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17 January 2019

Tony Blair: Theresa May’s Brexit deal isn’t a deal. It’s a political contrivance

Bludgeoning parliament into voting for a bad “deal” under the threat of no deal is no way to govern a country faced with the most momentous decision of our time.

By Tony Blair

The scale of rejection of the Prime Minister’s deal means she must now change role. Up to now she has insisted on being the advocate for Brexit and for her deal. She must switch political persona and become the facilitator and arbiter to lead us out of the mess.

She knows the options. She should set them out frankly and clearly with their pros and cons. She should then arrange for parliament to decide; and if parliament decides for a new referendum, put the final decision to the people.

In the meantime, the discussion with Europe about an extension to Article 50 should begin, because the probability is in any event we will need more time to get clarity.

MPs have done their job. They’re not bickering or engaging in self-aggrandising gesture as their critics say. They’re doing what those in a parliamentary democracy they should do. They’re making a considered judgement fully cognisant of the gravity of their decision on the lives of this generation and future generations.

I know this is not how part of the public sees it. They just want Brexit settled. They see an embattled Prime Minister doing her best in hugely difficult circumstances. “Get on with it” summarises a lot of the mood.

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She has relied on this public sentiment, which is naturally not focused on the detail, to try to overcome parliamentary scrutiny absolutely focused on the detail. Rightly, it didn’t work.

May’s deal is a bad deal. Bad because it ties us legally to the European Customs Union, until they release us, while taking away our say over its terms. Bad because our obligations are upfront and those of Europe unspecified or contingent.

Bad principally because the deal breaks the undertaking given to parliament and people that when we voted for the deal we would know the future economic relationship with Europe in sufficient detail to make a proper judgement. It is deliberately opaque. Why? Because she can’t get agreement in cabinet or the Conservative Party as to what it should be.

This is the reason why her frequent repetition that her deal is the way to stop the argument over Brexit and start to debate other pressing matters was always fundamentally flawed. She says her deal brings closure. It won’t. It can’t.

Instead, we face the prospect of going past the March 2019 deadline, without clarity, with a whole new negotiating morass awaiting us, with one part of the cabinet arguing one way and another in the opposite direction, having lost our bargaining leverage such as it was, at the mercy of a European system we will have already quit.

All the myriad of issues from the NHS to knife crime to homelessness to the coming digital revolution will remain casualties of the distractive impact of Brexit.

The phrase “Bored of Brexit” produces in me a simmering fury. But if you are bored of it, vote for her deal and you will be bored for years to come.

In one sense, the Brexit negotiation was never a conventional negotiation. Essentially, so far as the future trading relationship with Europe is concerned, it is and always has been a choice. We can keep close to Europe’s rules and be like Norway; or make our own rules and be like Canada.

The first carries the obvious disadvantage that we become rule takers; the second, that we disrupt UK trade, commercial and investment decisions that have grown up over 45 years of EU membership.

This is the pointless vs painful dilemma that has stalked the negotiation.

Northern Ireland is just the most acute expression of this dilemma, visible because of the political commitment to an open border between north and south, and because we agreed a solution to the Irish issue would be part of the withdrawal agreement.

The backstop imbroglio shows we haven’t even truly solved the dilemma in relation to the Irish question. Leave with the dilemma unresolved as to the entire future relationship, and we have a world of further agony waiting the other side of March.

The choice has been hostage to the fight inside the Conservative Party. Unwilling to take sides, the Prime Minister tried to negotiate a “cake and eat it” solution, as if Europe was ever going to allow Britain access to the single market and customs union without abiding by the rules.

Finally, faced with reality, she opted in the Chequers proposal for a version of Norway. It flopped.

So, she took refuge in vague wording in the agreement’s political declaration, which could mean our future is either Norway or Canada. But there is a huge difference between these two outcomes measured in jobs, living standards and economic prosperity.

The choice has vast implications for future policy; for different visions of the future place of the country. We cannot sensibly leave without knowing which vision is preferred.

Already Michael Gove is implying that backing the May deal means we can then get a “proper Brexit” – that is, Canada. But other cabinet ministers are promoting the idea that it is the route to Norway and possibly later a return to Europe.

You can take one look, a second look, as many as you like, the May deal should never be passed. Because it isn’t a deal. It is a political contrivance. In the name of bringing resolution it brings irresolution. This central flaw can’t be cured by anything emanating from Europe; only by a choice made here in Britain.

The Prime Minister should put off a further vote for a period of reflection – say, two or three weeks. Then she should put the choice before parliament to see if any version of Brexit can command a majority. She can re-run hers if she really wishes; then parliament should vote on the Norway or Canada type option. “No Deal” should also again be voted upon to make it clear this is not an option parliament will ever support.

If all those versions of Brexit fail, then a second referendum option should be put. If that passes, then we seek an extension of Article 50 to allow such a referendum.

Should it fail, Europe should be asked for an extension for a more limited period, so parliament can come to an agreement either on a version of Brexit or a consider again a new referendum.

Bludgeoning parliament into voting for a bad deal under the threat of a catastrophic no deal is no way to govern a country faced with the most momentous decision of our time.

It hasn’t worked – because fortunately MPs have shown more leadership capability than their leaders. But now serious people on the front bench of both parties have got to take serious charge.   

Tony Blair was prime minister of the United Kingdom from 1997 to 2010. This article was first published by the Institute for Global Change.

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