Brexit: Nothing (much) has changed!

So, another month has passed, and my rash prediction of the outcome of the UK’s tortuously bungled negotiations with the EU27 is just about still in the race. Last month on this blog, I concluded that

“while anything could still happen, I see no great reason to change the prediction I made in early August: the UK and EU27 will continue to edge towards a position on the Irish border issue that satisfies both sides, while allowing for (widely) differing interpretations that Theresa May can sell to different audiences, such as the DUP and ERG MPs. Then, at some point in early November, it will be announced that the extraordinary summit is back on, and over the weekend of 18/19 November the UK and EU27 will sign off on Blindfold Brexit. Remainer MPs will then fail to force a People’s Vote on the ‘deal’, and the UK will leave the EU, for an unknown future, on 29 March 2019.”

To the surprise of many, the first part of this prediction was belatedly achieved on 14 November, when the Prime Minister took more than five hours to secure the “collective” but seemingly far from enthusiastic consent of her “deeply divided Cabinet” to a draft Withdrawal Agreement and outline Political Declaration agreed in principle with the EU27. And, a few hours later, the two documents were published online.

Since then, a small forest has been sacrificed to produce hard copies of the 585-page draft Withdrawal Agreement, which covers the financial settlement, citizens’ rights and other aspects of the UK’s exit from the EU, but not the nature of the future relationship between the UK and the EU. In contrast, the “painfully thin” (© @HenryNewman) outline Political Declaration on that future relationship stretches to a mere six and a half pages and, including section headings, consists of just 2,357 words. Which is four words for each of the 595 days of negotiation since Article 50 was triggered in March 2017.

The section on the future ‘economic and trading partnership’ is just 1,026 words – shorter than many Daily Telegraph columns by the not-so-honourable member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip, Boris Johnson, and not much longer than this blog (862 words). And it promises a vague-to-the-point-of-meaningless future based on, for example, “comprehensive arrangements creating a free trade area combining deep regulatory and customs cooperation, underpinned by provisions ensuring a level playing field for open and fair competition”.

What does that even mean? Is it what The People voted for in June 2016? And is it what they’d vote for now – or, more accurately, six or seven months from now – should the People’s Vote campaign get its way? Will anyone put it on the side of a bus?

On Monday, the CBI reminded the Prime Minister that the UK’s “future prosperity depends on getting the Brexit deal right. We need frictionless trade [and] ambitious access for our world-beating services. Anything less than that, and jobs and investment could suffer.” Yet the word ‘frictionless’ does not appear once in the outline Political Declaration.

Even if the latest reports from Brussels prove correct, and the Political Declaration expands to “some 20 pages” before being signed off at the emergency EU summit that has been shifted from last weekend to this coming Sunday, there is no question that we are looking at a Blindfold Brexit.

So, that’s the first two parts of my August prediction ticked off. But will this bungled, blindfold Brexit survive the so-called Meaningful Vote by MPs, currently expected to be held on 10 December? Who knows? I certainly don’t. For sure, it wasn’t looking very likely late last week, when everyone from Jeremy Corbyn to Ken Clarke to Jacob Rees-Mogg to Chuka Umunna – though, strangely, not the Lib Dem MP Stephen Lloyd – were loudly telling anyone who’d listen that they will vote against May’s deal.

However, since then, Rees-Mogg and his coterie of ERG clowns (© @mrjamesob) appear to have blown their much-trumpeted coup against the Prime Minister. In the words of Robert Shrimsley in the Financial Times yesterday:

“Even when last week they came to the belated realisation that Mrs May was going to let them down — something she could not have made more obvious if she’d plastered Westminster with signs proclaiming “I’m going to let you down” — even then they could not properly organise the defenestration they had been promising to gullible journalists each weekend for the past six months.”

The 48 letters may yet appear. But the chances of Theresa May being toppled in the ensuing confidence vote now appear vanishingly small, and the Rees-Moggites may yet run out of hot air and fall into line for the Meaningful Vote. That way, they at least get to bank exit from the EU on 29 March 2019. As Robert Shrimsley further noted yesterday, “their record is an uninterrupted litany of cowardice, incompetence* and blame shifting. For all the bluster, they have blinked, bottled or botched it at every turn.” And today, ministers were reportedly claiming that “a lot of these [Tory] MPs saying they will vote against the deal just want a reason to vote for it”.

So, sadly, my sadly meagre savings are still on the final parts of my August prediction coming true. Then again, as I concluded last month, something else may happen.

* While we’re on the subject of incompetence, it would be wrong not to pay tribute to former Brexit secretary David Davis, who this week wrote what will surely go down in history as the stupidest sentence ever published on the Internet: “If we need to leave [the EU] with no deal and negotiate a free trade agreement during the transition period, so be it.” There are just not enough face palms.

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About wonkypolicywonk

@wonkypolicywonk is a policy minion who has been lucky enough to work at Maternity Action, Working Families, Citizens Advice, the National Audit Office, the Law Society, and Amnesty International UK. He currently bangs his head on a desk in Parliament.
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