Centrist MPs must unite to stop hard right

PUBLISHED: 13:00 19 October 2017

Former Downing Street chief of staff Jonathan Powell

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Why ‘no deal’ doesn’t work as a negotiating tactic, says JONATHAN POWELL – the man who helped negotiate peace in Northern Ireland

At the beginning of the negotiations more than a year ago the Brexiteers breezily assured us a negotiated deal with the EU would be a piece of cake.

It was in the Europeans’ interest more than ours so of course they would conclude one.

Now increasingly the Brexiteers are talking about the no deal option – walking away from the table and plunging Britain abruptly into a future where we depend on WTO rules alone, assuring us it would not be too bad. Now there are two reasons why British Brexiteers might propose abandoning negotiations with the EU and arguing instead for a no deal option

The first is as a negotiating tactic. It is obviously a good idea in any negotiation to be clear what your BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement) is.

It helps you know when the deal on the table is not worth having and it helps your negotiating partner know when they cannot push you further because you have an alternative. This only works of course if you really do have an attractive alternative.

The reason no deal in the Brexit talks is not an effective BATNA is that it would be very bad indeed for the UK. Planes would stop flying in the absence of any regulation, trucks would stack up down the M2, the economy would plunge into a recession and there would be chaos.

This is not Project Fear – it is what the Brexiteers themselves say would happen, just they say it wouldn’t be too bad.

The second reason why it is not an effective negotiating ploy is that the EU negotiators know that while a no deal exit would be bad for them it would be catastrophic for the UK. And they know there is no majority in parliament for such a choice, so they doubt the government would seriously opt for

it.

So, if the WTO option is not an effective negotiating tool why do the hard-right keep banging on about it?

The answer has at last become clear from the tweeting of Douglas Carswell, Steve Baker, John Redwood and Dominic Cummings. Douglas Carswell’s gnomic tweet was ‘No deal between the EU and UK is the default setting. Continuity Remainers starting to clock this. Hilarious to watch’.

They have a plan, he says.

They never wanted a negotiated Brexit because they do not want to have any relationship with the EU or any continuing acceptance of its rules and regulations in order to trade with it, because they want Britain to be truly ‘free’.

Their, now self-confessed, long term goal is instead a Britain outside any trade agreement operating as a sort of greater Cayman Islands with low tax, reduced social protections, no NHS and a new freedom from any entanglement with foreign regulations. We would grow our own food – as we last did in the Napoleonic wars – eat our own fish and collapse our currency so we can compete with China. They do not mind the requisite pain but instead regard it as a sort of bracing cold bath to make Britain strong again in the world.

From their point of view the shambolic negotiations with the Commission have been going swimmingly. The fact the British side has not been able to put forward any coherent proposals for our future because of the divisions with the Cabinet suits them fine.

The talks will collapse and they can blame that collapse on the unreasonableness of the foreigners. May will be forced to conclude the only alternative to the failed talks is to leave the EU without an agreement because she cannot otherwise count on the support of her backbenchers and continue as PM

Crucially the Brexiteers are counting on the issue not coming back to Parliament because they know their fringe views do not have a majority there. Instead they will rely on the fact that Article 50 has been triggered and the process of leaving is irreversible, agreement or no agreement. When Ken Clarke reassures us it will be alright because of Parliament he is, in their view, wrong.

How to stop this national catastrophe at the hands of a small revolutionary vanguard? The only way is to insist that any choice between a deal and no deal is put to Parliament at the end of the negotiation or if and when the negotiations fail. This seems like a natural part of democracy but it is not part of the extreme Brexiteers scenario.

The only way to stop their cunning plan is for MPs to place an amendment on the ‘Great Reform Bill’ that requires the government to return to Parliament if the talks fail and put the issue to a binding vote, and a vote that the government cannot insist is a matter of confidence (for if they do the Tory rebels will not vote against no deal for fear of ending up with Corbyn).

It turns out therefore the ball is neither in Theresa May’s court nor in the Commission’s court, as we have been variously told, but in the court of moderate centrist MPs who have been notably silent on the issue of a cliff edge Brexit. It is time for them to play the ball and only agree to pass the ‘Great Reform Bill’ in return for an undertaking that any decision by the government to try to exit the EU without an agreement will be subject to a parliamentary vote.

Jonathan Powell was Tony Blair’s chief of staff from 1997-2007 and chief British negotiator on Northern Ireland

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