Brexit: The final countdown. Maybe.

So, the local elections are done and dusted, and we move onto the next of this year’s psephological treats: the European Parliament elections on 23 May.

Apparently, the trouncing of the pro-Brexit Tories and UKIP, a disappointing night for the disappointment that is the Labour Party, and a surge for the Remain- and People’s Vote-supporting Liberal Democrats and Greens tells us that the people just want the Tories and Labour to get on with sorting Brexit. Or something.

And maybe they do – one way or the other. But the hard truth is that MPs do not have very long to ‘sort’ Brexit.

Hallowe’en may have seemed a long way off when, on 11 April, MPs responded to Donald Tusk’s warning not to waste the Article 50 extension granted by the EU27 the previous day by literally laughing and cheering at Andrea Leadsom’s announcement that they could take the next week off. But by the time they returned to Westminster on 23 April, there were in fact only 73 parliamentary sitting (i.e. working) days until 31 October.

What’s more, MPs don’t have until 31 October to sort Brexit. At the very most, they have until the EU Council meeting on 17-18 October, at which the EU27 may or may not grant a further extension of Article 50. And, with MPs having piddled away seven sitting days since their Easter break, there are just 57 sitting days left until that Council meeting [but see Update, below].

To put that in perspective, there have been 91 sitting days since 14 November, when the Cabinet signed off the bungled, blindfold Brexit deal that Theresay May had just struck with the EU27. And, as you may have noticed, during that time, nothing has changed.

Worse still, when granting the six-month Article 50 extension to 31 October, the EU27 agreed that they would take a rain-check at their meeting on 20-21 June. And, as Andrew Duff of the European Policy Centre has noted, “if by then nothing has moved in London to break the [current] deadlock, the mood of the [EU27] chiefs will harden, Angela Merkel among them,” and the chances of a further Article 50 extension will lessen.

There are just 25 sitting days left until that Council meeting on 20-21 June. And, next week, MPs are set to piddle away another three days talking about wild animals in circuses (admittedly an important issue at any other time) and the 25th anniversary of the death of John Smith MP.

But maybe we’ll come back to earth within those 25 sitting days. Who can tell?

Update: On 9 May, Andrea Leadsom announced that MPs will get another recess, from 24  May to 4 June. As of 10 May, this reduces the number of parliamentary sitting days before the expiry of the Article 50 extension on 31 October to 59, and the number of sitting days before the EU Council meeting on 17-18 October to 50.

And it means there are now just 18 sitting days before the EU Council meeting on 20-21 June – eight before the Whitsun recess (and results of the European Parliament election on 23 May), and then another ten until the EU Council meeting.

Meanwhile, the Green Party and the Liberal Democrats are squabbling about who was first to call for a second referendum (evidence suggests it was the Greens, on 1 July 2016), the Tories still haven’t quite decided whether to campaign in the European Parliament election, and – as Chris Grey notes on his blog – “Brexit is stuck on the same endless loop of nonsense we have been going round for years”.

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Brexit: d’Hondt leave me this way

A couple of weeks ago, while walking the section of the Thames Path from Chertsey to Windsor, my bestie Jane and I found ourselves gazing towards Windsor Castle across the playing fields of Eton. The playing fields on which, according to the Duke of Wellington, the battle of Waterloo was won.

George Orwell, on the other hand – an Old Etonian himself – said that, while the battle of Waterloo may have been won on his alma mater‘s playing fields, the opening battles of all subsequent wars were lost there. To which we might plausibly add, “including those of the war for Brexit”.

For, ever since they confounded polling-based predictions to win their own Waterloo against the disorganised and poorly led forces of Remain in June 2016 – Wellington later described his last-gasp victory as “the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life” – the supposedly brilliant Brexit Boys of Eton such as Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg have managed to lose every single battle of Brexit, and may even have lost themselves the war.

Far from securing the “easiest trade deal in history”, over the past three years Johnson, Rees-Mogg and their less expensively-educated fellow Brexiteers David Davis, Steve Baker and Dominic Raab have been monstered by Michel Barnier and the EU27 at every turn. As I noted on this blog last August:

From the ‘staged approach’ to the negotiations, under which the UK’s disentanglement from the EU has had to be sorted before the future relationship can be discussed – remember ‘this will be the row of the summer’? – to the £35-39bn financial settlement – remember ‘go whistle’? – to the still not resolved NI border issue, Barnier has called all the shots. And, in doing so, he has simply carried out the mandate handed to him by the EU27 a few days after Theresa May stupidly triggered Article 50 before working out what she and her Cabinet want Brexit to mean.

[And] what this process will deliver – what it can only deliver – is what it was designed (by the EU27) to deliver: a blindfold Brexit deal, consisting of a Withdrawal Agreement covering the financial settlement (sorted), the transition period (sorted), citizens rights (almost sorted) and the NI border issue (not yet sorted), plus a quite possibly vague and definitely non-binding, so essentially meaningless, Political Declaration on the future relationship.

