It’s another pivotal day for Brexit. After Prime Minister’s Questions at lunchtime, Theresa May will head to Brussels for tonight’s emergency European Council meeting where she will plead with her 27 counterparts for another extension to the Article 50 period, to confirm yet another delay to our departure from the European Union.
I think the public are looking on with increasing disbelief as, nearly three years after the referendum, deadlines for leaving the EU come and go and keep getting pushed back. We are told the government will have to spend in the region of £100 million of our money holding elections to the European Parliament next month. People see a Prime Minister unable to get a majority of her own MPs to back her strategy, as evidenced by yesterday’s Commons vote where less than 43% of Tory MPs backed her proposal for an Article 50 extension until the end of June. They see the cross-party talks between Government and Opposition seemingly going nowhere. And with senior European figures arrogantly encouraging the UK simply to reverse its decision to leave the EU, they see Brussels making the process of leaving as difficult as possible, with EU intransigence on a range of issues effectively leaving the UK as supplicant in the exit negotiations.
This cannot go on. And if the British Prime Minister tonight accepts a series of conditions on a lengthy Article 50 extension the EU wants to impose on the UK, it would not only be a further embarrassment and humiliation for Theresa May personally, but also for us as a nation collectively.
The Prime Minister has now said on a number of occasions that we can’t leave without a deal because MPs have indicated they don’t want a no-deal Brexit. But MPs have also repeatedly rejected the Withdrawal Agreement that she and Olly Robbins have negotiated, yet she continues to insist that it remains the only way forward. MPs have also rejected the idea of another referendum, a UK-EU customs union and a whole range of other options.
The EU has pleaded to know what MPs would actually support and of course there is one thing that the House of Commons did vote for: they backed the Brady Amendment which supported the Withdrawal Agreement subject to the hated backstop being replaced with alternative arrangements. But did the EU take this on board and make alternative proposals along those lines? No. Non. Nein. The EU has intransigently failed to budge a centimetre (or, should I say, an inch).
The default position in law as of today is that we leave the European Union without a deal on Friday night. Support for doing so is growing by the day among the public.
The only reason I reluctantly came to the view that MPs should let the Withdrawal Agreement pass at the third time of asking was because of my very real fear that the Remain-dominated House of Commons would somehow prevent a no-deal Brexit if May’s deal were not passed.
Yet over the last few days, when the House of Commons did seize control of the parliamentary agenda, all MPs could do was pass Yvette Cooper’s Bill to mandate the Prime Minister to seek an Article 50 extension. Despite claims to the contrary from those who ought to know better (I’m looking at you, Sir Keir), the Cooper Bill does not prevent No Deal and changes very little, as Martin Howe QC explains in the Telegraph today.
The Bill merely mandates May to ask for an extension, which she will do; it does not say she has to accept whatever counter-offer the EU may make, especially if it is a far longer extension with numerous strings attached.
I therefore believe it is time for our Prime Minister to tell Brussels that enough is enough. The Government has spent around £4.2 billion planning for a no-deal scenario precisely because, as Theresa May repeatedly reminded us, no deal is better than a bad deal. And what’s on offer from the EU is a bad deal. As Dover MP and Remain-backer in 2016 Charlie Elphicke writes for BrexitCentral today, we are prepared for a no-deal Brexit on Friday and while there would doubtless be some bumps in the road, they are not insurmountable. And if you don’t want to take his word for it, then it is worth re-reading the recent Telegraph article from Chris Heaton-Harris who was the Brexit minister responsible for no-deal planning until his resignation last week.
We are told that the Prime Minister’s opposition to No Deal hinges on her fear that it could destroy the Union of the United Kingdom through the consequences of a hard border being imposed between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. But a hard border is simply not going to happen, as has now been declared on numerous occasions both by the Irish Government and those in Brussels.
As I said above, the public appetite for No Deal is growing by the day. And if tonight Theresa May embraced No Deal by refusing whatever offer with strict conditions that the EU makes her, she could at a stroke restore her reputation as a politician willing to stand up for the UK and take tough decisions (rather than kicking cans down the road), by standing up to those in Brussels who evidently don’t have the UK’s best interests at heart.
And I know the interests of the Conservative Party don’t concern all BrexitCentral readers. But with Tory ratings in freefall and a punitive backlash beckoning at the ballot box at local and European elections if Brexit has not been delivered, she could prevent her party falling into a potentially fatal abyss by making a bold move tonight.
Will she do it? All the evidence based on past form is that she will not. But we can hope. Go on, Theresa. Surprise us; confound your critics. Show some steel in Brussels tonight, resolve to stop being a supplicant at the European negotiating table, draw a line under this painful process and explain that we’ll make a clean break from the EU on Friday. The UK will have properly regained its independence – and you might just save your party in the process.
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