I’m disgusted by the Brexit antics at Westminster

AFTER last night, my dismay for Westminster is verging on disgust at the vain, shallow, self-regarding antics we’ve seen coming out of that place.

I know there’s a lot of decent sorts in there trying to fix this, apalled at where they are, but they’re pushing against a boulder of intransigence, trying to do the impossible – make a success of Brexit.

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First published in The National, 3 April 2019

To recap: Theresa May triggered Article 50 without a plan, and then was so focused on out-Brexiting the Brexiters that she waved through everything the EU proposed on how the talks should go, crucially that first we had to approve the exit, and then start talks on what comes next.

These were the first two mistakes and every agony our gallant MPs are experiencing stems from them, so anyone complaining about it who voted for Article 50 can away and behave themselves.

After two years of faffing about she has negotiated her “deal” – the Withdrawal Agreement. It deals with three heads: settling the UK’s debts, citizens’ rights, and Northern Ireland, which has a special status (that if alternative arrangements to respect the Good Friday Agreement and keep the border open and frictionless cannot be negotiated in the next two years then it will remain within the EU). Crucially, if the orderly exit is agreed then we enter into a transition period, where we will continue to enjoy EU rights and obligations, while the next phase of the talks: the future relationship, commence.

The idea that May’s deal gives us any “certainty” is the sort of certainty guaranteed by jumping out a plane and hoping you can knit a parachute on the way down. The exit is the easy bit – was anyone aside from a few dunces suggesting we should not settle our debts? Not respect the Good Friday Agreement and peace in Northern Ireland? Not ensure citizens have as much certainty as possible? This was the easy bit and what comes next, sorry kids, will be tenfold more complex and will involve real choices, not the phoney process story we have seen to date.

What on earth have the MPs been voting on? Why are they all in grave tones intoning about the need for the House to unite? They are trying (and so far failing) to unite around some sort of vision for the future relationship, which will be accommodated into the document ancillary to the Withdrawal Agreement, the Political Declaration.

Look it up – it may not be long but it’s almost entirely in the conditional tense. It is not worthless, but it has no value as a contract at all and is a series of aspirations that may, or may not, be met. Goodness knows who the Prime Minister will be by the time those negotiations start, and goodness knows how they will be delivered.

I find the spectacle, and it is a spectacle, of the MPs belatedly working out how this all works to be an infuriating one. Whatever option they unite around does not matter a damn. It will be as aspirational as everything else in the Political Declaration because the Withdrawal Agreement is not being re-opened.

They have three choices: accept May’s deal (with whatever bells and whistles in the Political Declaration gets them over the line); revoke Article 50 through a referendum or directly from the UK Parliament, or crash out with no deal.

Michel Barnier in a meeting at my committee yesterday confirmed that the Political Declaration can easily be amended to accommodate any aspiration, once there is a settled will of the House. But ... so what? It will be as meaningless as every other aspiration and any MP kidding themselves that it matters a damn does themselves and their constituents a grave disservice.

Because it will fall apart within days of the negotiations starting. The EU has already marshalled the battalions of negotiators into position and the Brexiters have poisoned the well. Once the UK is out, the doors will close. It is possible to keep lots of things we’re about to lose but the template the EU will be operating to is, I’ve heard from several sources, “pretty much like Norway” in that the financial arrangements will be basically “one pound in, one pound out.” Norway pays per capita far more than the UK does. Not only will we pay more for a worse deal, but we’ll also have to argue hard for it. I have zero faith that UK politics has the capacity or political maturity to do so.

So no deal is unconscionable, everyone agrees that, but again, the fact that the House of Commons has voted against it does not matter a damn in the real world. It will happen anyway by automatic operation of law unless something else is placed in its way.

Our only real option is to revoke Article 50 either now or after a referendum, my preference would be now. The “Scottish Six” court case established that the UK Parliament can do this unilaterally, and there’s nothing standing in the way but British stubborness masquerading as statesmanship.

The discussion would continue, but the pressure would be vented. Otherwise Westminster is going to blow up and take us all with it.