Barnier went on to seal that blindfold Brexit deal with Theresa May in November, of course, only for Johnson, Rees-Mogg, Davis, Baker and Raab to throw their toys out of the pram, before sulkily refusing to vote the deal through an increasingly dysfunctional House of Commons no less than three times. And that in turn led to the prized Exit Day slipping from 29 March to 22 May, then back to 12 April, and finally to 31 October (or sooner if Theresa May surprises everyone by conjuring up a way to get MPs to ratify her sorry deal, with the EU Council set to review the situation at its next formal meeting on 20-21 June).

Well played, chaps, well played. Three years on from the narrow vote to Leave the EU on 23 June 2016, and the country is about to hold elections to, er, the European Parliament. As the German foreign minister, Heiko Maas, noted caustically the week before last:

Just think about it: you say you want to leave the European Union, and then you hold a European Parliament election.

All of which has given more optimistic remainers – yes, they still exist – cause to think that the Eton Boys have farted away the entire Brexit war. On 14 April, Jon Lis of the think tank British Influence concluded that “the plain truth is that Britain will probably never leave the EU”, because the shenanigans of the previous few days had demonstrated that “Parliament will never support ‘no deal’, and the EU27 will never insist upon it”. And,

the longer this farce continues, the more people will decide that it is no longer worth the pain. [Theresa] May cannot deliver her deal. Parliament will continue in paralysis. All the while, the problem will remain a Brexit which we cannot implement without knee-capping our economy or our democratic oversight, or both. Now the threat of no-deal has vanished, we have time to consider if this is the path we really chose. It now seems likelier than ever that it is not.

Chapeau, Eton Boys!

Similarly, Brendan Donnelly of the Federal Trust concluded that “the trick of the European Elections in the UK could well have produced the treat of a People’s Vote before the end of 2019”, and on 11 April the never-short-of-an-expletive Ian Dunt noted that:

Time helps Remain. The more frequent these [Article 50] extensions, and the longer they are tabled for, the more the [2016] Referendum sinks into the past. Each time it happens, Brexit feels more like a failed project, stalled on the side of the road … The truth is a [second referendum/People’s Vote/confirmatory public vote] does not need to be held by October. That is the wrong way to look at it. It only needs to be agreed by then. That would provide the argument for a further extension request in which to actually hold it.

A ‘further extension request’. Oh my. What joy we have to look forward to.

There is little if any doubt that a further Article 50 extension, beyond 31 October, would be necessary to hold a second referendum/People’s Vote/confirmatory public vote. As Ian Dunt concedes, there is “simply not enough time” to hold one before then (the Institute for Government and UCL Constitution Unit both suggest it would take a minimum of 21 weeks to legislate and prepare for, and hold, such a referendum, and that timetable unrealistically assumes that the necessary legislation would sail unmolested through a suddenly united Parliament in a matter of days). But whether a further extension request would be agreed to by the EU27 is very much a moot point. For, as Wolfgang Munchau noted in the Financial Times last week:

Come October, the threat is not one of a veto by the French President, but of a shifting consensus. Heiko Maas, the German Foreign minister, said [in a recent FT interview] that he believed the October deadline was hard. This is becoming a wider consensus view in Germany. Macron is not isolated. He is winning the argument.

Similarly, in a must-read essay published last week, Andrew Duff of the European Policy Centre suggests that “the EU Council’s Brexit rain-check [on 20-21 June] is critical: if by then nothing has moved in London to break the deadlock, the mood of the chiefs will harden, Angela Merkel among them”.

Will there be any significant progress by 20 June? Well, with Donald Tusk’s warning not to waste the time provided by the extension to 31 October ringing in their ears, MPs first gave themselves a week off, and once back in Parliament have contrived to do practically nothing on Brexit for another two weeks. As Martin Kettle noted in the Guardian last week, “the talks between the Government and Labour [that started on 3 April] continue. But they are not going anywhere … There is an increasing air of unreality about the whole thing”. Indeed,

It is now increasingly obvious that the two parties are going through the motions, and that the talks are doomed. Labour has more time on its side than the Tories, because Corbyn is happy to see the Tories humiliated in the EU elections at the end of May. Neither of them wants to be blamed for failed talks, but nor is either of them strong or determined enough to suggest the kind of grand bargain – parliamentary support for soft Brexit in return for a confirmatory referendum, for instance – for which the circumstances cry out.

This means two things. Both must now be faced. The first is that, as things stand, Parliament’s efforts to take control of Brexit from the government have failed. In March, this sovereign parliament route seemed to offer a way forward. May’s deal was dead. Backbenchers came up with other cross-party ideas. The Speaker facilitated the process. Marches and petitions gave a feeling of momentum. When it came to the crunch, however, MPs knew what they did not want – no deal – but not what they did want. This parliament turns out to be no more able to pass a soft Brexit than to pass a harder one, like May’s.

