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No Deal is in Sight

EU customs union
Written by Graham Gudgin

Alongside the resignation of Theresa May and the Euro-election results Graham Gudgin argues that another important event this week has been the publication of an article from the Institute of Government showing that a new Prime Minster will be in a position to achieve a no deal outcome for Brexit despite parliamentary opposition.

We have been told for weeks that a new Tory leader would make no difference because the parliamentary arithmetic would be unchanged. Parliament had voted against ‘no deal’ and would continue to do so in future under any conceivable new Tory leader. Today it looks quite different and these remainers are in sharp retreat. Those few Tory MPs who kept faith with opposing the Withdrawal Agreement, especially Steve Baker, are now vindicated for their courage and perspicacity. What has brought about this sea-change?

Firstly, the fount of all our troubles, Theresa May, is about to leave, and despite recent strong opposition from Tory MPs the most likely successor is Boris Johnson. This is a Dunkirk moment for the Tory party. Just as the Tory party accepted their bête noire Churchill in 1940 with the enemy at the gate, modern Tories need a leader who can see off Farage. It was Farage who secured the referendum in the first place and who played a key role in the referendum victory. Farage foresaw the Tory failure to leave the EU on March 29th and organised his revolt in good time. His Brexit party campaign has been well organised and well timed. Behind it of course are the loyal leavers who refused to be cowed by the Project Fear onslaught and who refuse to support a Tory party which will not or cannot make good their promise to leave the EU.

Nor should we forget the role of comrade Corbyn. Surrounded by a small loyal coterie of officials and advisors who are strong leavers, his amazing powers of obfuscation have kept the Keir Starmers and Tom Watsons at bay. The poor local election showing of Labour in northern and midland areas was enough to demonstrate that his evasive strategy of facing both ways was Labour’s only means of maintaining enough party unity to have a hope of general election victory. Sure, large numbers of Labour’s remainer voters are jumping ship to the (undemocratic) Liberal Democrats, but crucially Labour losses are much smaller than those of the Tories to the Brexit party. The Lib-Dems and Greens have picked up votes but their brazen attempt to overturn a legitimate national referendum with shallow arguments about ‘how much has changed since 2016’ will not be forgotten. Once Brexit is achieved it will be the taint of anti-democracy that stays with them.

Secondly, and importantly this week is analysis from Maddy Thimont Jack at the Institute for Government.  This argues that a new prime minister has it within his or her power to achieve no deal despite the current remainer majority in parliament. The link to this important article is given at the end of this piece, but it is summarised here for convenience.

Crucially, the Institute of Government argues that it is not possible to repeat the Cooper Amendment by which parliament forced the Government to seek an extension to avoid triggering no deal. The Cooper coup was achieved via a clause inserted into the meaningful vote on the Withdrawal Agreement. A new Prime Minister would however not need any further meaningful votes thus depriving remainers of the opportunity to take over the reins of government. Remainers could keep up the pressure with opposition day motions or emergency debates but these are non-binding. Only a motion of no confidence in the government would work for remainers. The Tories currently have enough votes to win such a vote but a new PM would need to work hard to ensure that no more Tories defect.

A new Tory leader can now do what should have been done from the start of the Article 50 process. As in any serious negotiation a credible bottom line is essential. In the Brexit negotiations it has always been obvious that the only credible bottom line was ‘no deal’. Without this the EU could impose their own terms and their negotiators did so in the Withdrawal Agreement. The UK remainer cry that Brussels will accept nothing else was of course correct as long as the Withdrawal Agreement remained on the table and Mrs May’s central failure was her refusal to remove it despite historic defeats in parliament.

A new leader must immediately tell Brussels that the Agreement is as dead as Monty Python’s famous parrot and that their choice now is a revised deal or no deal. A revised deal can be the Brady amendment (the only option to actual secure a parliamentary majority) offering to retain two thirds of the Withdrawal Agreement as long as the Irish backstop is removed. A new leader can respect existing promises to avoid a hard land border in Ireland (something the DUP is as keen on as everyone else) and to maintain existing levels of cross-border governmental co-operation in Ireland.

The Nicky Morgan-Greg Hands Parliamentary Commission on Alternative Arrangements for the Irish border is hard at work on examining how technical and technological processes can achieve these aims in Ireland without the sledgehammer of remaining in a Customs Union and Single Market. This is a task that the British government and civil service should have undertaken years ago but for whatever reasons did not do so.

The Commission’s report will be completed in time for the new Prime Minister’s first day in office. He or she can then present these proposals to Brussels as practical and good faith alternatives to the backstop. With a new EU parliament, and a new EU Commission without Jean-Claude Juncker, there is hope that a new start can be achieved. The German Government is likely to want a pragmatic solution to get Brexit off their backs. A solution will allow them to focus on other pressing issues without significant damage to a German car industry already facing the threat of 25% tariffs from President Trump. The new UK Government can exploit these concerns to renegotiate the Political Declaration around a mutually advantageous the free-trade agreement which Brussels offered early in the negotiations.

The collapse of the remainer revolt and the re-emergence of no deal as a serious UK policy proposal has been sudden and was not easy to predict. We can expect a ferocious fight-back in parliament as the remainer ship goes down. The task now for leavers is to underpin this fortuitous turn of events with high-quality evidence showing that no deal will not impose serious damage on the UK economy. This is the truth of the matter and those of us who have always believed that the truth will out now need to ensure that the suppression of these truths cannot continue.

Lord Lilley has explained in detail why no deal is not now a serious danger to the economy and we have done so in as series of articles on this site. John Mills of Labour Leave is about to launch a pamphlet bringing these arguments up to date. The BBC’s practice of never questioning the continuous assertions that no deal will be a catastrophe must end under pressure from No 10. It is now all hands to the pumps to explain why a free-trade deal is our best option and why remaining inside a customs union and single market is both unnecessary to achieve close to frictionless borders (not least in Ireland) and also damaging to our future as a sovereign nation forging its own trade policy. 

Graham Gudgin is co-editor of Briefings for Brexit, and a member of the technical panel of the Commission on Alternative Arrangements for the Irish border, chaired by Greg Hands and Nicky Morgan and the DEXEU Ministerial Group on Alternative Arrangements chaired by Stephen Barclay.

The Institute of Government article can be obtained at:

https://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/blog/new-prime-minister-intent-no-deal-brexit-cant-be-stopped-mps-0

About the author

Graham Gudgin