I was tasked with writing something about the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) agreed between the UK and EU recently. I had struggled through the often repetitive draft, all 585 pages of it, so deferred my article until it had been debated, amended and taken back to Brussels for EU approval. Then I deferred again, this time to wait for the ‘meaningful vote’ on 11 December. That was postponed, now there is a promise it will be debated to conclusion of the cut short five days of debate, to be voted on by 21 January. There are constitutional experts saying it could actually be 28 March, some others said even later.
Does one laugh or cry!
When I was first asked to write about the WA a few weeks back I took it seriously. In the passage of time since I have decided to preserve my sanity I would have to treat the topic somewhat satirically. In fact, the collective insanity of government and so-called opposition in the UK parliament drove me so far up a mental wall trying to cope with what they were doing that being able to laugh is actually a useful survival tool. So to Brexit, WA and other components of the UK’s bid at geopolitical suicide. Bear in mind readers, if you can’t laugh you might need to cry.
For a while in all discussions I have had with close observers of Brexit, I have expressed an opinion about what is happening. My view has been that May has had more escapes than Harry Houdini, but I do bear in mind that he eventually ran out of luck when he invited somebody to punch his stomach several times to show that he could resist the blows. They ruptured his appendix; he became ill and died of peritonitis within days. Is May walking toward her rupture as I write? There are rumours that 48 letters have been or will be placed in the hands of Graham Brady, the chair of the backbench 1922 Committee, demanding a vote of no confidence in Theresa May as party leader. There are several historic precedents, but there is the possibility that even if they win she could refuse to stand down. That has never happened. So now, if the letters are submitted, the vote itself could yet fail. The crop of candidates for her job is hardly good news for anybody. So perhaps out of the frying pan into the fire. I shall intervene to stop myself to catch up as that develops.
The plan of action
The plan of action, if one can excuse me using an oxymoron, always seems to have been that May is a mistress of obfuscation. What has happened now is a convenient delay and news being leaked from Westminster about what is going on, such as EU officials told the vote would be postponed before MPs and even some of her cabinet and the fact that what she is at present trying to sell to EU leaders was prepared well in advance, seems to fit in my view. By delaying and manipulating her WA may eventually arrive in parliament for final debate and vote, it will still be voted down. However she will ask for amendment, buy a little time, then pop over to Brussels to be told to not bother, just go home. However, she could then say she tried but time is out for further action and anyway parliament does not have the right to vote twice on one thing unless there is significant change, which in this case was not accepted by the other signing party. Then 29 March would come, UK would be out of the EU, the debate would deviate away from Theresa May who would then do more or less a cakewalk through to the general election in 2022 when she would bow out.
Before the storm
Time will tell, even whilst I write. Well, blow me down. Many more than the required 48 letters are in. The vote will happen before I continue. Time for a touch of strong whisky for my nerves, and a looser waistband in case I split my sides laughing.
What the world can see is that politics in the UK is no longer functional.
Result or aftermath?
I couldn’t be bothered waiting for the result on Wednesday night. My guess was not so far wrong, but it was clear May would survive by mid-afternoon. However about 37% of her party voted against her. That is not a stable government at all. It is our real starting point. Well, if there is one, given that two and a half years have been wasted to show that she is the PM that the UK got, but not everybody wants and that includes her own party. With Christmas upon us and turkeys probably queuing for their trip to paradise, versus the slaughterhouse, an oven and then an over laden plate, the normal simile of turkeys voting for Christmas, although postponed, a different one with some predictive effect on the postponed one, but no clarity as to when the postponement will end and what the point is. Meanwhile, a PM who is being described as a lame duck waddles on and anyway back in the pond can swim still anyway. So the 200 to 117 vote in May’s favour I woke up to was no surprise, she is now still vulnerable but still has her Houdini like survival skills. The body blow indeed lamed her, but limp on she will.
Ooops! I think something sounded like ‘No!’