The second conclusion is therefore that soft Brexit itself has also failed. Soft Brexit was the least worst Brexit option. To have succeeded, however, May needed to reach out much earlier, probably in 2016, and certainly after the 2017 election. It never happened. Now, last-minute backbench attempts to craft a soft Brexit, led by Nick Boles and Stephen Kinnock, have failed. Cabinet efforts have failed too. Finally the inter-party attempt has ploughed into the sand as well. So soft Brexit must now be added to no-deal Brexit and May’s Brexit on the political scrapheap of the past three years.

Which neatly encapsulates the even bigger problem faced by advocates of a second referendum/People’s Vote/confirmatory public vote – including the more than 100 Labour MPs who have written to the NEC ahead of its crucial, manifesto-setting meeting today – than the lack of certainty over a (necessary) further extension of Article 50 in October: there is simply no credible Leave option to pit against Remain on any ballot paper, as all the possible options are now ‘on the political scrapheap’. Yet, as Andrew Duff notes in the above-mentioned essay,

The Electoral Commission would insist that the conduct of the referendum was both free and fair. The House of Commons would need to agree on a [ballot] question that did not effectively disenfranchise that large part of the electorate opposing not only the deal on offer, but also the revocation of Brexit. Parliament could overrule the Electoral Commission, but not without litigation and public outcry.

Similarly, noting that “campaigners for a [second] referendum want a straight choice between the negotiated Withdrawal Agreement and the option of remaining in the EU”, Alan Renwick of the UCL Constitution Unit has warned that “many Brexiteers find the deal anathema”, and

They would see such a vote as a stitch-up, delegitimising the result. A three-option referendum could alternatively be held, with a no-deal option alongside the other two. So long as a preferential voting system were used, that would be tenable. But most MPs see a ‘no deal’ Brexit as catastrophic. If voters chose it, would those MPs really be willing to acquiesce in all the preparations that would be necessary? If they cannot contemplate doing that, they should not put it before voters.

Over the weekend, a number of journalists and others had fun attacking the interim leader of the Independent Group, Heidi Allen, merely for exploring, in an interview in The House magazine, the challenge of trying to find a credible, democratic solution to the People’s Vote dilemma: what option(s), other than Remain, to have on the ballot paper. All that Allen said, in fact, is that she has “some sympathy” with those who would want to see ‘no deal’ on the ballot paper, not that it should be on the ballot paper. And she’s absolutely right to feel that way. Because, as Andrew Duff warns in the above-mentioned essay:

One can be sure that another referendum promoted specifically to overturn the result of the first would deepen the divisions in the nation in terms of social class, generation and province. Those who claim that a ‘People’s Vote’ would magically heal the rift across the country and settle the issue of Britain’s European policy once and for all are likely to be proved badly wrong. [And] Brussels knows that unless the result of a second referendum were a massive majority on a high turnout for revocation, nothing very much would be settled at all.

Furthermore, Duff asks, “is it realistic to imagine that the Conservative and Labour parties, having just ratified the Withdrawal Agreement in Parliament, would then go out to the country campaigning to reject it? And what would be the impact on the British system of parliamentary government were the people to pitch themselves directly against a deal just done by parliament?” To my mind, it really isn’t realistic to imagine such a campaign, and I agree with Duff when he concludes:

It would seem to be folly of the highest order, having made the big mistake of holding one referendum, to compound the error by holding another.

So, where does that leave us? Duff argues that “the most likely scenario is continued political paralysis in the UK, leading to a demand for a further extension of Article 50 in October”, while in his latest Brexit blog post Chris Grey notes that the 31 October deadline is “really not that far away” and the signs are that the UK is going to use it to “keep going round the same nonsensical loops as before”:

there is little evidence that [Donald Tusk’s] advice is being heeded [and], worse still, there is no evidence of a will or a way to do so.

Or, as Ian Dunt put it on Twitter yesterday:

There’s really nothing going on is there? It’s all dead. We’re going to piddle away this time until October and go into crisis mode again.

Whatever, I no longer have to worry about this for the day job (because I no longer have a day job). So here’s that (rather lovely) view across the playing fields of Eton. Next up, Windsor to Marlow.

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ET claim/case numbers: the new normal?

Nine months ago, in June 2018, I noted on this blog that Employment Tribunal (ET) claim/case numbers had still not settled at a new, post-ET fees normal. Having seemingly stabilised in Quarter 3 of 2017/18, the numbers had then increased again in Quarter 4.

However, the latest set of quarterly statistics, published on Thursday, suggest we may now have reached the new normal. Or maybe not quite yet.

As I tweeted on Thursday, the new normal is perhaps more evident from the monthly figures, given that something unusual happened in June 2018, artificially inflating the figure for Q1 of 2018/19. Then again, there does still seem to be a mild upward trend.

Time – and the next few sets of quarterly statistics – will tell. But my tweeting of the first of the above two charts led one law firm to ask why claim/case numbers have not “reverted to the previous level”. Which is a very good question.

