CONGRATULATIONS, everyone, on surviving another week of noise, drama and Boris Johnson chasing a leadership challenge, culminating in Parliament’s rejection of the Prime Minister’s withdrawal agreement.
First published in The National, 31 March 2019
The first practical consequence of this is that the UK missed the deadline to secure an extension and leave with a deal on May 22. That leaves us with the option of crashing out without a deal on the April 22 – because 14 days is nowhere near enough time to secure an agreement to protect our rights, supply chains, legislate for a deal, and all the other needs that have been swept under the Big Brexit Rug – or we collectively need to find an alternative way forward.
Any extension needs a clear purpose, and it looks like the UK will indeed need to hold Euro elections. If the EU agrees. To be clear, if that is the course we are on then I have already put my name forward to stand. We will need serious experienced people at our posts. I have no doubt the SNP will win (as we did in 2009 and 2014 – you would be forgiven to have missed it but there was a European election in 2014) and I can help that happen. Indeed, it could be our most important European election ever.
However, now I am getting ahead of myself, there are a lot of ifs, buts and maybes before we get to an election. The next big date for your diaries is April 10 when European Council President Donald Tusk has called a meeting to discuss what happens next.
Remember, any extension needs the unanimous agreement of the other 27 member states, and I can’t say that the UK has exactly been stockpiling goodwill. The UK has been damn lucky so far because the EU chiefs have been sympathetic and more willing to compromise than to hang anyone out to dry, but the European Commission released a grim statement in the aftermath of the vote. “It will be for the UK to indicate the way forward before that date for consideration by the European Council. A no-deal scenario on April 12 is now a likely scenario.”
There was no petulant heel-turn when the UK narrowly voted to leave the EU back in 2016; instead there have been consistent attempts at compromise and conciliation from Brussels, despite the provocation, insults, and outright incompetence emanating from Westminster.
Tusk has consistently tried to reassure Remain voters and mind-changers that the door is open, reserving his ire for “those who promoted Brexit without even a sketch of a plan how to carry it out safely”. This week, he stood in the European Parliament and reminded his colleagues that they should remain open to a long extension because UK citizens are currently European citizens and must be represented by MEPs even if – especially if – MPs aren’t up to the task. Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Opposition, has called on the Prime Minister to step aside in favour of a General Election and Ian Blackford, the SNP leader at Westminster, has urged the PM to note that her thrice-defeated deal is a bad one, and we need time to find a way out of this mess. I couldn’t put it better than he did: “I suggest to the Prime Minister we must now look seriously at the option of revocation.”
No-deal is unthinkable and the only way to remove it is to bind the UK Government to revoke Article 50 should there be no deal or no extension agreed. The UK can do this unilaterally. There is no secret protocol, no particular series of complex hurdles, no complicated paperwork to fill in. All it has to do is say: “We revoke Article 50.” No agreement would be needed from the EU. I know this is possible because I was one of the six cross-party Scottish politicians (plus one doughty English QC, Jo Maugham) who took the UK Government to court before we could get an straight answer out of them.
How did we even get here? There was no majority for anything, so House of Commons organised a series of indicative votes (i.e. votes that weren’t binding on the Government) on a plethora of Brexit options. Some did better than others, but the most startling outcome was that the People’s Vote got the most votes on the day.
I’m not opposed to a People’s Vote, but it’s not an option preferable to a straightforward revocation. It would also require the UK Government to get all the legal paperwork done and signed off, and to be honest I’m not sure I see either Labour or the Conservatives stepping up.
The customs union fudges haven’t been ruled out, and could mean that the UK forms a decent goods-based trading relationship with the EU while circumventing some of the Irish border checks. But it wouldn’t be able to sign its much-vaunted independent trade deals around the world, and is largely meaningless for services. What does the UK mostly export? Services.
The Prime Minister promised to resign if her deal passed, cue barely-concealed whoops of delight from her colleagues, including Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, a man who’s spent the past four years picking out curtains for the drawing room of No. 10 Downing Street. Johnson performed an ungainly u-turn, announcing he was going to support the deal after spending months attacking it. His ERG colleague Jacob Rees-Mogg quickly fell in line, despite having previously declared he couldn’t support any deal opposed by the DUP. These aren’t men of principle – they’re men obsessed with power.
Even their support was not enough to get the PM’s deal over the line.
So what happens now? Well … it’s not clear. There is a chance of a referendum and the revocation of Article 50, and Labour are calling for a General Election, but the most likely outcome still seems to be some variation of Theresa May’s deal.
Too many politicians in the UK seem to have either never known or forgotten but to be clear, the UK can either face a no-deal, revoke Article 50, or sign May’s deal.
After this week I’ll say it again; they’re the same three options that have been on the table for what feels like years and yes, they are still the options we face.