As MPs dither on Brexit, Remainers have a clear message - we will not give up

PUBLISHED: 11:00 17 October 2019 | UPDATED: 16:07 18 October 2019

The People's Vote march making its way through central London (Pic: Yui Mok/PA Wire)

The People's Vote march making its way through central London (Pic: Yui Mok/PA Wire)

Yui Mok/PA Wire

The decisive action will be outside parliament - not inside, says ZOE WILLIAMS.

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Parliament will be sitting this Saturday for the first time since the Falklands War. This, I think, is meant to strike some kind of awe, or at least make us sit up in our seats; in fact, historical parallels - "biggest cock-up since Suez", "most people freaking out since Black Wednesday" - cut very little ice now, when every day for the prime minister is like Anthony Eden's worst, every day for the chancellor makes Norman Lamont look like a moral titan. So there they are, sitting on Saturday, or 'super Saturday' if you prefer your politics to sound as fake American as a Surrey boyband.

If the executive hadn't wasted all that time proroguing parliament, they wouldn't need to pull all-nighters. And there is no rational reason for the prime minister's new deal to have arrived with Europe so close to the final curtain that even if it were acceptable, there wouldn't be time to sign it off. But there is a certain battlefield logic to all this; if you can create enough chaos, veer screeching into deadlines with smoke coming out of your hood, nobody will know whose fault was what.

That's the choice architecture we're dealing with: anything that makes the situation more confusing is a-ok with these masterminds. Perhaps the greatest act of subversion at this stage is a sober statement of things that are true.

Something must be put to this extraordinary parliament, and even assuming it's not a finished deal, let's pause to consider what that deal was. I think we've all got a touch of Stockholm Syndrome: as its details not so much leaked as seeped out, it was initially evaluated entirely through the eyes of the ERG and other assorted hard-liners. Was it different enough to Theresa May's deal? Did it do enough to maintain this fabled sovereignty they're so hung up about but so short-sighted in the pursuit of? Through that lens, it was simply May 2.0; cue Jacob Rees-Mogg pleading with his fellow swivel-eyes to swallow the pill because Boris Johnson was trustworthy [insert hollow laugh, or noise of your own choosing].

However, looked at more neutrally - what does this deal say, and what will that cost? - it is a much harder Brexit than May's. Hers was predicated on a customs union, which still would have meant a hit to GDP of nearly 4%. Johnson's Free Trade Agreement has customs and rules of origin requirements; the customs element alone, HMRC estimates will cost £1.25 billion a month. It's not the 6.7% reduction in GDP I mind so much as the complete needlessness. From the party of stability that has brought all this chaos, the party of business that now scorns business, the party of conservatism that now eyes the radical destruction of the United Kingdom, we now bring you the party that hates red tape, but wants to pointlessly spend all our money on it.

Scrutinised, meanwhile, at the human level - who ends up poorer, who ends up unemployed? - the answer is, in reverse order: An unacceptable number of people in skilled and semi-skilled jobs, and 'everybody'. Boris Johnson's deal would cost all of us £2,250 a year.

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So it will be a relief if it is simply not practical to bring this to a vote on Saturday - because there is a real risk of it passing. Responsibility for that would fall on many MPs: The members of the cabinet simply too self-interested, too agog with the sheer improbability of having ended up with a ministerial car; the ERG, too credulous by a long-shot; the DUP, high on bungs and the promise of more; but for those who oppose Brexit altogether, the shock is this hardcore of Labour MPs who will apparently vote for any deal. Last week, there seemed to be 19 of them, going by their weirdly turgid joint letter to Jean-Claude Juncker.

It's not even that long, but you'd still be forgiven for having not read it. "Our votes will be decisive," it states - not inaccurately, maybe a bit hubristically - before going on to beg for a deal, any deal, in preference over more delay.

One has to assume they are differently motivated - some desperate to keep their seats, though why they think people who want a Brexit this hard would vote for any party but the Conservatives is anyone's guess. Some are genuine Lexiteers and think Remain is an elite conspiracy. Some see Labour's overall chances as best served by appealing to both Leave and Remain, and those are the most tone-deaf, but also the most reprehensible of all, the kind of politician who would vote for climate apocalypse if they could see a 2% swing in it.

The 19 appear to be dwindling, however: By this week, there were only 11 saying privately they would vote for any deal. And considering they've said as much before but backed away, there could be as few as five Labour rebels, which is not enough.

The execrable deal would, in the hypothesis where it was ready in time, still struggle to get through. In the more likely alternative scenario, that it arrives in parliament as merely an outline for MPs to agree in principle, the same obstacles occur: Hard Brexiters are more likely to swing behind it, because it's only when suggestions become concrete that they completely lose it and start talking about Agincourt.

The 21 no-longer-tories will have war-gamed what it means to agree something as a broad principle - in likelihood, not very much - and will vote accordingly. The big question mark will still be over these possible Labour rebels, but the question would be slightly different. Would they go to the brink and then right over it, which most of them never have before, and risk expulsion from their own party, for the sake of a provisional deal in which delay is inevitable anyway? It would be surprising, but if there's one thing to be said for the age, it never doesn't surprise.

Outside parliament, meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of people are likely to be on the streets, calling for a final say, or People's Vote, or for the old-school who haven't been paying attention, a second referendum, knowing that governments often take a perverse delight in ignoring their citizens, knowing that we've been here before, many times now, and every time the situation is worse, but protesting nonetheless.

It promises to be the most complete representation of the Remain side, which has been accused in the past of being like a Lib Dem festival; the fact that nobody could imagine such a thing didn't dent the hurtful force of the analogy. The left bloc now has a critical mass of Labour MPs with it, not to mention the reviving force of migrant rights groups protesting, among other things, quite literally for their right to be seen as human beings within the political discourse.

Inside parliament, then, super-Saturday will struggle to distinguish itself from any of the other Withdrawal Agreement votes, in which after a huge amount of fighting, nothing was agreed, nobody was vanquished, nothing was resolved. (Ah! There's your slam-dunk historical analogy; never so much pointless fighting over inches of mud since the First World War.) Outside it, Remainers may struggle to distinguish our chants from those of last year, or the year before: but one thing will be plain - we've not given up.

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