In order to answer it, we first have to define what we mean by ‘the previous level’. Because, following the abolition of fees in July 2017, it was very unlikely that claim/case numbers would return to the level we saw in the years immediately preceding the introduction of the fees in July 2013. For, as the following chart shows, those years were not ‘normal’ – single claim/case numbers were still declining from the peak of 2009/10, caused by the 2008 financial crisis and the resultant economic recession in the UK. Prior to that recession-induced spike, claim/case numbers had plateaued in 2006 and 2007. (Note that the quarterly bars for the first four years at the left of the chart are averages of the annual figure, as the quarterly figures are not readily available).

That pre-existing – but, by mid-2013, relatively mild – downward trend would most likely have continued, at least for a while, had the justice-denying fees regime not been introduced. Some readers will remember that the Ministry of Injustice regularly (and stupidly) cited this pre-existing downward trend as an explanation of the sudden collapse in claim/case numbers after 29 July 2013 – which is why I first calculated the projection shown by the red bars in the chart.

From this chart, we can see that claim/case numbers have in fact reverted to not far short of my projection. Which, of course, is just a projection – it is perfectly possible that claim/case numbers would have continued to decline after Q1 of 2015/16 (from when I have them plateauing), to a level below my projection. And the evident mild upward trend in the actual numbers may yet close the gap further. (Equally, of course, my projection may be too conservative – record levels of employment arguably increase the scope for ET-bound disputes between a worker and their employer.)

Moreover, we could expect claim/case numbers to fall someway short of my projection, in any case, for one very good reason: Acas early conciliation. Since the start of 2016, following the introduction of mandatory early conciliation in May 2014, Acas have successfully settled about 4,000 cases every quarter. And it seems reasonable to assume that, had those worplace disputes not been settled by Acas through the early conciliation process, the great majority would have resulted in an ET claim.

Some of those cases settled by Acas were multiple claimant cases, so for the following adaptation of the chart above, which shows single claims/cases, I have reduced the number of EC settled cases by 10%, before adding them to the number of ET claims/cases.

This is all a bit crude (and I’d welcome the thoughts of Acas peeps), but what we can say is that, broadly speaking, the number of ET single claims/cases has now reverted to the level we might have expected it to be at, had fees and Acas early conciliation not been introduced in 2013 and 2014 respectively.

(Note: For this chart, I have taken the liberty of averaging out the unusual spike in June 2018).

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From here to Brexternity

So, we’ve had one Meaningful Vote, and next Tuesday we will have another. Which begs the question: How many bloody Meaningful Votes do there have to be before anything meaningful happens?

Because Theresa May’s defeat in what future historians will presumably have to refer to as The First Meaningful Vote – the heaviest defeat of a government in parliamentary history – has changed nothing. Or, as May herself would say, nothing has changed. Last week, a lifeboat full of politicians from across the political spectrum pushed through a media scrum to meet with May in Downing Street, only to be told that they can have any kind of Brexit deal they like, so long as it’s the Prime Minister’s existing Brexit deal. Henry Ford, eat your heart out.

As Chris Grey notes on his must-read Brexit Blog, there is now a dangerous void of leadership and policy at the heart of British politics:

The House of Commons has decided that it has confidence in Theresa May’s government, but at the same time that it is opposed, on a massive scale, to the central and defining policy of that government – a truly bizarre situation. In rejecting May’s Brexit deal, the core underlying problem with Brexit itself was revealed: there is no consensus about what it means, even amongst those who support it.

Unfortunately, there is also no consensus amongst those who oppose it.

The campaign for a People’s Vote (PV) ploughs valiantly on, despite there being little if any vindication of the previously expressed belief of Anna Soubry, Chuka Umunna and others that defeat of May’s deal in the Meaningful Vote would bring out busloads of new PV supporters from the ranks of remain-leaning Tory MPs. And, as Phil Syrpis of Bristol University notes, the record-breaking scale of that defeat doesn’t help, because “for a People’s Vote, you need [to have] a credible Leave option to put up against Remain”.

Furthermore, the clock has continued to tick down. On 3 January, I noted on this blog that advocates of a PV were already three weeks short of the 22 weeks that, according to the UCL Constitution Unit, they need to legislate and prepare for such a referendum on 16 May (the latest date that would allow the UK to hold postponed Euro elections in late June, in time to elect MEPs by the cut-off date of 2 July, should the PV result in a decision to stay in the EU). They are now six weeks short. Or a mere five weeks short, if you prefer the minimum of 21 weeks that the Institute for Government says would be needed.

Holding a People’s Vote any later than 16 May would require an extension of the two-year Article 50 period beyond those Euro elections – until the Autumn at the very least, and probably until the end of the year. And in recent days, there have been growing signs that the EU27 would most likely not agree to such a lengthy extension (as they would need to do, unanimously), should Theresa May change her mind and request one.

