Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Brexit: Chaos, chaos and more chaos

Despite parliament having rejected the prospect of leaving the EU without a deal, a no-deal Brexit in 9 days time, or a no-deal in June if parliament can't agree on May's deal, still seems almost inevitable.

May's way or no-deal

Theresa May has been accused of riding "roughshod over parliament" and deliberately running down the clock. Speaking to Adam Boulton on Sky News, Conservative defector Sarah Wollaston said May was essentially saying it was "My way or over the cliff."

Yet May has been thwarted in bringing her deal back to parliament for a third time in the current session by the Speaker of the House John Bercow unless substantial changes were made.

Speaker stops third vote

The ruling was greeted with dismay by hardline Brexiters who feel he was deliberately trying to frustrate Brexit.

"I've never been a fan of John Bercow," said one member of the ERG Andrew Bridgen speaking outside parliament on Tuesday 19th March but added, "I don't want Mrs May's deal to go through."

Bridgen's solution would, he said, be a change in leadership. "We need a new prime minister, a Brexiteer, someone who believes in Brexit."

As to his choice of leader he thought Boris Johnson was a possibility but suggested Dominic Raab as his choice, a man who only recently said he had only understood the importance of Dover as a major port [Sky News].

Voices on College Green

This week most politicians appeared to have gone to ground with very few making their usual jaunts to College Green to speak to the assembled media. Last week, as MPs voted on a wide range of Brexit related motions, the area was awash with MPs expressing their fears, anger and frustrations.

Amongst Brexit supporting MPs there voices of despair. Charles Walker, a Conservative MP, told the BBC's Laura Kuenssberg that if the PM's Brexit deal fell on Tuesday there would have to be a general election within months, or even weeks [BBC].

He backtracked a little when speaking to Phoenix TV, based in Hong Kong, the following day but nonetheless predicted there was "more chaos" to come.

It is perhaps with this chaos in mind he also expressed the view that Brexit might not have been a good idea after all. Speaking to BBC's Newshour he said, "I will curse myself for ever thinking that a referendum was a good idea."

Game over for May

Meanwhile Lord Heseltine said the "game was over" for Theresa May. Speaking to Sky News, he said the PM's decision to allow a free vote on whether to rule out a no-deal Brexit indicated she had "lost control". Like Walker, Heseltine also suggested there might soon be a change in leadership and that her own Cabinet would soon give her "a tap on the shoulder" and remove her from office. "I think her position is impossible but I think it has been impossible since she became Prime Minister." [Express]

Withdrawal Agreement rejected

On Tuesday [12th March], the Withdrawal Agreement was once again rejected by MPs with 391 voting against it with 242 voting for it [BBC].

It wasn't the massive rejection seen in January when Theresa May sustained the heaviest parliamentary defeat of any British prime minister in the democratic era after MPs rejected her Brexit deal by a resounding majority of 230 [Guardian].

But despite MPs having voted down May's 'deal' by 149 votes in the latest bout, the fourth-largest defeat of the government in the history of the Commons, the PM seemed insistent on holding yet another 'meaningful vote' on her Withdrawal Agreement, which had been pencilled in for Tuesday 19th March.

However, that was scrubbed after the intervention by the speaker.

Seeking an extension to Article 50

With a non-binding rejection of a no-deal Brexit parliament on Wednesday 13th March, MPs voted on Thursday the 14th March on a motion that Theresa May should seek an extension to Article 50.

Meanwhile the European Union is looking at Britain in despair. On Tuesday 19th March both French and German ministers expressed their frustration with the Brexit fiasco.

Nathalie Loiseau, the French Europe Minister [who, by the way does not have a cat called Brexit - France24], seemed incredulous concerning an extension. "Grant an extension? What for?" she told the Austrian television news station ORF and other assembled journalists [Twitter], "Time is not a solution, it's a method. If there is an objection and there is a strategy then it has to come from London."

Michael Roth, the German Europe Minister, also called for sensible reasons for an extension. "The clock is ticking and time is running out," he told the assembled media. "We are really exhausted by these negotiations and I expect clear and precise proposals of the British government why such an extension is necessary."

May's simply asking for an extension in the hope that with time she might persuade MPs to back her deal is unlikely to get the EU to offer any concessions.