She has made some profound mistakes. Firstly the DUP. They have made it very clear to May that, regardless of what she says, they have not been bought off. The well known bung of one billion pounds for Northern Ireland that we hear little about, especially what it is being used for, seems to be of no further consequence. Arlene Foster demanded a clear legal assurance that the backstop will not be tolerated. She said: “No doubt we’ll consider what she has, but I can’t think how it would give the comfort needed without alteration to the text of the Withdrawal Agreement,” That, May seems to have concluded from her meeting with Foster that she is somehow closer to an accord, has been met with exasperation. We have had chapter and verse of Merkel, Juncker, Barnier, Varadkar and other stars of this farce recanting a single, usually quite clear and explicit word, ‘No’. May has a hearing defect of some kind, that word never quite (if ever at all) registers. The EU has made it clear they will not change the WA. Therefore May is staking her future on a promise she cannot keep. Having misheard the word ‘No’ several times over to tweaks of the WA, she has nonetheless said she will seek a ‘legally binding’ commitment from the EU for the Irish backstop to be temporary. At best she may get something that is ‘probably blinding’ with which she will attempt to bluff the DUP although EU leaders have said clearly that the deal is not open for renegotiation, but have indicated they are willing to lay down assurances that they don’t want to get stuck with the backstop either. DUP want changes to the WA. The lame duck waddles on, but may hear that grating sound of the Ulster Scots version of that unheard word that manifests itself as something like ‘Niyaaahhhho’, especially when using expressions of disdain or disapproval.
The meeting over dinner in Brussels on Thursday evening brought only humiliation. They will have read the result of Wednesday’s vote as an indicator of her lack of party backing, thus government, cohesion. They have no need whatsoever to concede anything. I imagine the no deal preparations will simply continue. No doubt, as ever the food was more interesting than May’s strings of memes.
Oh, what a mess
For some reason the woeful story that has unfolded over the few days I have been compiling this account of the ‘progress’ (sic) of the WA reminds me of Hans Wilhelm’s children’s book ‘Oh, what a mess’ in which a piglet named Franklin was the only one who realised what a mess his family were living in. That, for me at least, epitomises parliament in the UK at this precise moment in time.
That great intellectual of political grandeur David Davis, who only attended four out of some hundreds of hours of Brexit negotiations when he was in charge of them, has suggested the cabinet has it in its power to ensure there will be no meaningful vote. After Wednesday, May could just get away with that, but the consequences could be far too serious for her government to survive and certainly should Brexit bring the kind of harsh reality economists are particularly predicting then in 2022 the Tories would be wiped out for perhaps a generation, leaving a Labour government that would not be able to recover what is lost, especially with the UK fragmenting by then. It is far more well on its way there than many people realise at present. Scots independence supporters will be doing Highland flings for joy; Leo Varadkar will be thinking how to find the money to be able to afford to make a sick cousin a full family member. Mrs Foster will be saying ‘Niyaaahhhho’ very loud. Meanwhile her party must be quite relieved that this political noise is cleverly covering up her colleague Ian Paisley (Jnr) facing calls to resign his Westminster seat in the wake of reports he took a complimentary holiday to the Maldives after advocating on behalf of its government, which is accused of human rights abuses. During his first trip, which was official by why the heck should a Northern Ireland MP go there, he criticised economic sanctions against the Maldivian government and stated a prison which held an opposition leader was quite luxurious. Coming from Northern Ireland he should know. He then returned to the Maldives later that year with his wife and two sons for a full-board five-day stay at a ‘luxury’ resort. The BBC apparently has evidence suggesting the visit was requested by the Maldivian government and facilitated by the resort owner, which he did not register in the parliamentary register of interests. None of which has anything whatsoever to do with Brexit, although it is well hidden behind DUP demands that the EU succumbs to their demands.
