Leading article

Why MPs must hold their nose and back May’s Brexit deal

9 March 2019

9:00 AM

9 March 2019

9:00 AM

It is becoming painfully clear that on Tuesday the House of Commons will be asked to vote on an EU withdrawal bill that is almost entirely the same as the one defeated by 230 votes in January. Geoffrey Cox, the Attorney General, is seeking to guarantee that Britain will never be trapped in the backstop. If he succeeds, Brexiteers, whatever their wider misgivings, should hold their noses and vote for Theresa May’s deal.

It will be tempting for MPs who are seeking a proper break with the EU to repeat their rebellion. May’s deal means Britain will, for two years, be an EU member in all but name: paying all of the money and obeying the directives while undergoing (at least) two more years of Brexit talks. Leaving without a deal, which remains the default option, would certainly be disruptive in the short term, but nowhere near as bad as forecast. Even Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, has had to accept his earlier warnings were vastly overblown. But there is no one to lead Britain through a no-deal Brexit and not enough MPs to support it.

This is what Brexiteers have to accept. We have a prime minister whose authority is shot, and who is trying to survive one week at a time. She has already been forced to concede that, in the event of her deal being voted down next week, MPs will be given a vote on whether to request an extension to Article 50 or proceed with no deal. Given the woeful failure to prepare for this option and the fact the vast majority of MPs voted Remain, it’s likely parliament will ask her to negotiate an extension. Or, rather, beg for an extension. The terms the EU offers may well be humiliating. And May would likely agree, given that the alternative would be the no deal Brexit she is not prepared to pursue.

Throughout the Brexit process, the EU has been coherent and disciplined, brilliantly exploiting all the political divisions in Westminster. As it knows, such divisions are now set to become much worse. Its aim is to show how any member state that seeks to leave can expect humiliation. If the EU’s second-largest economy and leading security power can’t make a success of leaving, who can? This strategy seems to be effective. There are Eurosceptic parties on the rise all over the Continent, but almost none advocate following Britain out of the EU.

Should May’s deal be defeated next week, negotiations for Britain’s future relationship with the EU would travel only in one direction: towards a softer Brexit. Many MPs would push for a Norway-style outcome. If they succeeded, we would end up in something which resembled the backstop — with Britain as a rule-taker, not a rule-maker — but intended as permanent from the outset. Again, with no deal off the table, the EU can ask for anything it likes, knowing May’s enemies will force her to agree. MPs who have been spoiling for a second referendum would be emboldened. In an era in which the unpredictable happens all the time, they might even be successful.

This, then, is the real choice that will confront MPs: to support May’s deal or to see Britain drift towards a soft Brexit. Some imagine that there is a third option: to hold out in the hope of something better. A long delay might allow us to restart the Brexit talks, and see the clear leadership Britain needs magically emerge. Cometh the hour, cometh the man. But as we have seen, May’s critics specialise in walking off in a huff, not standing up and offering alternatives.

It is easy to feel infuriated by this choice: to feel the Prime Minister does not deserve approval for her negotiating strategy. Yet we cannot go back to where we were in July 2016, when she had a clean Brexit slate. It is pretty clear how negotiations ought to have proceeded: the government should have started with preparations for a no deal and told the EU to get in touch if it could make a better offer. Only then, when we knew what planning that would entail, should Article 50 have been triggered and negotiations for a withdrawal agreement begun. Knowing how serious Britain was about pursuing a no deal, the EU could not then have treated May and her ministers with such contempt.

If the Tories tear each other apart, the result could be Jeremy Corbyn in government. And they should ask: what is the worst-case scenario? Even ending up in the backstop has its compensations. Our payments to Brussels would stop. We’d have full access to EU markets without having to accept free movement of people, and we’d be free of most of the EU’s directives.

If Cox is able to agree an assurance on the backstop, everyone can move on. The Dutch and Danish governments — along with others with large services sectors — would not relish the prospect of a deregulated Britain with access to their markets and would soon be pushing for Britain to be allowed to leave the backstop. It’s even possible that by then we’d have a prime minister able to press home these advantages.

May, it turns out, was the wrong choice at a time of great challenge. At first she appeared to be a unifier, but she turned out to have too little courage, imagination or skill to lead the Brexit negotiations. It is time to turn the page on this unhappy chapter of our political history. Approving her deal is the surest way to do so.

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