Another week and we continue to orbit around ‘peak Brexit’ with more tantrums, in-fighting and glacial progress.
You win some, you lose some
The start of the week saw more Brexit legislation pass through the Commons in the form of the trade and customs bills. The government managed to pass both after accepting four amendments to the customs bill from Jacob Rees-Mogg’s European Research Group which had sought to wrestle back control for the Brexiteers after the prime minister’s all-too brief (and now all but forgotten) Chequers compromise of a week earlier.
More action was seen with the trade bill on Tuesday which saw the government face its second loss on key Brexit legislation in the Commons with Dr Phillip Lee’s amendment to align the UK to the European Medicines Agency (EMA). Despite the obvious embarrassment of losing the vote, the acceptance of Lee’s amendment in itself does not immediately harm the government, as the Chequers plan’s ‘common rule’ book would have been likely to have kept the UK in line with the EMA anyway. However, what it will do is bolster the current rebellious feeling in the house. This unexpected pro-remain win reminds everybody that the government does not have the numbers to be confident of passing Brexit legislation through the house and that all is still to play for (a reminder that might prove useful to Tim Farron and Vince Cable who were inexplicably absent for key votes earlier in the week).
This never ending dance of one step forward, one step back (whatever your stance on Brexit) risks leaving the UK paralysed. Despite the government’s white paper signalling that the Brexit it desires is one that resembles the Norway package of high access and low freedom, the PM’s simultaneous cowering to both the pro and anti-Brexit factions in the house risks poor access, poor freedom and a poor deal – if any at all.
With the major customs and trade bills passed and MPs packing up for their summer holidays, it’s a good time to take stock and look to what we can expect to see when the house returns and negotiations resume in the autumn.
The bills will now progress to the House of Lords in the autumn. Judging by past form we can be confident that the majority pro-remain upper chamber will send both back with further amendments leading to further flashpoints. Next time round though, time may for once be on the prime minister’s side; though the Lords may try again to keep the UK in the customs union, the late stage of the negotiations proper with the EU by then could strengthen her hand to see off any challenge on that front at least.
We also know that whilst May continues to try to sell her plan to her party, parliament and the country, newly-appointed Brexit secretary Dominic Rabb is currently holding talks with Michel Barnier this week, who has been busy drawing up ‘no deal’ contingency plans. Following the EU’s insistence that the UK remain in a customs union, the win on the customs bill will give May some much needed head room to harden her stance and tell the EU that there is no majority in parliament for it. However, everyone is still painfully aware that the likelihood is that the UK’s negotiating team comes back from Brussels having accepted yet more concessions giving Mogg and his band of Brexiteers the red meat they need and making a ‘no deal’ ever more likely.
Was it worth it?
At the start of the week, Theresa May – back when she was still clinging to her Chequers plan – told Andrew Marr that she would remain “hard headed and practical”. There has no doubt the prime minister has been practical – making concessions wherever she can to survive. ‘Hard headed’, too, if as her critics believe the government is now resorting to dirty tricks to get its legislation through, after the accusations made against the chief whip, Julian Smith, by the Lib Dem MP Jo Swinson, over the disregard of the parliamentary convention of pairing.
Nevertheless, the PM could be justified in reflecting that once, again, she has not only survived, but prevailed – for now – in doggedly getting through the legislation she needs to inch the UK towards the Brexit door. But the atmosphere at Westminster and in the media has reached such a pitch, that it’s just as well the summer recess begins on Tuesday. Anna Soubry’s attack on her “ideologically-driven” colleagues with “gold-plated pensions and inherited wealth” is a taste of how fraught, personal and divisive the Brexit debate will continue come the autumn. And while Boris Johnson’s resignation speech avoided a personal attack on the prime minister, his warnings that the “Brexit dream is dying” is being “suffocated by needless self-doubt”, were designed as a call to arms for the Brexiteers to continue to attack.
The likely loser in all of this is the Conservative Party itself. But could it yet be Brexit itself? With parliament deadlocked, calls for a second referendum are growing, with Justine Greening the latest major figure to call for the decision to be handed back to the people. Hoping to head this off, the government immediately ruled a second vote out in any circumstances….so perhaps we should expect one after all.
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