Splitting the sequencing of May's Brexit Deal

Cliff edges north of Dover at St Margarest's Bay
Cliff edges north of Dover at St Margarest's Bay

The current impasse with Brexit seems resolvable by three paths only – no deal, May’s Deal or no Brexit. The last option seems currently unattainable either through a referendum or a revocation of Article 50.


Yet May’s deal looks less likely than ever.  Hardline Brexiteers have no interest in backing it and seem content to crash out of the EU with the attendant catastrophe.  The DUP remain adamantly against it. And there is little chance of the numbers gap necessary for a majority being covered by Labour MPs who are whipped to their leadership’s illusory goal of a General Election.


May is clearly playing a waiting game and using the considerable powers of her position as Prime Minister and that of the government to block the emergence of alternatives or even the extension of Article 50. Commentators decry this as irresponsible but in the current game of party politics and political careers it is up against some pretty stiff competition. And it is the only real deal on the table and in its own way honours, whether you like it or not,  the result of the referendum.


Much has been made recently of ‘temporarily’ revoking Article 50 to gain some breathing space to attempt to find some more innovative path around the impasse. The legality of such a move looks dubious in the light of the ECJ’s ruling and I suspect that if Article 50 were revoked temporarily it would stay revoked.


Yesterday’s Guardian leader put forward a temporary revocation as a means to firstly gather together a citizen’s assembly to deliberate on Brexit options and to secondly hold a referendum on those options.  Whilst at the same time advocating sotto voce a pretty transparent Remain position – a better Britain in a better Europe.


The Citizen’s Assembly thing is interesting but I have seen no case for it that realistically assesses how such an assembly would gain legitimacy and credibility in the UK context of Brexit. The Republic of Ireland’s Citizen’s Assembly that had a powerful effect on deliberations on the abortion question was a long time in the legal and constitutional making, took place in a country with a population a mere 7.2% of the UK and dealt with a single issue. (On a per capita basis a UK Citizen’s Assembly would have over 1,300 randomly chosen members if the Irish case was used as a guideline).  I find it very hard to see how a Citizen’s Assembly could be set up and deal with the massive complexity of Brexit and Brexit options without insurmountably long lead times.


Instead of looking for new options and instruments of democracy perhaps it might be better at this very late stage with the clock ticking inexorably to March 29th to look at how existing options might be used more creatively. (Yeah, I know, that ‘creatively’ is a hostage to all sorts of fortune).

More cliff edges
More cliff edges

It should be remembered that the current May deal consists of two elements: a detailed and closely negotiated legally binding divorce settlement with the EU and a much more loosely worded and non-binding Political Declaration on the possible future relationships between the UK and the EU.


Leaving aside the vexed question of the Irish backstop agreement the extant Political Declaration seems to divide Brexit commentators. Some see it as so vague that it promises the UK years of continued strife as the broad outlines, let alone the detail, of a Final Agreement dfestination are fought over by warring factions and tribes in parliament and the country.  Others are more positive and see the Political Declaration’s ambiguity as a door to creating a close relationship with the EU that might even row back against the red lines currently implicit in it – the end of the Freedom of Movement and withdrawal from the Single Market and Customs Union.


There are those, for example the advocates of the so-called Norway Plus model,  who belief it might be possible at this late stage to renegotiate the Political Declaration in such a way that it makes the May Deal more palatable to a broader range of MPs.


Again whether or not you think the Norway Plus model would honour the referendum result it seems vanishingly unlikely that it would garner the necessary support to get May’s Deal over the line. This is because the Labour Party would not countenance supporting it whilst there is the faintest whiff of the possibility of a General Election that might result from a political crisis following the definitive rejection of May’s Deal and the looming possibility of No Deal.


The only alternative I can see, and it would rely hugely on a change of heart/strategy/tactics in the Labour leadership, is to in effect divide off the Withdrawal Agreement from the Political Declaration.


 In this scenario the meaningful vote on Brexit would, at least at this stage, only concern the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement and as such accept that the eventual elaboration of a Final Agreement objective and negotiating strategy would be deferred until after formal withdrawal from the EU on March 29th 2019.


