Taking stock. Brexit – just where are we and what are the options

Taking stock. Brexit – just where are we and what are the options

Christmas comes ever earlier each year. When I was a child, we didn’t hear anything about it until 1 December, when Radio 1 broke out the Christmas tracks. Contrast that with this year. Aldi launched their Christmas advert with Kevin the carrot on 9 November. John Lewis unveiled Elton John for their Christmas campaign on 15 November. And poor Theresa May was sledged on 16 November with Donner, Blitzen, Preener, Prancer, Stamper, Stomper, Comic, Stupid and Rudolf the Red-faced Reindeer all putting in their festive letters of no confidence.

What are the self-important ninnies in the ERG trying to achieve?  Let’s say that they get to the 48 letters that they require.  Let’s say that somehow they persuade sufficient numbers of MPs who did not think that the time is right for a contest that they should nevertheless change horses at this stage. 

Stretching still further, let’s assume that they get their chosen candidate (so far unidentified) into the last two and that the membership comes up trumps. What is it that they want the new Prime Minister to do?

For the new Prime Minister will still face the same constraints as the old one. The EU will still take the same negotiating approach and will not budge much. Indeed, they will be unlikely to negotiate at all unless they believe that whatever comes next will stick – the evidence for which is slight at present. 

Parliament will continue to have an absolute majority of MPs who supported Remain at the referendum and who will have the priorities of Remain voters but where a majority of MPs recognise the mandate of the referendum. The Conservative party will remain just as riven on the subject.

Remember, this is the best outcome for the ERGonauts. Far more likely results include advertising the skimpy numbers of true believers (as seems to have happened) or cementing Theresa May in office for another year. 

Replacing the Prime Minister is displacement activity. There are only really three options: fold, stick and twist. The problem that the government, the Conservative party, Parliament and the nation face is that choice has yet to be made by any of them on a collective basis and shows no sign of being made any time soon. 

The ERG should be focussing on that choice. Here they have a stronger hand, in the short term at least, if they want to twist. Other less extreme Leavers detest the draft withdrawal agreement. For that matter, some diehard Remainer Conservatives are opposed to it. The DUP are appalled by it. Labour are opposed to it. The SNP have never knowingly made a Conservative Prime Minister’s life easier. On a first vote at least, the withdrawal agreement at present looks doomed. 

That, however, would almost certainly not be the end of it. The idea that nothing will happen between a vote on the withdrawal agreement and 29 March 2019 looks fanciful. The next move would be the Prime Minister’s and while she would be in a tight spot, she has options.

She could resign. She could put the vote forward again – an option that has been touted on the basis that the markets would go haywire at this point. She could propose a referendum on her deal (probably vs Remain). Or, the draft having been rejected, she could propose a referendum on Remaining after all, as opposed to leaving the EU without a deal. Or, I suppose, she could do nothing. It’s easy to see the negatives of all these options. The bloody difficult woman would have a bloody difficult decision.

Whatever Theresa May chooses she is going to upset a lot of MPs. It’s hard to see how she would avoid a leadership challenge then. Still the question would remain, whether or not she saw that off: what should the Prime Minister do next? 

No policy option looks capable of keeping the Conservative party united. The Conservative party is getting close to ungovernable. Parliament as a whole looks as split. So Theresa May or her successor should look to form a policy that is most likely to keep the country together.

For all its many drawbacks (including one of timetabling), in those circumstances a fresh referendum might be the least bad option. If the country is to endure the privations of No Deal, it should be able to do so with a clear-eyed appreciation of what it is walking into. The decision should not be taken by default.

So perhaps the ERG should back the existing withdrawal agreement after all. It might well be their best outcome from here.

Alastair Meeks

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