ON Friday 29 March, Britain should have left the EU, by domestic law, manifesto commitments, and policy commitments. Yet Parliament has effectively ruled out Brexit by ruling out leaving ‘without a deal’. The only ‘deal’ that Parliament considered that day was Theresa May’s proposed Withdrawal Agreement – which would be to leave nominally but not practically. Parliamentarians are turning towards more delay and less Brexit than even May was offering, like horses that refuse an open door, put on blinkers, and gallop back into the burning stable.
By the terms of the extension that May agreed with the EU last week, and the amendment to the EU Withdrawal Act that Parliament voted this week, only three scenarios are possible:
1. Real Brexit (the prejudicially-termed ‘no deal’): Britain leaves the EU on 12 April, without any Withdrawal Agreement, returning to a relationship governed by WTO rules and UK-EU roll-overs of current arrangements, such as air traffic regulations.
2. Purgatory (May’s fake ‘deal’): May gets her Withdrawal Agreement approved within the next two weeks, unlocking a longer extension, up to 22 May, when Britain would nominally leave the EU, in favour of a purgatory that would end only with the EU’s permission. The EU would release Britain only if Britain revoked Brexit or agreed an even worse arrangement, next to which re-joining the EU would seem preferable.
3. Extended membership: Theresa May and the EU agree another extension, beyond 12 April, including participation in European elections, which the EU could easily leverage to insist on extended membership for the duration of the next European Parliament, i.e., five years. MPs would offer such pointless alternatives or fake compromises (such as staying in the Customs Union or Common Market, which entail each other) that the people would prefer membership.
Of these three scenarios, returning to a WTO relationship on 12 April would be the closest fulfilment of the popular vote of June 2016 and the quickest end to the socio-economic crisis. Unfortunately, the best outcome is the least likely.
The likeliest scenario is a second extension of the Article 50 clock before 12 April. This clock should have expired on Friday, two years after May petitioned to leave the EU, a petition which itself was lodged eight months later than it could have been, making a total of 32 wasted months since the referendum. Two weeks ago, MPs voted for either a three-month extension if May’s proposal were approved, or an ‘indefinite’ extension if May’s proposal were not approved (‘indefinite’ was generally explained at the time as up to two years). Most MPs ignorantly, dogmatically think that returning to a WTO relationship is scarier than indefinite purgatory. On Friday, Parliamentarians voted down May’s particular offer of purgatory, but streamed out of the House to tell journalists that they must have an extension. Thus, May should have no trouble persuading Parliament to approve a second similar extension, without deadlines, schedules, oversight or review.
The EU would need to agree, but why wouldn’t it? The EU’s apologists whine about the EU’s frustrations, but extension is a way of keeping Britain as a member, agreement serves the EU’s pretence that it is the good guy, and extended uncertainty serves the EU’s mission to deter other potential leavers.
Within that longer period of extension, May will re-present her proposed Withdrawal Agreement. On Friday, she immediately said she would seek another extension, so that the House would have more time to agree an alternative or her proposal. Yes, she really means to re-present her proposal a fourth time, even though, as I have explained before, re-presentations are unconstitutional, egotistical, manipulative and wasteful.
These re-presentations just waste more time (more than four months since she revealed her proposal) that could have been used to renegotiate a deal or prepare for Brexit.
May is manipulative because she kept reducing the time and the options until the alternatives look more like Remain.
She is egotistical because her only interest in forcing her proposal is to stand down with something she can call a political achievement, however bad for the country.
Re-presenting her proposal is unconstitutional because a motion should be changed or binned after first failure (January). She pretended on the second presentation (mid-March) to have negotiated an addendum that guaranteed Britain’s unilateral right of withdrawal, but the addendum confirmed the EU’s veto. She pretended on the third presentation (29 March) that detaching the Political Declaration was a change, to which the Speaker of the House agreed, for the political convenience of Remainers, who thought that another defeat would make their alternatives look stronger. On this precedent, May can re-present for a fourth time by inserting a comma.
Parliament is unlikely to approve her proposal because on Wednesday it started debating its own alternatives. Having set the precedent for deciding policy for itself, outside government, Parliament isn’t going to give up such a seductive power. On Wednesday, even though Parliament did not vote in favour of any of eight alternatives, the Speaker agreed to further rounds, starting tomorrow.
Parliament’s alternatives look more like Remaining than even May’s proposal. Any of Wednesday’s top five (the alternative labelled ‘no deal’ came sixth) would end back in membership, because Britain would gain nothing by signing in to the customs union or single market without being a member of the whole union.
Parliament accelerated towards Remain on the same day that protesters took over Parliament Square. They were ignored except by a few Brexiteer MPs. How can Brexiteers influence matters?
They can plan to stand in the European Parliamentary elections and British local council elections in May, but they won’t outnumber the EU ideologues in Brussels, and local councils have no influence on national Parliament. Brexiteers can hope for a general election, but the Conservative majority won’t allow it while their party’s approval is at record lows and the opposition is Marxist, and the first-past-the-post system favours the incumbents.
In the next months, Parliament could set Britain into irreversible purgatory. Given such a short period, and given Parliament’s acceleration away from democratic responsibilities to supranational surrender, sadly, the only influence I can recommend is civil disobedience: close Parliament Square to traffic, slow down the motorways, blockade the ports, stop paying your taxes, organise a general strike, and de-select Remainer MPs, until Parliamentarians implement the referendum result, their party manifestos, and the EU Withdrawal Act.