Nothing new to offer as Theresa May misfires the last shot in her locker in support of her deal

With her back to the wall Theresa May exposes  her own and her speech writers’ monumental ignorance of  UK devolution by bizarrely invoking the  creation of the Welsh Assembly based on a squeakingly narrow referendum result. as a killer argument   against calling a second referendum on Brexit.   What a pity that that she is such a poor  advocate  of what would otherwise be a viable proposal.

 Extracts from May’s speech released by Downing Street last night show she will invoke the 1997 referendum on creating the Welsh assembly — in which the Yes vote won by the narrowest of margins — to press her case for delivering Brexit. “When the people of Wales voted by a margin of 0.3 percent, on a turnout of just over 50 percent, to endorse the creation of the Welsh assembly, that result was accepted by both sides, and the popular legitimacy of that institution has never seriously been questioned,” May will say.

Except, of course, it has — by Theresa May and the Conservative Party. As history student Joe Oliver pointed out in this Twitter thread last night, the Tories argued vehemently against the creation of the assembly following the Welsh referendum. As late as 2005 the Tories were promising a second referendum — a People’s Vote, if you will — on whether to scrap the Welsh assembly. Which is all a bit awkward for No. 10.

On delivery she scaled down  this supporting argument without abandoning it altogether – even though it had been taken apart before she got to her feet – and was gratuitous anyway. She likely to be taunted about it when she has another bash at persuading MPs this afternoon.

Just before she got to her feet Downing St released the text of letters from herself  on “misunderstandings” to clarify and the corresponding “assurances” from EU Commission president Juncker . which she admits  are not the legal guarantees  she asked for and were rejected by the EU

Key points from the PM’s letter.

Some on the EU side worry that a future UK government could use a threat to return to a hard border in future negotiations.. No UK government would ever ( do that).

The checks between NI and GB would be minimised, mainly away from ports and airports and carried out by UK officials…

(I reconfirm) that the UK government would not let regulatory divergences  develop between NI and GB without the consent of the political institutions in NI.

Key points from Juncker:

  On the 13 December, the European Council (Article 50) decided on a number of additional assurances, in particular as regards its firm commitment to work speedily on a subsequent agreement that establishes by 31 December 2020 alternative arrangements, so that the backstop will not need to be triggered.

The European Council also said that, if the backstop were nevertheless to be triggered, it would only apply temporarily, unless and until it is superseded by a subsequent agreement that ensures that a hard border is avoided, and that the European Union, in such a case, would use its best endeavours to negotiate and conclude expeditiously a subsequent agreement that would replace the backstop, and would expect the same of the United Kingdom, so that the backstop would only be in place for as long as strictly necessary.

In this context, it can be stated that European Council conclusions have a legal value in the Union commensurate to the authority of the European Council under the Treaties to define directions and priorities for the European Union at the highest level and, in the specific context of withdrawal, to establish, in the form of guidelines, its framework. They may commit the European Union in the most solemn manner. European Council conclusions therefore constitute part of the context in which an international agreement, such as the Withdrawal Agreement, will be interpreted.

Juncker’s assurances over the NI- specific  elements of the backstop will further encourage NI business and others but are unlikely  to impress the DUP or for that matter, Sinn Fein.

The European Commission can also confirm our shared understanding that the Withdrawal Agreement and the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland:

 Do not affect or supersede the provisions of the Good Friday or Belfast Agreement of 10 April 1998 in any way whatsoever; they do not alter in any way the arrangements under Strand II of the 1998 Agreement in particular, whereby areas of North-South cooperation in areas within their respective competences are matters for the Northern Ireland Executive and Government of Ireland to determine;

Do not extend regulatory alignment with European Union law in Northern Ireland beyond what is strictly necessary to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland and protect the 1998 Agreement.

This letter from  the EU president is exactly as expected and has already been factored in in all the estimates of the scale of her defeat.  But the size of defeat will crucially affect  the options for what happens next.

Tom Newton Dunn, the pol. ed. of the Sun tweets..

For the umpteenth time, May says she “doesn’t believe” in extending Article 50 or a second referendum, but refuses point blank to rule out either. In others words, she is prepared in extremis to do both.

However her zero sum choice ” My Deal or No Brexit, or No Deal”  is bound to be heavily qualified as the Commons has already voted to compel her to return to them within three days of a defeat with an alternative proposal.

A smaller than 100 margin of defeat might encourage Mrs May to go for a second vote.  But by itself this wouldn’t be enough to  create a new platform for halting the slide to the default No Deal, says  Daily Telegraph Peter Foster.

While defeat seemed certain, the hope had been that it would have been small enough for the Prime Minister to survive and head to Brussels to renegotiate.

However, Downing Street has grown worried that the defeat would be too heavy for Mrs May to carry on after. Instead, the vote has been delayed and Mrs May will try and win concessions from the EU first.

So all that will be on offer are small tweaks to the non-binding Political Declaration and perhaps a statement from EU lawyers on the backstop not being permanent.

None of which will be big enough to change the minds of most Brexiteer MPs. They might, however, reduce the size of the rebellion and thus make the two vote strategy viable again.

While the “renegotiation” will now happen ahead of the vote, Downing Street may still need more than one attempt to get it through Parliament.

In the intervening period between a first and second attempt to pass the deal, Labour would probably try and force a general election. This would be very difficult because of the Fixed Term Parliament Act and would require Conservative MPs to help topple their own government.

f and when that attempt fails, Labour might try and secure a vote for a second referendum. This would still require support from Tory MPs but would likely be easier than forcing a general election. Those efforts were boosted on Monday by the European Court of Justice ruling that the UK can revoke Article 50 unilaterally.

The ruling removes the risk of Britain either not being allowed back in or having to make hugely unpalatable concessions such as agreeing to join the euro.

In the meantime, there might also be attempts to push the Government towards a softer Plan B, probably along the lines of “Norway Plus“. This would mean staying in the single market and the customs union and continuing freedom of movement. It would, however, have an exit mechanism, unlike the Irish backstop, and potentially command a majority in the house. Several Cabinet ministers are rumoured to have been looking at the idea, but Labour continues to say that it is against a Norway-style Brexit.

If and when attempts at a second referendum or Norway-style Brexit fail, Labour MPs would have to seriously consider voting for Mrs May’s deal. The alternative would be a no-deal Brexit.

EU sources said that Brussels was preparing to grant Britain an extension of the Article 50 process, which could push Brexit day back by months, to say July This surely is the obvious contingency, although again, no solution by itself.

Looking back at the record, the ace fixer Bertie Ahern  agrees and laments...

The Irish government should have agreed a position with the UK before article 50 kicked in. “We should have been working it out with them. I was blue in the face from saying we should have a Brexit minister,” he said. “Once article 50 was triggered, it was out of our hands. It’s in Ireland’s national interest to be close to the British. They are our nearest and biggest neighbours.”

I’d say it’s not too late.