How long is a piece of string?

The PM is expected to ask for a short extension. However, it is the EU and not May who can set the parameters and provisions of any extension. Moreover any extension has to be agreed unanimously by the 27 member states.

Theresa May and Brexit are both facing a ticking time bomb. The PM has been adamant thus far that Britain will leave on 29th March, something she has said 108 times in parliament. However unless Britain crashes out without a deal this seems unlikely.

During PMQs Theresa May said it would be "unacceptable" to put forward MEPs for European elections as it would be a betrayal to those who voted for Brexit.

"As PM I'm not prepared to delay Brexit any further than 30th June," she told the Commons, and that she had drafted a letter to the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, setting out her request for a short extension. But only an hour after her address to parliament there were noises coming out of Brussels that any extension would have to be longer.

Running down the clock

Exactly 1000 days since the referendum the prime minister was accused by the leader of the opposition Jeremy Corbyn of "running down the clock" and risked damaging Britain's future and creating a "national crisis".

Theresa May remained arrogantly forthright. Despite her deal having been rejected twice, she insisted her deal was still the only choice. "I will deliver on Brexit," May insisted, "That is what the British people deserve."

No-deal still a risk

While the UK parliament has rejected the idea of leaving the EU without a deal, the vote is not binding and if there is no extension or Article 50 is not revoked Britain would - on the 29th March - leave without a deal by default [CNN].

On the subject of revoking Article 50, Theresa May has adamantly said that is "something I will not do". So unless she makes a U-turn on that commitment, only an extension could prevent Britain crashing out on 29th March.

And so on Thursday 14th March parliament voted to call for an extension by 413 votes to 202 [BBC]. And today May has told parliament she is seeking a short extension.

However, an extension can only be requested and is not guaranteed. And while it not expected the EU would reject an extension it does require unanimous agreement from all other 27 member states. The EU are also likely to ask for good reasons for such an extension.

Mood in the EU

The mood from a long debate in the European Parliament on Wednesday last week [13th March] seemed to indicate that many member states would likely only ratify such an extension if Britain were to put the issue back to the people, though the prospect of a general election might also sway thinking - though May has dismissed both options [Twitter]. 

The length of time could also be stipulated by the EU. This might well mean that Britain, whilst planning on potentially exiting the EU within weeks or months might be put in the rather awkward position of holding European Elections in May [Reuters].

Hardliner standoff while PM blackmails MPs

Some commentators have suggested that Theresa May might secretly want her request for an extension rejected. The thinking behind this is that she might then be able to return to parliament and force a third vote on her 'deal' with less than a week until Britain crashes out of the EU by default.

But the numbers needed to back her deal still aren't there. The DUP have indicated they would not fall behind the deal unless the ERG backed her deal and they have said they would not back it without DUP support. Similarly Labour Brexiters have also declared they would be unlikely to come forward to back the deal without the DUP and ERG supporting the deal.

Like a scene from the end of Reservoir Dogs the hard liners are in a stand-off with each other over who might put their guns down first. Meanwhile Theresa May stands before parliament metaphorically hold a gun to the country's head proclaiming that MPs should back her deal or Britain will crash out by default.

Life outside the Westminster bubble

Beyond the Westminster bubble one could be forgiven for thinking that life was just ticking on by and that Brexit is of no concern to anyone.

Tourists still wander the streets. People board trains on their way to and from work. Pubs, bars and restaurants continue serving customers and traffic flows London's streets.

In 9 days, should there be no extension, Britain could be very different should it crash out of the EU.

While some pro-Europeans have been encouraged that MPs have rejected a no-deal Brexit and sought an extension there are other voices that suggest the recent votes in parliament only amount to a stay of execution [BBC]. Thus the prospect of a no-deal Brexit remains very real indeed.

The effects of a no-deal may take a few days to kick in, but crashing out without a deal could soon see shortages in shops and within months very dire economic consequences.

Brexit fatigue

Many people are suffering from Brexit fatigue and perhaps blindly just want the sorry saga to end even if Britain leaves without a deal, perhaps without a full understanding what it would really mean. But even for ordinary citizens outside the bubble of British politics the effects of a no-deal will suddenly focus minds. But by then it will be too late. It will be too late to turn back. Britain will be on its own.

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