Brexit on a knife-edge as Johnson forced to wait for approval
Super Saturday was meant to be the historic day when a triumphant Boris Johnson, fresh from signing a deal with the EU and glad-handing all the European leaders in a festival of smiles and good humor, would stand and deliver his great deal. Instead it turned into a weekend whimper.
You would have to trawl through decades of EU Council archives to find a time when a British premier was last at the epicenter of such an enthusiastic throng of European heads. Wags and cynics opine that this was probably a sign of huge relief and that they could not wait to see the back of the man who has acted as chief cheerleader for Brexit.
Saturday’s was the first weekend sitting of the House of Commons since the Falklands War in 1982. MPs had just 48 hours to review the text of Johnson’s deal. The aim was to pass it in a meaningful vote so that the so-called Benn Act would not come into play. But no stage of Brexit has been that easy, and too many MPs know all the tricks of the trade. A backbench Conservative, Sir Oliver Letwin, put down an amendment that passed by 322 votes to 306. It stipulated that approval would be withheld until all the necessary legislation to exit the EU with a deal had also been passed. Basically, there is zero trust in the arch-Brexiteers; no faith that historic conventions of political life will be followed and that, further down the line, a deal will be scotched to get a no-deal outcome. Brexiteers and Remainers act like warring gangs.
Having promised he would prefer to “die in a ditch” than send a “surrender” letter to Brussels, Johnson sort-of complied with the letter, if not the spirit, of the Benn Act (a matter the courts will be examining). He sent not one but three letters to Brussels. One was the text as stipulated in the act, photocopied and unsigned (politics has sunk to this level). The other two were basically to insist that the government did not agree with the request to seek an extension until Jan. 31, 2020. It exposed the extent to which the government is at odds with Parliament.
Every week, one wonders if we are getting any more clarity. Every step forward seems inevitably to be accompanied by several additional new options or alternatives. A full withdrawal bill should be presented on Tuesday. At some point, and it may not be immediate, the European leaders will have to decide if they will grant the requested extension. One largely inconsequential backbench MP was even trying to lobby Poland to veto any extension.
The Johnson strategy is to narrow the choice down to his deal or a no-deal exit. Instead of trying to put the frighteners on the EU, he is now targeting wavering MPs in his party and Labour MPs who represent leave-voting constituencies. In this, he received favorable noises from President Emmanuel Macron of France and outgoing EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who both declared that they saw no reason for an extension.
Is the deal an improvement on the Theresa May version? It depends on who is reading it. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) opposes it as it establishes a customs border in the Irish Sea, making Northern Ireland appear different from the rest of the UK. Yet, for the citizens of Northern Ireland, it does mean no hard border and the Northern Ireland Assembly can vote to end the arrangement every four years. Still the DUP feels bitter and sold out.
The Labour Party sees the deal as worse than its predecessor. May had promised a future relationship underpinned by a “level playing field” with the EU, but Johnson only wants a free trade deal. Right-wing Conservatives do not want to be shackled by EU standards and legislation, while the left fears this would mean a dilution of environmental standards and workers’ rights. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said he feared it would “risk triggering a race to the bottom on rights and protections.”
Every step forward seems inevitably to be accompanied by several additional new options or alternatives.
The Scottish National Party feels the same but is also pushing ever harder for an independence referendum for Scotland. Who would bet against Scotland leaving the United Kingdom should a vote be granted?
Those willing to compromise can live with the deal. This might just mean that it will scrape over the line. But, like the 2016 referendum vote, it will be extremely tight.
However, there is a final fly in the legislative ointment. The withdrawal bill could be amended multiple times. Among the options being considered are motions to insist that there is a confirmatory referendum, meaning the electorate would have the final decision on approving or rejecting the deal.
Maybe a deal will be the only way to move forward, albeit with another 12 to 14 months of stiff and bitter negotiations on a future EU-UK trade deal. Yet if an extension would permit better scrutiny and even democratic endorsement, the agreement would be stronger for it. The risk is that the near-universal fatigue with Brexit leads to an imperfect and half-baked deal shoved through Parliament in haste, which the country will repent at leisure.
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding. Twitter: @Doylech