On Tuesday, Parliament voted to hold the Government in “contempt” over the failure to publish the Attorney General’s legal advice on the PM’s deal. A more quick-footed government would have conceded rather than allowing it to go to the vote.
Then, led by the former Attorney General and Conservative MP, Dominic Grieve, Parliament voted to start what is seen as a process of ‘taking a controlling hand’ in the aftermath of next week’s vote on Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement, always supposing that it goes ahead!
But ‘taking control’ is a misnomer. There is frankly no majority in the Commons which is why the options increasingly look like a no deal Brexit – where we crash out – or a second referendum.
The first would be catastrophic. The second, although attractive to those of us who voted to stay in, would be deeply problematic for the bulk of the 17.4 million people who, two and a half years ago, voted to come out. There is no guarantee of a change of heart.
A second referendum, which could stabilise the British economy and our future, would not reinforce the competence of Parliament but instead demonstrate the total inadequacy of our present democratic process. After all, Parliament was supposed to be carrying through the instruction of the people.
Between the two extremes, we have two opposites. The first is the Labour position – under the guise of a deal similar to that currently operated by Norway – that effectively ensures that we would be in a Customs Union in perpetuity and have access to the Single Market. Of course, we would continue to pay in and to take the rules.
Opposing that, and this applies to most Conservatives who are against Theresa May’s deal, is the argument that we must not be bound into a customs deal longer than the transition period, and out of the Single Market.
What unites all those except the ardent Brexiteers is the fear of ‘no deal’, which on every possible financial and business calculation would be a disaster for the UK from which it would take decades to recover.
As Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, has pointed out, and as the Treasury’s own assessment reinforced, you can’t expect to leave and continue to gain from the integral economic relationship we have with 27 other countries and around 500 million consumers. This should give pause for thought to the ardent Brexiteers who want out at any cost.
So, who does that leave? Well, a combination of Conservative MPs with varying degrees of enthusiasm for the deal, and perhaps from other parties just a few who, at this stage, are prepared to face the antagonism (and much more) of some colleagues by voting for the agreement.
I say ‘at this stage’ because, let’s face it, voting down the agreement on Tuesday night is not the end of the story – it’s not even the beginning of the end. Some – and this appears to encompass the leadership of the Labour Party – hope that an immediate vote of no-confidence will trigger a General Election. Dream on.
It is true that Sir Keir Starmer and his team, including Paul Blomfield from Sheffield Central, have played a very canny hand. Their position, however, would leave the problem of the Northern Ireland border unresolved, the possibility of freedom of movement still in place and payments in the long term over and above the ‘divorce settlement’. Try selling that on the doorstep outside London in any forthcoming General Election.
After any no-confidence motion has been moved and presumably lost, the Democratic Unionists are not going to put the Labour Party into power. A General Election isn’t going to happen and – when it doesn’t – someone has got to pick up the pieces.
That someone has to be individual MPs who start to think through what the consequences will be with just three months to go before Britain actually does leave the European Union.
Yes, we leave on March 29 next year – and the vast majority of MPs actually voted for this – and yet what we are still arguing about is the transition from where we are to where we might pick up the pieces for the second round of negotiations.
It is complex because, frankly, it is a total mess. The Prime Minister may be an extremely awkward woman, she may have little empathy with what goes on in the real world of the lives of the people that I have cared about all my life. She may not be very good at handling her own party but, by God, she’s done her best. She was dealt an impossible a hand, not only by the British people themselves in the referendum, but by her own party and, above all, Northern Ireland’s DUP whose support and backing she should have been able to count on.
It may be possible to tweak a little the agreement reached, to do something more imaginative and creative than the present Northern Ireland ‘backstop’. Backroom talks with the Republic of Ireland might yield a way through because the other 26 members of the EU will back one of their own. But in the end, a deal must be done and quickly.
In my view, a deal could not be very different – even with a change of government. It really is time to say it: have your moment on Tuesday night but then ‘get real’ because our country deserves better than the manoeuvrings of the moment.
Yes, I regret that the transition deal is not better but Theresa May, who may well be sacrificed once an agreement has been ratified, will be remembered more kindly in years to come than anyone at the moment can envisage.
And if I’m wrong? Well, tell me which of the alternatives will succeed? When, and with whom at the helm? And who has the statecraft and the stature to carry it through?
David Blunkett is a Labour peer from Sheffield who held three senior Cabinet posts – including Home Secretary – in Tony Blair’s government.