On 15 January, Gonzalez Pons, the Spanish MEP who chairs the Brexit working group of the European People’s Party (EPP) – the largest political group in the European Parliament and the party of Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker – indicated that the EPP is open to an Article 50 extension “in terms of weeks”, but not beyond the Euro elections. The following day Guy Verhofstadt MEP, the European Parliament’s representative in the Brexit negotiations, said clearly that “while we understand the UK could need more time, for us it is unthinkable that Article 50 is prolonged beyond the European Elections”. And yesterday Michel Barnier noted that “it is important that the EU’s democratic processes [i.e. the Euro elections in May] are not disturbed by [any extension of Article 50]”.

Then there’s the question of whether a PV would be a good idea anyway. As Anand Menon of UK in a Changing Europe and King’s College London has recently noted, first on BBC Question Time and then, in more detail, in The Economist, a PV could be “speculative, vague and massively divisive”:

To those who say “we know much more now”, my response is yes, we do. We know that Theresa May’s government has made a hash of the process, that parliament has no majority for any conceivable outcome, that the EU won’t simply roll over and give us what we want (to be fair, some of us knew that last one in 2016).

What we don’t know, as we didn’t know in 2016, is what the future holds. We don’t know what kind of trade deal we will get, and therefore what kind of Brexit we will have. So another referendum would be a rerun of the old one, lacking the most important facts: [those] about the future.

It would also be a rerun of a campaign full of promises that can’t be kept. Proponents of a [People’s Vote] have stressed that “of course we have to address the grievances of those Leave voters who were protesting about the state of our politics and our economy.” How familiar. A campaign that promises things it will be in no position to deliver.

Not only that, but it will be a debate carried out by one side purely as an anti-establishment exercise. Little surprise that Leave campaigners have already come up with the slogan “Tell them again”. A three-month-long publicly funded campaign in which one side foments anti-establishment and anti-politics sentiment is surely not the wisest idea at this febrile moment in our political history.

The Guardian columnist Owen Jones made much the same point a couple of weeks ago:

We have learned from the Scottish independence vote and with Brexit what referendums do to our politics. They foster bitter divisions in ways that parliamentary elections tend not to do. That is why they can be such uniquely fertile political territory for the populist far right. A referendum campaign would in effect hand the most demagogic, reactionary elements of British life a megaphone for several months.

As expected, Theresa May’s Plan B has turned out to be Plan A with the ‘A’ crossed out and replaced with a ‘B’, while Jeremy Corbyn and Keir Starmer are still chasing the unicorn of negotiating a new deal with the EU27 based on a customs union and “close Single Market alignment”. With May having survived Corbyn’s motion of no confidence – by a margin of 52% to 48%, natch – Starmer wants Labour to comply with its own policy and consider all options, including a People’s Vote. But, as Guardian columnist Marina Hyde notes, Corbyn the High Triangulator is “reportedly going to keep calling no confidence motions until one produces the answer he likes. An irony that will doubtless be appreciated by those of his supporters angling in vain for a second referendum.”

Nick Boles, Stephen Kinnock, Lucy Powell and others are still flogging the dead horse once known as Norway Plus but now rebranded as Common Market 2.0. And a small but growing number of MPs led by Lisa Nandy and Stella Creasy are pushing the idea of a People’s Assembly, which may or may not lead in turn to a People’s Vote. But quite how Brexiteer MPs opposed to a People’s Vote will be persuaded to accept the verdict of a randomly selected group of 250 citizens – and how long that process of persuasion would take – is not explained. And I wouldn’t want to be the one who has to ask the EU27 to give us an Article 50 extension so that we can try out something we’ve never done before.

Some MPs are on the pitch, they think it’s all over … sorry, some MPs are trying to change the parliamentary rules to stop the Government doing any more stupid things. Which is all very well. But imagine that, instead of Dominic Grieve and Yvette Cooper, it was a bunch of the worst kind of Tory [Are you sure Grieve and Cooper are the good kind of Tory? Ed] trying to stop a radical, progressive but minority government from nationalising the railways or scrapping Universal Credit. Would you be clapping along then too? And anyway, as Ian Dunt notes this morning, it won’t make any difference.

Meanwhile, there are just 64 days left on the Brexit clock. And, as Sam Lowe and John Springford of the Centre for European Reform note, “while neither Parliament nor Government wants ‘no deal’, it remains the default outcome. Unless Britain revokes Article 50, the EU agrees to extend beyond 29th March or a satisfactory agreement between the UK and EU is found, the UK will leave the EU without a deal in place.” Similarly, Chris Grey notes that it is “pointless” for MPs to demand that May take ‘no deal’ off the table:

“No deal can only be avoided by agreeing to do something else. If nothing else is agreed, no deal happens by default.”

Which means, in the wise words of Guardian journalist John Harris, a nation bored of Brexit now risks sleepwalking into disaster.

But hey, Jack Savoretti has a new album out very soon. Life will go on. We survived the Black Death and two world wars. And I am digging an Anderson shelter in the garden.

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Brexit: WHEN will it all end? HOW will it all end?

