Game of chicken is hotting up

Brexit tensions are rising towards fever pitch. The Times story puts it neatly :

If you step back from the noise surrounding Theresa May’s struggle to get her deal through parliament there are really only four Brexit options left on the table: Mrs May’s deal (possibly tweaked); no deal; a second referendum; and a Norway-style soft Brexit.

Each option has its advocates in the Commons but none yet has enough backing to command majority support in the House. Ultimately MPs will have to choose. And that’s where the game of chicken comes in. Supporters of a second referendum and Norway believe that their best chance of success is to be the last deal standing.

Go too early in putting their plans to a vote and they risk being defeated. Leave it too late and the moment could be lost — there might be a new prime minister or even a new government. The final result will also depend on the tactics of Downing Street and the Labour front. Will Mrs May pivot if she loses the vote on her deal a week on Tuesday? Will Labour come out in favour of a second referendum?

A ministerial  Remainer leaves; a ministerial Leaver remains.

The seventh minister to resign from Mrs May’s government Education minister Sam Gymah called for a vote to gauge the public’s mood if  she loses the meaningful vote in parliament on 11 December. He said the deal May had brokered with the European Union would “cripple our interests for decades to come” and a second referendum could avert “chaos”.

He also cited May’s decision to give up on efforts to gain access to the EU’s Galileo satellite navigation system for defence and critical national infrastructure purposes after being frozen out by Brussels, which he has said was “a foretaste of the brutal negotiations we will go through that will weaken our national interest, make us poorer, less secure.”

“We don’t actually have a deal, we have a deal in name only. What we have is a series of principles of what we want to achieve as a country, a set of negotiations after we have left the EU and given up our voice, our veto and our vote. Our interest will be hammered during these negotiations, we have no leverage. They [the EU] set the hurdles you have to clear. We will have to deal with these consequences and the public would not forgive us if we don’t level with them on the difficult choices ahead. We all know more about the EU than we did during the first referendum and in particular the terms of our departure. I am happy to concede if we have a second referendum and if leave wins, at least we would do it with our eyes wide open.

The cabinet Brexiteers’ decision  not to quit will provide a morale boost to Mrs May, Michael Gove arguing that the EU dislikes it as much as the Tory majority does, as it gives the UK  and NI (“ the best of both worlds)  in particular, trading advantages over EU 26. With the odds so heavily stacked against the prime minister, are they biding their time to pick up the pieces if she quits? In Gove’s case, he awakened suspicions in Brussels when he seemed to blow the gaffe by recommending acceptance their terms for withdrawal and so live to fight the bigger battle for the final deal. This can hardly have made the UK negotiators task any easier. Gove is unrepentant.

Brexit  is under greater threat than at any time since the referendum. Should we fail to leave, don’t be fooled into thinking we could just stick with the status quo.

Like a guilty partner who had threatened to leave for another and come crawling back, we would be forced to accept far tougher terms than we have now.

Keeping the rebate? Forget about it. Stopping a tide of new EU laws? No way. Halting progress towards a European army? Nope. Guaranteeing we wouldn’t have to pay billions to bail out euro members in the future? I’m afraid not.

We would have tariff-free access to their markets — without having to pay a penny. Not only would we be free from any financial contributions, we would be largely free from the rule of the Commission and direct control by the European Court of Justice.

We would have total control over our borders. And we would take back full control of our fishing waters.

Not only would we have many of the benefits of Brexit, but also many of the benefits of EU membership, without most of the obligations. Just what the EU said they could never offer.

And if we do enter a backstop, there are ways in which we can leverage it to our advantage. There are good reasons European leaders are uncomfortable about this deal — especially because it doesn’t deliver what so many of them want.

A secret blueprint drawn up by Theresa May’s Brexit adviser to allow Britain to unilaterally abandon guarantees over the Irish border has been leaked to The Times

 Olly Robbins’ draft “termination clause with explicit unilateral mechanism” would have created a legal procedure for the UK to exit the backstop if talks over a future trading relationship broke down or if “there has been a fundamental change in circumstances since the conclusion of the withdrawal agreement”.

The leaked draft states that after initiating the procedure a joint EU-UK committee would be set up to consider the “necessary modalities (consequences) and adopt appropriate recommendations”. Referencing the Good Friday agreement, which removed security checkpoints from the Northern Irish border, the document states: “The Union and the UK shall take all necessary steps to enable the parties to the 1998 Agreement to fulfil their obligations thereunder.”

Option 2 – Termination clause with explicit unilateral mechanism
If [after x] the Union or the United Kingdom reasonably considers that there is no prospect that the subsequent agreement referred to in [X] will become applicable [within a reasonably foreseeable period], or that there has been a fundamental change in circumstances since the conclusion of the Withdrawal Agreement, it may be notify the other party, setting out its reasons. If, [X] months after such a notification, the Union or the United Kingdom remains of that view, it may notify the other party accordingly. This Protocol shall cease to apply [X] months after that further notification is received. The Joint Committee shall consider the necessary modalities and adopt appropriate recommendations. The Union and the United Kingdom shall take all necessary steps to enable the parties to the 1998 Agreement to fulfil their obligations thereunder.

Mr Robbins is understood to have lobbied No 10 strongly not to ask him to put it on the table in the negotiations. He feared that it would bring all other discussions to a halt because of the strength of opposition in Brussels and around Europe. No10 followed this advice.

Brexiteers are likely to want this model resurrected as soon as possible if Mrs May loses the vote.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London