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Brexiteers Must Not Snatch Humiliation from the Jaws of May’s Defeat

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Written by Caroline Bell

Caroline Bell argues that there is no need to snatch humiliation from the jaws of May’s defeat by supporting the appalling Withdrawal Agreement now.

We are now approaching the moment of peak Brexit lunacy, when previously sane MPs who rejected – for very sound reasons – the vassalage represented by Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement, are apparently willing to back it because “otherwise Brexit will never happen”.

Why should a draft treaty that ties the hands of this and all future governments behind their backs in matters regarding the EU be any more acceptable now than it was for “Meaningless” Votes 1 and 2? Why would anyone who truly believes in self-government and plural democracy support an agreement which drives a coach and horses through the very foundation of our constitution, as the Withdrawal Agreement does?

Brexit – with or without the EU’s agreement – is scheduled to happen by law at 11 p.m. on Friday 29 March 2019. The only way that can be stopped is by ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement, which requires the repeal of Exit Day, or by further legislation to change Exit Day (by extending Article 50, for example). In each case, MPs have a vote. And in each case, time is on the side of a clean Brexit on WTO terms so long as MPs remain committed to the position they have held up to now.

Non-binding amendments and motions in the House of Commons may make for a lot of media exposure and an inordinate amount of misinformation in the press, but they do not change the law. Not only does parliamentary procedure make it extremely difficult to change Exit Day, but the political risk of either backing May’s dreadful deal or an extension to Article 50, is much higher than voting for an amendment to a motion which the government is not bound to act upon. Any MP in a Leave constituency who surrenders to Project Fear at this late stage must be prepared to face the electoral consequences.

The only thing Brexiteers need to do is hold firm. Nothing has changed since last November when the Withdrawal Agreement was first published. Nothing was ever meant to change. We have arrived at this point precisely as intended by the apparently bland and plausible-sounding Theresa May and Philip Hammond when they tore up a credible UK Brexit strategy last June and stuck a BRINO beast known as “Chequers” on the table.

Ministers resigned over that Downing Street coup with good reason. Further resignations followed in November 2018 when the Withdrawal Agreement was presented as a fait accompli to ministers who were supposed to have been overseeing it. It was, of course, negotiated behind their backs by Ollie Robbins acting under the direct orders of Theresa May’s inner cabinet of Remainer ministers.

Last week’s announcement of the UK’s temporary Brexit tariff and contingency measures for the Northern Ireland border and easements for Channel ports, as well as agreements on visa-free travel, flights and financial services, amongst others, show that a full Brexit on WTO terms is quite deliverable. It may be news to some MPs, but that is precisely what most voters understood would happen when they voted to leave the EU. No one voted for the EU’s permission to leave. They voted to take back control of our borders, laws and money.

Voting for Theresa May’s “Withdrawal” Agreement guarantees perpetual subjection to the EU, the death of our democratic government and an immediate commitment to pay hard-earned UK taxpayers’ money to Brussels for an indeterminate number of years – the full amount is likely to be far in excess of the £39 billion touted in the press.

And this is in return for obeying all existing and new EU law, allowing the EU to prosecute and fine us, remaining in a customs union and accepting EU control of our economy, including fisheries and agriculture. It is pay with no say.

Any extension to Article 50 carries the same financial implications – which are very unpalatable at a cool £18 billion a year to the EU’s main budget (let’s not go into other EU agencies and programmes which we fund). A commitment to pay the 2019 EU budget contribution needs to be made by the government by mid-April, so it is clear where the impetus for delay is really coming from.

The UK is perfectly capable of managing a WTO Brexit. Cross-Whitehall emergency command teams have already been established by the Cabinet Office in order to provide a rapid solution – technical, practical or legislative – to solve any problems due to the change over to domestic and international law. Their remit is to ensure that trade keeps flowing. A WTO Brexit is far preferable to the vassalage represented by the Withdrawal Agreement. It leaves our options open for a future free trade agreement instead of the political union envisaged by May’s ‘deal’ and restores all the negotiating leverage so unnecessarily surrendered by the prime minister.

So there is only one sensible response – the “do nothing” option. And then Brexit will happen, as mandated by law, on 29 March.

MPs who believe in the future of this country and in honouring their manifesto commitments should hang tough for the next eleven days. They should not be fooled by promises that May will resign (she won’t, or at least, not unless she has made sure Philip Hammond replaces her in Number 10 to deliver full BRINO), or that we can unilaterally break our word in international law and not suffer the consequences (we can’t). Brexit will happen if it is allowed to happen.

There is no need to snatch humiliation from the jaws of May’s defeat by supporting the appalling Withdrawal Agreement now.

About the author

Caroline Bell