What a topsy turvy world is conjured up by the spectre of No Deal. Despite yesterday’s vote to abandon it and with the extension of Article 50 to come, the nail hasn’t been yet driven through its heart.
What happens when the usual parameters of behaviour are abandoned, the perverse effect, is every much in evidence. In an openly divided cabinet, a chancellor who defies his prime minister by warning against No Deal and then votes for it. A prime minister who at the last minute orders her party to vote against her own (admittedly amended) No Deal motion. Twelve ministers including the cabinet ministers defy her, yet eleven stay in office.
The DUP must be desperate for a deal, after they saw what the No Deal scenario published by the government would do to Northern Ireland to keep the border open on the British side.
One thing – and one thing only – to be said in favour of No Deal – the threat of Direct Rule from Michael Gove.
“Now we, in the circumstances that the House has voted for no-deal, would have to start formal engagement with the Irish government about further arrangements for providing strengthened decision-making in the event of that outcome, and that would include the very real possibility of imposing a form of direct rule. Now that is a grave step and experience shows us it’s very hard to return from that step, and it’d be especially difficult in the context of no-deal.”
And despite the British measures announced to prevent it..
The EU at some point is going to have to decide what it does about imposing tariffs on UK goods entering the EU market from Northern Ireland, a subject on which it has been pointedly silent.
They don’t want to be blamed for imposing a hard border in Ireland either, but a failure to enforce checks would lead to the same dilemma that the UK is facing. It would also provide succor to the argument of Brexiteers that the Irish backstop is not necessary because when push comes to shove no one will introduce a hard border in Ireland.
That is wrong though. In the UK the loophole will have to be closed before long because of the howls of pain from British farmers and manufacturers put at a competitive disadvantage from the the new arrangements. The EU will face the same, if not greater, pressures, not to mention the fact that it would be illegal under EU law.
The reality is that if there is a no-deal Brexit the likelihood is that there will be a hard border in Northern Ireland. It is a question of when and not if.
And to cap it all, coming back from the dead, what they’re calling MV3, a third meaningful vote – the ultimate ploy of a prime minister drawing strength from weakness. ..
Mrs May’s decision to hold a third vote on her Brexit plan next week, just days before she is due to attend an EU summit in Brussels, is a calculated gamble that she can finally bring the escalating Brexit drama to a head before formally seeking to delay Britain’s departure date from March 29 to June 30. The prime minister said that if a deal was not agreed by MPs before the March 21 EU summit, she would be forced to seek “a much longer extension” of the exit process, requiring Britain to take part in May’s European Parliament elections. The move infuriated Tory Eurosceptics, but after last night’s Commons votes they are feeling extreme pressure to come into line and support Mrs May’s deal.
Although Downing Street does not favour “indicative votes” in the Commons next week to test support for a Brexit Plan B, it is likely to be imposed upon a prime minister who has lost control of Brexit. Philip Hammond, the chancellor, has been calling for a “cascade of votes for other options”, one cabinet minister told business leaders on Wednesday. Downing Street hopes that if the Commons signals support for a much softer Brexit — such as seeking status similar to Norway, which is not an EU member but is in the single market — it could scare hardline Eurosceptic MPs into backing down and finally supporting Mrs May’s deal.
And although the D Telegraph’s Jack Maidment reports….
DUP super chilled about tonight’s events. No plans to budge on their backstop red lines.
DUP source: “We are quite relaxed about the current situation. We have been in this type of position before. Things tend to go down to the wire. We will keep pushing for a good deal.”
From behind the scenes, The Times reports
Theresa May is preparing a third vote on her Brexit deal after holding secret compromise talks with the DUP and Brexiteers.
Tory MPs who voted against the deal are understood to be having private discussions with Stephen Barclay, the Brexit secretary, and Geoffrey Cox, the attorney-general, over possible changes to the legal advice. It is thought that these changes could allow them and the DUP to support Mrs May’s deal if another vote
“I think what is being discussed could do enough to reassure the Democratic Unionist Party that there is a unilateral way out of the backstop,” a senior Conservative Brexiteer said. “If the DUP were content with the deal then significant numbers of the ERG will go where the DUP go.”
A government source said “channels of communication were open”.
Under a potential deal the government would legislate to give parliament the power to unilaterally pull out of the Irish backstop should MPs determine it had become permanent.
Mr Cox would also issue supplementary legal advice making clear that if the backstop became permanent then that would constitute a “fundamental change of circumstance” under the Vienna Convention.
Mr Cox made this statement in the Commons on Tuesday. It was deliberately repeated by Mr Barclay but it was not included in Mr Cox’s official written advice.
A senior Brexiteer said that the DUP and many in the ERG could have voted with the government on Tuesday had Mr Cox referenced Article 62 of the convention in his official advice. Asked why he had not, they replied: “Incompetence.”
The prime minister continues to resist pressure to allow MPs “indicative votes” to test whether there is a majority for an alternative to her deal, including the so-called Norway option.
Some Brexiteers said that they would be forced to vote for the deal at the third time of asking. One, Simon Clarke, said: “There’s a gun to my head at this point and I think voters will appreciate that increasingly we are getting a very, very limited range of options left if we want into honour the manifesto commitment to leave. So now it is effectively a bad Brexit deal or no Brexit. It is absolutely ghastly. Parliament tonight has made a colossal mistake.”
Steve Baker, deputy chairman of the ERG, said that Brexiteers would keep voting the deal down “whatever pressure we’re put under”.
The irony of the talks now taking place between No 10, the DUP and Brexiteers is that it all could have happened before Tuesday’s defeat (Oliver Wright writes).
Members of the Tory Brexiteer European Research Group had expected the attorney-general, Geoffrey Cox, to refer to the plan in his legal advice, which would have given them a ladder to climb down. Except he didn’t.
Under the plan, Mr Cox would submit additional written legal advice to parliament saying the UK has the power to unilaterally exit the Irish backstop under Article 62 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties. This says that a state can pull out of a treaty if there is a “fundamental change in the circumstances” to the “basis of consent” that allowed the treaty to be agreed.
The government would also have to give parliament the power to trigger a unilateral withdrawal by writing the provision into the act that would ratify any Brexit deal.
The real question is whether the plan will work politically. Tory Brexiteers and the DUP appear to be looking for a way to support Mrs May’s deal and this appears to be a plausible option.
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