So, the xmas break is over, and in Parliament the Brexit bullshit is about to start all over again – with knobs on. For my sins, I work in Parliament and, if I had a penny for everyone who asked me, over the break, ‘So, what’s going to happen with Brexit?’, I would have 12p. Which seems a tad unfair. My inside knowledge is surely worth more than 12p.

Except it isn’t. Because there is no inside knowledge. No one in Parliament has a clue what’s going to happen with Brexit. Which is not unrelated to the fact that few people in Parliament have a clue. They stupidly got us into this mess – with their brilliant, democracy-enhancing idea to ask the public to vote on whether the Government should build a submarine out of cheese – and now they have no idea how to get us out of it.

OK, to be fair, between them they do have a few ideas. It’s just that none of the ideas are any good. Norway Plus, Canada Plus Plus Plus, holding a People’s Vote or even a People’s Assembly, or winning a general election and negotiating a jobs-first Brexit – these are all crap ideas that will not get us out of this mess.

As Martin Sandbu has noted in the Financial Times, Norway Plus – under which the UK would remain in the European Economic Area by joining Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein in the EFTA bloc – is less an idea for getting us out of this mess, than a category error. Because, under the meaninglessly vague, 26-page Political Declaration that goes with the 585-page Withdrawal Agreement so incompetently negotiated by Theresa May, David Davis and Dominic Raab, and which allows for “a spectrum of outcomes”, we can have Norway Plus as our future relationship with the EU if we want. It’s just that (a) the EU27 will have to agree to it, and (b) we can’t start the negotiations with them until after we’ve left the EU.

Oh, and the Norwegians aren’t very keen on the idea, because for them “it would be like inviting the rowdy uncle to a Christmas party, spiking the drinks and hoping that things go well. They would not.” But the key point is that the only way to get to Norway Plus, or to any of the other alternative future relationships, is to ratify the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration that are on the table.

So, belatedly deciding that we want Norway Plus – or Canada Plus Plus Plus, or Corbyn’s ludicrous ‘jobs-first Brexit’ – as our future relationship with the EU wouldn’t solve our current dilemma, which comes down to deciding between just three options:

(a) ratifying the Withdrawal Agreement and Political declaration agreed with the EU27, leaving the EU on 29 March, and spending the next few years – perhaps the next decade – trying to negotiate our future relationship with the EU while continuing to argue amongst ourselves about whether we want that relationship to be Norway Plus, Canada Plus Plus Plus or some other arrangement;

(b) crashing out of the EU on 29 March with no deal; or

(c) revoking the Article 50 notification (as the ECJ has recently confirmed we can do) and remaining in the EU on the same terms as now.


What’s more, despite it being the legal default option, ‘no deal’ is simply not a credible option. It might have been, just about, if we’d started on the necessary preparations two years ago. But we didn’t, so we are simply not in a position to avoid the economic chaos and public disorder that would now inevitably follow. The Government hasn’t put 3,500 troops on stand-by to go around handing out free plastic Union Jacks for everyone to wave at their post-Brexit street parties. The troops are on stand-by to shoot us when we join food riots. Plus, David Gauke – please don’t say you haven’t heard of him – says he might resign from government. Which is surely a clincher. (Seriously, it’s clear the Government would collapse before it could implement a ‘no deal’ Brexit on 29 March).

Which leaves just two options for MPs: signing off on May’s bungled, Blindfold Brexit, or revoking the Article 50 notification and cancelling Brexit.

Yet we are where we are because only a vanishingly small minority of MPs favour the first option. And, as far as I’m aware, not a single MP has explicitly come out in favour of the second option (though see below). Most of the MPs that you might expect to favour that option – because they do in fact favour revoking Article 50 and remaining in the EU – are instead still campaigning relentlessly for a People’s Vote (or ‘referendum on the outcome of the negotiations with the EU27’, if you’re not into politicians using disingenuous and arguably offensive euphemisms to hide their true intent). And the rest are busy calling for a People’s Assembly (or ‘sortition’), which worked well in ancient Athens, apparently.

Since it launched in April, the People’s Vote (PV) campaign has been phenomenally successful at – and deserves much credit for – mobilising public support for the idea of cancelling Brexit and remaining in the EU (you won’t find many PV supporters who want to leave the EU), and at getting the option of a PV onto the political and media agenda. Unfortunately, it has been markedly less successful at persuading unconvinced MPs that a second referendum is the way forward. Only about ten Tory MPs have come out in support, and that is simply not enough – which is why the cross-party group of pro-PV MPs has not (yet) tabled a PV amendment to the Meaningful Vote motion that was supposed to have been voted on by MPs on 11 December, and which may now be voted on in the week of 14 January.

There is also the seemingly small but actually quite significant problem of what the PV ballot question would be. The working assumption has been that it would be a binary choice between accepting the Prime Minister’s bungled, Blindfold Brexit, or cancelling Brexit and remaining in the EU. But that would effectively disenfranchise the not insignificant number of Brexiteers who do not support the PM’s deal. Which is a bit of a problem when the PV has been presented from the outset as “just basic democracy“.

