Parliament is back, but still can’t agree – and a no-deal Brexit is looming

Efta had world enough, and time...

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It’s a new year, but the central question in British politics remains unchanged: can the United Kingdom avoid a no-deal Brexit?

Some 200 MPs, including a dozen Conservative MPs, have signed a letter to Theresa May calling on her to rule out no deal. But the problem is that May cannot rule out no deal – only parliament can do that. 

Under the Article 50 process, whether it does so via a negotiated exit or not, the UK will leave the European Union on 29 March 2019. The only way to prevent a no-deal exit is for a parliamentary majority to emerge for something else in its place. 

The Prime Minister thinks she has found that something: the withdrawal agreement she has negotiated with the EU and the accompanying political declaration about the future relationship between the EU and the UK. As it stands there is no parliamentary majority for that, though supporters of the withdrawal agreement believe that when it becomes clear that the only way to avoid the cliff-edge is to vote for May’s deal, eventually MPs will do so.

Several cabinet ministers thought at the end of 2018 that over the holidays Conservative opponents of May’s deal would weigh up the alternatives and back the withdrawal agreement for fear of ending up with something worse. No MP has to my knowledge made that journey, and as the HuffPo’s Arj Singh details at greater length, the holiday has, if anything, made more Conservative MPs see a no-deal exit as a desirable alternative. 

The People’s Vote campaign believes it, too, has the answer: another referendum on our membership of the European Union. As it stands, there is no parliamentary majority for that, either, as Chuka Umunna acknowledged yesterday on Sky. But supporters of another vote believe that when it becomes clear that the only way to prevent a no-deal Brexit is to have another referendum, then eventually enough MPs will vote for it. 

They have more problems than just parliamentary arithmetic, because they not only need to find a majority for another referendum within the House of Commons, but they need the executive to facilitate it. That not only requires a U-turn from Theresa May, but also for every ambitious Conservative in the cabinet to go along with it.

But that hardly matters, because every day the parliamentary path to another vote gets trickier and trickier. The latest blow is Lucy Powell, Labour MP for the ultra-Remain constituency of Manchester Central, who has co-authored a new pamphlet with the Conservative MP Robert Halfon on why joining the European Free Trade Association’s European Economic Area pillar is the right way to resolve the crisis. This sets out – among other things – why the referendum result of 2016 “must not be ignored”.

It’s increasingly hard to draw up a plausible list of 325 MPs who might vote for another referendum who haven’t put their names to a statement in direct opposition to it.

But what about the preferred Brexit of Powell and Halfon? As it stands, May’s withdrawal agreement plus a rewritten political declaration announcing the UK’s intent to join the EEA is the only option that could plausibly command a parliamentary majority: but it would require a shift in position from the leaderships of both political parties. 

Speaking of which: once again, Labourworld is all of a flutter about a new YouGov poll for the People’s Vote campaign that shows that, if Jeremy Corbyn facilitates Brexit, he will lead the Labour Party to a defeat so hard that Keir Hardie will feel it. As with all polls for the People’s Vote campaign, there is a lot to criticise about the underlying assumptions and the specific numbers are highly suspect as a result. But, as Simon Wren-Lewis explains, just because the specific numbers are faulty doesn’t change the general truth of the figures, which is that any Brexit position other than ambiguity will cost Labour votes, but that if forced to choose they are better off with a Remain one.

The problem is that Labour isn’t being forced to choose. They are best served by criticising May’s deal in a way that allows them to keep both groups on side, voting it down and offering very little of substance in its place, just as the Liberal Democrats, SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens are best served by offering Remain positions that cannot be delivered but can be used against the big two.

No one is incentivised to do anything to secure parliamentary support for their preferred resolution to the Brexit crisis because everyone’s interests appear to be served through the threat of the cliff-edge – even though that outcome is only actively desired by a minority of ultra-committed Brexiteers. 

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.