This splitting of the sequencing of withdrawal and final agreement objective would have the benefit of  putting a full stop under the result of the first referendum. After all, the referendum did not ask what kind of future agreement the UK might have with the EU but only asked the electorate to state a preference between Leaving and Remaining.

This would in effect, at least on paper, exhaust the mandate of the first referendum and in so doing hopefully at least in part clear or calm down the emotional and psychological battleground of the last two and a half years and more. Leavers would be awarded their rightful due.


Such an outcome would be a huge defeat for the 48% of those (of us) who voted to Remain and would come with considerable economic costs in terms of growth foregone and the unequal distribution of that lost growth onto the shoulders of many of those who could least afford it. It would also come at huge cost to any eventual future reaccession of the UK to the EU in terms of the loss of the budget rebate (£5bn a year) and the opt-outs that the UK currently enjoys, not to mention membership or not of the Euro.


But that would be the case under any Brexit and hopefully an orderly withdrawal will come at less cost in the short and medium terms to the UK simply driving itself over the economic cliff edge at Dover.


 Given the intransigence of the DUP over the backstop issue and the disinterest of the Tory Brexit hardliners in a negotiated withdrawal the above scenario could only be achieved with the considerable votes of Labour, Lib Dem or SNP MPs.


In order to get those votes there would have to be some kind of deal between the Government and the Opposition.  It seems to me this deal would need to consider three things.


Firstly, it would need to agree a process for choosing the shape of a Final Agreement with the EU and having some oversight in the negotiation and signing off of that Agreement.


Secondly, it would need to put in place a programme of domestic reform that tackled the unacceptable levels of social and geographical inequality in the UK .


And thirdly, it would need to put in place an immigration policy that addressed concerns foregrounded by the referendum campaign but that also paid heed to the reliance of UK labour markets on access to European and non-European labour.

Cliff edge in the snow, St Margaret's Bay 2010
Cliff edge in the snow, St Margaret's Bay 2010

The postponement of the UK’s post-EU position to post-withdrawal would have a number of implications the largest of which would be the need to lengthen or greatly lengthen the transition period between withdrawal from the EU and the conclusion of a Final Agreement.  Say a year to arrive at a conclusion over the final agreement objectives and five years to negotiate that agreement.


Such a delay to ‘real Brexit’ as opposed to a paper Brexit would be anathema to hard Brexiteers. It would presumably also stick in the craw of many Remainers  as a stay of execution where the UK becomes an EU rule taker while continuing to pay its full budgetary contribution to the EU.


But the whole Brexit process is proving, not surprisingly, to be incredibly divisive and very painful.


The organisation of some kind of national conversation and vote over the Final Agreement/Destination of the UK’s post Brexit relationship with the EU would need to be set down in some kind of binding agreement between Government and Opposition (presumably in the UK Leaving the EU Bill that will be needed to transform the Withdrawal Agreement into law).


This could involve some kind Special Commission of Enquiry with maybe some kind of hybrid Citizen’s Assembly or Panel that would establish a methodology for presenting Final Agreement options to parliament and the people that would assess aspects such as costs and benefits and feasibility and plausibility. A second referendum might be considered on those options although my preference would be for parliament to make this choice.


Alongside the Final Agreement process I think there would be a great opportunity to address UK’s growing social and geographical inequality through a similar process to create a broad consensus on the policy changes necessary to address such issues as the socially and geographically left behind, the future funding of the NHS and social care, and the housing crisis and chronic lack of social and affordable private housing.


Finally there would need to be some kind of discussion and resolution of UK immigration (and emigration) policy particularly with regard to the continued access of UK labour markets to so-called ‘unskilled’ or lowly paid skilled workers.


I know, I know, it’s all wishful thinking and the current state of UK politics and its venal factionalism seems to militate against anything that could begin to heal the very real divisions. And it would take a generosity of spirit and co-operation between natural political enemies that by current standards seems very unlikely.

Calais-bound ferry in thick fog.
Calais-bound ferry in thick fog.