And, while I agree 100% with Chris Grey when he says, in his first blog of 2019, that Brexit “misreads the realities of a regionalised and multi-polar world, and would be an historic abandonment of economic and geo-political strategy”, I’m still not convinced that this message would woo voters any better in 2019 than it did in 2016. I fear they’d be more impressed by a red bus carrying the already-selected Leave slogan “Tell them again!” As Stephen Bush notes in the New Statesman, “the media and cultural advantages that Leave had in 2016 are still alive and kicking in 2018” and “the resumption of political hostilities in the event of an actual referendum might yet end up with a more emphatic version of the answer the United Kingdom arrived at in 2016”.

However, even if they were to suddenly (and unexpectedly) recruit enough new supporters among their colleagues to somehow force a very, very reluctant Prime Minister to do a screeching hand-brake u-turn, the biggest problem for pro-PV MPs is that they have run out of time: it is simply too late to hold a PV now.

In October, in its report The Mechanics of a Further Referendum on Brexit, the UCL Constitution Unit established that it would take a minimum of 22 weeks to legislate and prepare for, and then hold, a PV campaign (which by law has to be 10 weeks long). No one has credibly suggested how that 22 week-minimum could be reduced, and the UCL team somewhat optimistically assumed that the draft legislation would sail through a suddenly united House of Commons in just a few days. So it has been clear for some weeks now that there is absolutely no chance of holding a PV before 29 March 2019, and that an extension of the two-year Article 50 period would be necessary.

However, the UCL Constitution Unit also calculated that the latest possible date for holding a PV without first having to hold the Euro elections scheduled for late May, is 16 May. In short, 16 May is the latest date that would allow the UK to hold postponed Euro elections in late June, in time to elect MEPs by the cut-off date of 2 July, should the PV result in a decision to stay in the EU. Whether the EU27 would (unanimously) agree to an Article 50 extension that long is a moot point, and certainly cannot be taken for granted, but in any case if you count back 22 weeks from 16 May you get to … 13 December. Which, as you don’t need me to tell you, was three weeks ago.

The only alternative is to seek an even longer Article 50 extension, hold our Euro elections in May (or June), as we would be legally obliged to do as an EU member state, and then hold a PV just a few weeks later. As this Twitter thread yesterday by ECJ Advocate General Eleanor Sharpston suggests, it’s doubtful that the EU27 would agree to such a lengthy extension, but … does anyone seriously think this would be a good idea?

No, the time for unicorns is over. It’s time for MPs to start dealing in concrete realities, and to tell the public the truth. Which, as Phil Syrpis of Bristol University has cogently argued, is that Theresa May has failed to deliver on her own (ludicrously rigid) interpretation of ‘the will of the people’, and the result of her efforts – the Withdrawal Agreement & Political Declaration – “falls far short of the claims made for Brexit in 2016”. And, as Syrpis further notes, “there is no time, or appetite on the EU side, for renegotiation.” Oh, and the whole damn thing has made the UK a global joke.

To put it more brutally, as the Tory MP and PV-advocate Anna Soubry (❤️) did back in early November, the “uncomfortable truth is that Brexit cannot be delivered. It’s time we all faced reality and were honest with the British people. We owe them a huge apology for a Referendum with an option that was undefined and undeliverable.”

It’s time for MPs to take back control, make that apology, and cancel Brexit.

But I’m not holding my breath. As has been noted by others, “one of the more disappointing aspects of this unnecessary national crisis is that no one seems to be willing to take any responsibility for it. It always seems to be someone else’s fault and no one ever says, ‘I’m sorry’.” So, to sum up just how badly we are being let down by our political class, here’s a photo of a muppet who thinks we can “leave with no deal and negotiate a free trade agreement during the transition period”.

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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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Brexit: Nothing has changed!

Another Monday, another oral ministerial statement to MPs on progress (or not) in the Brexit negotiations. Two weeks ago, following the somewhat less than triumphant informal EU summit in Salzburg, the Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, Dominic Raab, who hadn’t actually been in Austria, had the job of trying to assure MPs that the negotiations are going swimmingly, despite little if any progress having been made since June. Then, last Monday, it was the turn of the Prime Minister, as John Crace noted in the Guardian, to “come to the Commons to give a statement on what hadn’t happened”.

And yesterday, we got the Full House, as Raab confirmed to MPs, in response to an Urgent Question by Dominic Grieve, that the amendable motion for the so-called meaningful vote may not be so amendable after all, and the Prime Minister revealed, in yet another ministerial statement, that a whopping 95% of the Withdrawal Agreement is now settled. Which sounds impressive, until you remember that the Agreement was supposed to have been 100% settled by last week at the very latest. And that the remaining 5% – the backstop on the Irish border issue – is the tricky bit that’s been holding things up and which might yet bring the whole enterprise crashing down.

So, where does that leave us? Well, three months ago on this blog, I rashly suggested that completion of the Withdrawal Agreement [a mere 80% settled at that point] and cobbling together a basic, all-things-to-all-people Political Declaration [on the future economic and trading relationship] – that is, a Blindfold Brexit – is the only game in town. And, despite the continuing and deeply worrying failure to find agreement on the Irish border issue, I (just about) stand by that prediction.

