If we can congratulate Cabinet members on nothing else this morning, we can at least do so on their ability to speed read under pressure. In less than a morning, they somehow managed to master all 585 pages of the Brexit Draft Withdrawal Agreement, all without recourse to independent legal advice. Plus the seven pages of the Outline Political Declaration – a mere bagatelle by comparison. Yes, that’s right. The Government wants us to hand over the best part of £40 billion for fewer than ten pages of unenforceable text. And our future negotiating leverage into the bargain.
But let’s stick for the moment to the Withdrawal Agreement. Don’t judge it before you’ve read it, its backers said yesterday. That they were already supporters betrays that they had made a judgement themselves. By the same token, they should have conceded that reading a document of that length takes rather more than a few hours. None the less, we will take their advice. Unlike a mass of newspapers and commentators, we do not pretend to have done so in full.
So we will make no comment for the moment on whether the Northern Ireland backstop has survived, with its implications for Scotland and the Union. On the UK-wide or Great Britain backstop, and whether the latter can practicably leave it, de facto if not de jure – with all the consequences that has for our freedom to strike trade deals worldwide. On whether that seven page declaration points towards Chequers, Canada, Cheqada – or anything bankable at all (and if there are any safeguards for the money). Above all, on whether the whole package leaves us, in that neat reversal of William Hague’s famous saying, out of Europe, but run by Europe. Or on, if you prefer George Osborne’s brilliantly malicious assessment yesterday, whether or not the EU has Taken Back Control.
We will pause to make only one observation. Theresa May’s claim that the agreement would allow us to take back that control – of borders, law and money – is already under siege, at least as far as its second part is concerned. Paul Waugh of the Huffington Post has already found 63 references to the European Court of Justice in the draft. Ending its jurisdiction was at the heart of the EU referendum result. The Conservative Manifesto committed the Party to it, not that most of its members need any persuading.
Where Waugh has trod, others will follow. As we write, Martin Howe will be pouring himself another cup of strong black coffee, surrounded by gutted candles and legal tomes. He will have laboured overnight to craft his assessment. So will others. By lunchtime, the Withdrawal Agreement will have been wrenched open, gutted, filletted, and its innards displayed to the world. One thing is certain: bits of these will not look very appetising. The Prime Minister will have passed them over in her statement yesterday evening. One senior ERG member told this site yesterday that the agreement is like a Budget that will unravel on day two.
We are not at all sure that he is right. This morning, it looks rather more like one of those Budgets that went to pieces on day one. Today’s splash headlines make bleak reading for Downing Street. How could they not given the Cabinet’s verdict, which is all over them, and on the inside pages too? Dominic Raab was palpably unhappy. Geoffrey Cox compared the agreement to a life raft made up of oil drums and a plastic sail. Michael Gove thinks it is bad, but that no deal would be worse. Sajid Javid and Jeremy Hunt pushed at May to take if back to the EU for re-drafting. Liam Fox dislikes the backstop. Penny Mordaunt wants a free vote, so that she can oppose the agreement. Esther McVey actually called for a vote, clashing with the Chief Whip and the Cabinet Secretary. How on earth can any of the disconted third of the Cabinet, or more, look voters in the eye and claim they are content with it? How can they go out and sell it? It is significant that, yesterday evening, none of them were due to take to the airwaves this morning.
One last point on that Cabinet meeting. Reporting of it has tended to divide members up into supporters and opponents of the agreement. This is understandable, but flawed. The Cabinet makes, as the Prime Minister said yesterday, collective decisions. And as McVey has discovered, it does not vote. Nor do its members shape the minutes. If its members are unhappy, they must either wait to be cheered up, or resign. Those whose discontent spills over into opposition, like McVey, have not quit – so far. Do they really intend to stay in office, hoping perhaps that the agreement collapses, or that the Commons votes it down, saying nothing about it at all? Such a position would be worse than dishonourable, in a manner of speaking. It would be ridiculous.
By then, events may well have overtaken them. Perhaps Graham Brady will announce today that he has received 48 letters, and that a confidence ballot in Theresa May must be held. Maybe he will not. Perhaps it will come later, or not at all. But if it does, and she wins it convincingly, her troubles will be far from over. As matters stand, it is very unlikely that the agreement can get through the Commons. Even if she survives a ballot, she might not be able to survive that. The combination of a future Commons vote on the agreement and aleadership contest, ushering in a new Prime Minister, would be like a cutting-edge experiment with two new chemicals. There is simply no knowing what it would bring. We believe that a Conservative Prime Minister, faced with this Commons, can carry through Brexit if intent on it – even a no deal one, given the legislative state of play. But it is possible that the mix could blow the laboratory roof off.
Our position on May’s leadership is well-known. Like our members’ panel, we believe that she should not lead the Party into the next election. Enraged Brexiteer MPs are itching to get her out now. The sum of their view is that there is a lie at the heart of her policy – that she does not believe her own words; that no deal is better than a bad deal. For this reason, they say, we are not properly prepared. Downing Street and the Treasury have dragged their feet, and conspired to spring a new choice on the Cabinet yesterday: May’s Deal, a chaotic No Deal, or No Brexit.
One doesn’t have to take a view on the agreement before aceepting their point. But they should reflect that changing the Prime Minister, in itself, would solve nothing. A new Conservative leader would face the same old Commons. He or she would need a new plan – Canada, plus or minus those three pluses; Nick Boles’ Norway-for-Now; or perhaps a transition to No Deal, as proposed by some Cabinet Ministers. And given the numbers in the Commons, logic also points to a general election, sooner rather than later, to get a majority for change. That runs the risk of a Corbyn Government – and, more pressingly as far as some Tory MPs are concerned, the loss of their seats.
Some Leavers will be tempted to join many Remainers, and say that this humbling pass, this evident humiliation of May’s leadership and of British statecraft, is the inevitable consequence of Brexit. Our response is uncompromising. The British people are entitled to vote to leave the European Union. If they were now to be told that they can’t, because our politicians aren’t up to negotiating it; or the commanding heights of our institutions are against it; or government is incapable of planning for it – in short, that they must “come to heel”, in John Kerr’s illuminating phrase – what would that say to the British people about the state of our liberal demcracy and parliamentary government? The potential consequences are so far-reaching that there is no need to spell them out.
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