May should balance one Brexit concession with another
This is what Brexit was about: the right of Britain’s democratically elected MPs to take their own decisions free from the interference of Brussels (or, indeed, anybody else). Or perhaps not. Understandably, some pro-Leave MPs are so incandescent at the prospect that the Trade Bill might be amended so as to require “an appropriate authority to take all necessary steps [to conclude a customs union with the EU by Brexit Day]” that they’re burning as filament-white as the light bulbs you once got before the EU banned them.
Whether that anger is justified is a moot point and turns on what obligations come along with such a Union. After all, the Phase One deal potentially committed to “full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union” insofar as intra-Irish co-operation and trade is concerned (which is arguably virtually all of it). And the prize on leaving of new trade deals around the world is inevitably going to involve accepting some terms that strongly challenge currently-protected groups within the UK, or which go against public opinion (the chlorinated chicken has details).
On the other hand, Copper Brexit (it comes with CU*) could not only change the whole nature of the Brexit process and trigger further moves to pseudo-Remain but might, at the extremes, bring down the government.
I don’t think it will go that far. There is a reasonable (though odds-against, I’d suggest) chance that the government will still win. Alternatively, it might just accept the defeat and do its best to carry on. May as PM resembles Gordon Brown in no small way and her resilience in keeping going is one such measure. After all, it was parliament which inflicted the defeat – admittedly, made possible only because of her botched election campaign – rather than a government reversal, and what would Leavers do? The maths in the Commons are the same whoever leads the Tories, unless they upset the DUP or expel the saboteurs or something similarly silly.
Perhaps what’s most remarkable about the quite probable success of the amendment is that it could well pass not only against the outright opposition of the government but with only an ambivalent opposition front bench, one which has only come round to backing the amendment against its instincts because of pressure from the backbenches.
I can think of few parallels in British history where something potentially so significant was delivered with such little active support of either main party – the Sexual Offences Act (1967), might perhaps be the most recent one. Truly the nation’s sovereign parliament has taken back control.
Unfortunately for Theresa May, that would leave her in a crisis bigger even than that she faced on 9 June 2017; one that could only be overcome by grasping the initiative – not a natural instinct for the PM, it has to be said. How to do it? One thought comes to mind: that bus. It’s time to announce an increase in the NHS budget of £350m a week.
Cynical? A little. Audacious? That too. But it’s not like the Service doesn’t need the cash, it wouldn’t all have to be delivered up front (thank you, transition period), this week’s borrowing figures do leave genuine fiscal breathing space, and by addressing both a physical and political problem, it would also spike one of Labour’s most effective attack lines. Take back control: give in.
* Yes, technically it should be ‘Cu’ but that not only looks wrong but hints too readily at rudeness; go with how it sounds. ‘Carbon-Uranium’ would be even worse.