With just a dash of flexibility, the Brexit endgame is in sight

 
Matthew Elliott
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Theresa May Struggles To Find Viable Brexit Deal
Brexiteers must balance their pursuit of perfection against the practical reality (Source: Getty)

In 1982, three years into Margaret Thatcher’s first term, a monograph was published about the government’s economic progress bluntly titled: “Could do better”.


Was it published by the Fabian Society, with its close affiliation to the Labour party? Or perhaps it was released by the recently established Social Democratic Party, formed by people on the centre-left disgruntled by Michael Foot’s hard-left leadership?

No, it was published by the venerable Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), which had been flying the flag for free market ideas since 1955. And during the IEA’s existence, no Prime Minister has done more for the cause than Thatcher.

I mention this not to explore economic policy in the 1980s, but to consider the tension between ideological purity and political reality in another context: Brexit.

Just as it is easy to look back and chuckle at the inability of those IEA authors to realise just how favourable the political climate was towards their cause, it is a useful exercise to consider how people sympathetic to Brexit will look back at the current tortured debate in Westminster in, say, 2056.


I suspect that those historians will be flabbergasted at how close Brexiteers came to stymying a cause for which they had been campaigning so passionately for decades.

True, certain events didn’t go their way after the EU referendum in 2016. The majority of Brexiteers wanted a Leave supporter as Prime Minister, but they fell out with each other in the leadership contest after David Cameron stepped down.

Some argued that Article 50 should not have been triggered until the negotiation had been finalised, but whereas this might have worked for a Leave Prime Minister, Theresa May felt compelled to initiate the process to demonstrate that she was serious about taking Britain out of the EU.

Acceding to Michel Barnier’s sequencing of the negotiation – discussing EU citizens, the divorce bill and the Irish border in phase one, before moving on to the wider withdrawal agreement – was also a mistake.

And then there was the decision to call a snap election in June 2017.

This folly had two main consequences. First, it fired up the continuity Remain campaign, now calling for a so-called people’s vote, and encouraged business lobby groups to re-enter the fray, claiming (incorrectly) to represent British business and upping the pressure on the government to reverse Brexit.

Second, it delivered the hung parliament which is at the heart of the current political deadlock.

But we are where we are. Rather than finger-pointing, Brexiteers now have a decision to make about how best to deliver on their victory in the referendum.

It is not the time to say “we wouldn’t have started from here” or “the government should have done this or that”. The question to focus on is how best to leave the EU, in just 59 days’ time.

Tonight, there will be a series of votes in the House of Commons which have the potential to either sink Brexit or facilitate a smooth exit from the EU.

Over a dozen amendments have been tabled, and we will not know which ones have been selected to be voted on until the debate starts. Two amendments, however, stand out.

One, pushed by senior Labour backbencher Yvette Cooper, seeks to remove a no-deal Brexit as the default option, by giving MPs the opportunity to force the government to request an extension to the Article 50 process if a deal has not been agreed by 26 February.

The other, tabled by Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the Conservative backbench 1922 Committee, seeks to prove that there is a majority in parliament for the withdrawal agreement subject to the Irish backstop being replaced with “alternative arrangements”.

For me, as a Brexiteer, it is important that the Cooper amendment fails. The Prime Minister requires the no-deal option to be on the table to maximise her leverage in the negotiations.

After all, the EU team would have no incentive to improve the terms of the withdrawal agreement if they knew that the UK government would be prevented by parliament from walking away.

In contrast, if the Brady amendment is approved, the EU should recall the flexibility shown towards Denmark in the early 1990s, when the Maastricht Treaty was defeated in a referendum by 50.7 per cent of voters. In response, the EU added a legally binding protocol onto the Treaty to reassure Danes on a variety of subjects. The Treaty then passed by 56.8 per cent.

The EU should follow suit on the Irish backstop.

Some Brexiteers will point out that the Irish backstop is just one of many concerns they have with the withdrawal agreement.

This is justified, but they must balance their pursuit of perfection against the practical reality that parliament could well stop Brexit in its tracks. The Cooper amendment demonstrates that

It is easy to make speeches about how the Prime Minister “could do better”. But if MPs don’t get behind the only path to Brexit currently on the table, historians could well be writing about how Brexit “did not happen”.

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