This is not because Blindfold Brexit is the ‘good deal’ promised by ministers – far from it. You wouldn’t buy a house without knowing how many rooms it has, let alone its location. Yet the Government is about to try and sell Parliament, and the public, a Brexit ‘deal’ under which we won’t find out what kind of future relationship we will have with the EU until after we have left the EU on 29 March 2019 (and quite possibly not until some years after that).

What this means was spelled out recently by Sir Ivan Rogers, the UK’s former ambassador to the EU, in a speech given in Cambridge that is well worth reading in full:

“If we do stagger over the line with a Withdrawal Agreement, coupled with a pretty thin Political Declaration which all – or enough – can just about swallow, I will make three brief confident predictions about where we shall be in two years.

First, we shall be having precisely the same debate over sovereignty/control versus market access and as frictionless trade as is possible from without as we are now. The trade negotiations, properly starting quite late in 2019 – a year of transition in Brussels and Strasbourg, and with the need for the 27 to agree amongst themselves a complex, detailed negotiating mandate for a new negotiator – will be getting to multiple real crunch issues. The private sector will still be yearning for clarity on where we are going, and not getting much.

The UK political class will, finally, be starting to understand what trade deals are, how mind-numbingly legally complex and turgid their provisions are, and how negotiations work. And that what they view as the essential pluses to make a Canada-style FTA tolerable are precisely the big sticking points.  And that any one of the 27 Member States can come in with killer ‘must have’ demands to which you either find the answer or you lose much more time.

Second, it will be obvious by early autumn 2020 – long before, in reality – that the deal will not be ready by the year end, and that an extension is needed to crack the really tough issues. The EU, in no particular rush to get this done, as it sits rather comfortably with the UK in its status quo transition, with all the obligations of membership and none of the rights, will use the prospective cliff edge to force concessions, or to offer a thinner deal, more skewed to its interests, in the hope that the UK is desperate enough, pre-election, to get it done.

There will be some loud calls to jump to our freedom without a deal, because, over four years on from the referendum, remaining in purgatory transition is intolerable. There will be louder calls not to jump in the year running up to an election, when a breakthrough to an unprecedentedly good free trade deal is just around the corner…

Third, the Irish backstop enshrined in the Withdrawal [Agreement] will still be in place, and no other prospective agreement being yet in sight which obviates the need for it.

As the rebel Tory MP Anna Soubry (❤️ *sighs*) noted during the short debate that followed the PM’s rather uninformative statement yesterday, that is a model of Brexit that “nobody voted for” in June 2016. No one put ‘We’ll be negotiating Brexit, and our politicians will be talking about nothing else, for the next 10 years’ on the side of a big red bus. And, if they had, they would not have won the Referendum.

But Brexit will indeed be Blind, because there simply is not time for the UK and the EU27 to transform a Political Declaration that does not even exist in draft form into a meaningful document encompassing the complexity of the future relationship. The much simpler EU-Canada trade deal took five years, remember. In the words of Sir Simon Fraser, former Permanent Secretary of the Foreign Office, in his oral evidence to the Exiting the EU Committee of MP (see Q2729) on 10 October: “It is going to be a Blind Brexit … that is now pretty well inevitable”.

The only other available option is ‘no deal’. But, as Anand Menon of The UK in a Changing Europe and others have noted, in reality that is not an option, as the UK has simply not made the necessary preparations to avoid weeks or months of chaos. And, when I say ‘chaos’, I mean ‘no food in the shops and no medicines in the hospitals’.

None of this is helpful to those calling for a People’s Vote on the outcome of the negotiations. For the earliest possible date for the so-called meaningful vote by MPs – the first (and almost certainly last) opportunity for Remainer MPs to force a People’s Vote on an unwilling Government – is now 22 November, a few days after the extraordinary EU summit previously pencilled-in for the weekend of 18/19 November but which now may or may not take place. And it could be as late as early December, depending on how long the Government gives MPs to read and debate any ‘Withdrawal Agreement + Political Declaration’ package signed off at that extraordinary summit, should it be resurrected by a breakthrough in the currently deadlocked negotiations.

In its recent report on the mechanics of and timeline for a People’s Vote, the UCL Constitution Unit concluded that it would take a minimum of 22 weeks to pass the necessary primary legislation, complete testing of the ballot question by the Electoral Commission, and hold the 10-week campaign required by law. Which would take us not just beyond 29 March 2019, but smack into the European Parliament (EP) elections scheduled for late May 2019. And, as Agata Gostyńska-Jakubowska and Beth Oppenheim of the Centre for European Reform have noted, “there are practical and political reasons why the EU27 may be reluctant to bend over backwards [and extend the Article 50 period] to facilitate a fresh referendum” that clashes with those EP elections.

In short, 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.

Alternatively, something else may happen.

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