK exit from the customs union backstop; it splits Northern Ireland from the UK in terms of single market and customs union regulation; and it leaves us subject to the European Court of Justice. ‘Half in, half out,’ as Rees-Mogg puts it.

True, but unsurprising to those who study the small print. The ERG’s verdict is being promoted by Brexit Central, the blue collar website which floats ‘Establishment conspiracy’ stuff. Far more nuanced and interesting – if interested you should read them both –
is the verdict of ex-MP, Paul Goodman, who now edits the upmarket ConservativeHome site. He notes similar objections, but says May’s team has actually negotiated pretty well. She won on the money, won on the emotive issue of fish (so far), the Home Office’s restrictive view of free movement prevailed over the EU mandarins. Etc.

These were tactical victories masking a strategic defeat because the May deal fails on the law, concludes Goodman. The ECJ prevails over English law and courts. The Irish backstop may mean an east-west split within the UK and ‘temporarily’ leaves us all in a rule-taking customs union, like Turkey. Vote it down, he says. But a glance at ‘Norway for now’ or ‘Canada+’ (‘SuperCanada’ if you prefer) show how flawed their formats would be compared with remaining inside the EU. It’s always a trade-off: access at a price or sovereignty at a price. Brexiteers who used to argue that the Irish border issue was a fake problem now say it will be used to trap Britain into a permanent customs union.

Are voters finally beginning to understand that it would always be messy like this? Would they have voted for Brexit if Donald Trump had been elected before the referendum, not afterwards? Have they noticed yet that UK’s unity is increasingly at stake? The self-important DUP is rejecting what Scotland would love to have – as would a majority of Northern Irish voters who voted Remain in 2016. Anti-devolution Spain cheekily said on Tuesday that it would happily readmit Indy Scotland. Scotland’s highest court is taking the UK government to the ECJ to establish whether or not Article 50 could be reversed – and DExEU’s bid to block the move was rejected on Tuesday by the Supreme Court in London.

So the tectonic plates are moving and not in Rees-Mogg’s direction. Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable thinks May’s tacit admission that no-Brexit is now back on the table makes for a 50:50 prospect that a second vote will be conceded to the electorate with a no-Brexit outcome. Even with the economic pain growing in Brexit areas (a car parts plant to close in Llanelli) that’s a big leap. But reluctant ministers have just been forced by a cross-party coalition of MPs to publish comparative studies on the economic prospects for Britain: May’s deal versus staying in the EU.

Are we witnessing the passing of Peak Brexit? Too soon to say. If only Remain had a leadership, untarnished by past failure or political cowardice, which could boldly make the case and be listened to by voters who crave to be given a confident sense of future direction by someone who doesn’t sound like a work experience statesman or internet fraudster. It is the absence of leadership that leaves us stuck with stumbling, stubborn Theresa May.

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