If May holds out until January for the postponed vote then she must know she is as likely to lose as she was when it should have happened, but that the outcome will almost certainly ensure a no deal end. Therefore, it will be interesting to see whether she brings it forward, especially after Wednesday evening’s discussions. It would almost be in her best interest to bring it back to the week before the Christmas hols, thus buy time to work on ‘amendments’ that the EU will not accept, but will have been sent to them by parliament, so that she can come back having held a vote, made amendments that the EU will not accept, then saying that that is it anyway. Thus averting no deal and having slid the WA through quite legitimately. Meanwhile, the lame duck will have had her turkey and eaten it too.
If Labour even try a vote of no confidence at this point in time, unless they can get the DUP on their side, which would be like Corbyn holding a gun to his head (which some people would love to see) with it cocked and a finger already squeezing the trigger; they will not bring the government down but will only show how powerless the UK parliament is, probably making May more determined to succeed, which with all threats out of the way she could very easily. Therewith, the duck’s lameness diminishes somewhat. On the bright side, if people can see it as that, there is more than a strong likelihood that she can keep her promise, which she made after the 2017 election anyway, that she will not stand again in 2022, then stroll through to that election although she will be governing a shattered UK. She has, needless to say, made it clear that if she is forced to hold an election any time before the scheduled next election, she will not retire. As if her Maybotic twists and turns would be without a catch in them!
Pyrrhic victory and indigestion
Mrs May rounded off her vote of confidence, although 37% of the party she leads wished to be rid of her, to trot off to meet leaders of EU nations in Brussels. One may offer sympathy in the form of hoping that at least the buffet and evening feats were warm. Nothing else was. Nor should it have been, she was told before going what to expect. She got it. I doubt she digested the meeting well at all. In European terms it may have been her valedictory speech in that company because, sooner or later, her WA will be voted down. She may just have to go. She is already, as said, a lame duck, thereafter more like a well stewed goose. In reality she should resign, but politically she is so void of emotions, and instinct, that she may well try to brazen it out. It is possible it is her game plan to do so.
The Institute for Government has an information sheet ‘Parliament’s ‘meaningful vote’ on Brexit’, last updated on 11 December, that closes thus:
Section 13 of the EU Withdrawal Act says that the motions need to be approved by the Commons and the EU Withdrawal Agreement Bill needs to pass through Parliament before the Government can to ratify the Withdrawal Agreement. But it does not specify that the motion has to be passed before the bill can be introduced. This was highlighted by Sir David Natzler, Clerk of the House of Commons, in evidence to the Exiting the EU Committee.
It would be possible, therefore, for the bill to provide a way to ensure the Government is able to ratify, even if the motion has not passed or has been significantly amended in the House. Sir David suggested the EU Withdrawal Agreement Bill could include a retrospective provision to say that the passage of the bill would be sufficient in meeting the conditions set out in Section 13 of the EU Withdrawal Act. Another possibility would be to include a provision which repeals the relevant parts of Section 13 of the Act, or which explicitly gives the Government permission to ratify the agreement.
Of course, in either of these cases, the clause would have to be accepted by Parliament as the bill completes its passage.
If the timeframe gets very tight, the Government could also use the bill to manage the need for the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act procedure. If there isn’t enough time for the 21 sitting days needed before the Government can ratify under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act, it could include a provision in the EU Withdrawal Agreement Bill to say its passage fulfils obligations on the Government set out in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act.
Being a naturally suspicious reader of political English my hackles stood on end when I read ‘If the timeframe gets very tight’. It strikes me as blindingly obvious that two and a half years with now measurably a few weeks to go she has made it tight. A little obfuscation, like the Christmas break, a bit of debate for a couple of days, a vote that goes against, proposing to amend it, then having time for amendments that will be taken to Brussels to be greeted with New Year wishes and the word ‘No!’ would buy her quite a lot of time. She could then stroll back into the House of Commons on her renowned leopard skin print designer stilettos to break the news they already know officially then say that time has run out,
(insert the looney tunes Porky Pig ‘That’s all Folks’ picture to conclude)
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