Strong and stable

To the surprise of no-one, Theresa May won last night’s confidence vote by 200 votes to 117. Equally unsurprisingly, the leaders of the other 27 EU countries have welcomed her survival, but are not going to re-open the withdrawal negotiations. As far as they are concerned, the deal is agreed, needs to be ratified before the end of March and needs to be in place before the European Parliament elections in May.

May’s problem remains unchanged: She failed to build any sort of consensus over Brexit in the early part of her premiership by pandering to the extreme wing of the Tory party. By the time she realised how damaging and incoherent her initial position had been, divisions had become so entrenched that any hope of agreement had long gone.

The agreement she has reached is probably the best way out of the mess she created, but it satisfies no-one and, crucially, no-one feels under any obligation to support it.

So for all the hyperventilating in the press, nothing has changed. Possibly.

For the past two years, May, like many Conservative leaders before her has been running scared of the hardliners in her own party. But now they have shown their hand and confirmed both that they will never support her and they are unable to bring her down. So now she has an opportunity to face them down. There are several things she could do.

Firstly, she should come clean about the fact that neither she, nor anyone else, is going to achieve any significant changes to the Withdrawal agreement and that the Irish backstop is necessary because of her own red lines.

Given these facts, and her evident commitment to the deal she has struck, May’s most obvious course of action would be to call a referendum with a straightforward choice: ‘My deal or Remain’. The Moggites will kick up a fuss, of course, but they have demonstrated that they can’t put up. So she should have the confidence — and does have the support within her party — to tell them to shut up. I know she’s always dismissed having another referendum out of hand, but one more u-turn isn’t going to make much difference for her.

Alternatively, she could leave the deal as is, and announce that she wants to achieve the so-called Norway Plus relationship with the EU. This might require some changes to the political declaration, but this could be easily done and allows her to stay consistent with her repeated assertion that Parliament must deliver on the referendum result. Of course, she would have to abandon her hostility to freedom of movement, but this is another red line that is causing her problems while winning her no friends.

Personally, I think it would be better for Parliament to admit that the claims made by the Brexit bunch during the referendum were, at best, inconsistent and delusional, that the promised benefits of Brexit are unachievable, that the whole thing should be called off, and then revoke the Article 50 notification. Realistically, I don’t see this happening — it would require a little too much taking back of control for Parliament.

Either of these scenarios would involve May recognising that the Brexit wing of her party will never be satisfied and cannot be relied upon. She would, therefore, need to build a Parliamentary consensus across sane Tories, the moderate wing of the Labour party, the SNP, the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and the Green. Even the DUP may support the Norway option since it avoids crossing their red line of no divergence between Norther Ireland and the rest of the UK.

The numbers are there and enough MPs are worried enough about the consequences of Brexit that a sufficiently skilled and patient parliamentarian could assemble a cross-party majority specifically to avoid the rapidly approaching cliff edge.

Is Theresa May the leader to achieve this?

Probably not.

Swiss Brexit

Paul Walter makes a valid point:

The problem is that once we start doing referendums, then we need to go the whole hog and do it like the Swiss.

As the above quote suggests, it would be very usual for the Swiss to have a referendum on the deal to leave the EU, even after having voted initially to leave the EU. It is part of the Swiss process.

I am not fond of referenda but, if you do want to use them as part of the decision-making process, then you need to climb fully on board with the process. Britain voted to leave the EU and the government triggered Article 50 (way too soon, in my opinion) in order to start the process. Now that the withdrawal agreement has been negotiated, it is perfectly reasonable to go back to the electorate to ask whether this is the Brexit they wanted.

Doing so has the additional advantage of actually forcing a decision to be made. Parliament can’t decide, and May has responded by delaying in the hope that something might turn up.

Nothing is going to turn up. The deal is the deal and there is no time to negotiate something new. If nothing changes before the end of March then Britain will crash out of the EU with no deal at all.

Quote of the Day: An unsettled future

Far from the referendum having ‘settled the European issue for a generation’ this will leave it unsettled for a generation. A vote to leave always had that danger, but a practically workable and politically consensual soft Brexit would have minimised it. Instead, the government’s initial embrace of hard Brexit and the subsequent backtracks in the face of its predictable and predicted unworkability have created an intractable mess that dooms us to years of political bitterness and economic limbo.

Chris Grey

Quote of the Day: The cult of the faithful

No doubt both have always been in some degree present – and it would be a soulless politics indeed that was purely technocratic. But it becomes extremely problematic when feeling and sentiment completely swamp rationality and evidence. That is not just because it creates unworkable policy but because it becomes self-re-enforcing: the more the policy fails, the greater the belief that with more faith it would work. It’s not just that it isn’t evidence-based or even that it is evidence-immune, it is that it thrives on evidence that contradicts it.

Chris Grey on the collision between technocratic politics based upon rational argument and evidence, and faith-based politics based upon feeling and sentiment

The Will of the People

Much is made by the Brexit bunch that the 2016 referendum represents the will of the people and must, therefore, be implemented. The same people, however, are shockingly averse to any effort to establish what the people actually want from Brexit. Now Charlene Rohr, David Howarth and Jonathan Grant have done the legwork.

But our study of what people value about the EU does tell us. And we find that their priorities map most squarely onto a Norway-style model for future relations with the EU.

People place a high value on having access to the EU markets for trade in goods and services. They like the option for the UK to be able to make its own trade deals. They also value that the UK is able to make its own laws, but not as much as access to the single market or the ability to make trade deals. They worry about freedom of movement, but mostly because of concerns about demand for public services. They strongly dislike the idea of having to get a visa to travel for their holidays.

I touched on the issue of access to public services some time ago. In short, every other EU country restricts access to benefits; the reason Britain doesn’t is that the Department of Work and Pensions IT systems are old, broken and not fit for purpose.