Richard North, 13/02/2019  
 


If one were to sum up the entire proceedings of the House of Commons over the last few months, one partial sentence from yesterday's session might suffice: "Order. There is a lot of noise and heckling …".

That was the speaker intervening during the prime minister's statement yesterday, a sign of how the ill-disciplined rabble are dealing with the most important political event of the century. "I think it is right that she should have a proper and respectful hearing", the speaker went on to say, "and the same courtesy must be extended to the leader of the opposition in due course".

Respect, of course, is something almost completely missing in the Commons, between the different factions and between members, and not least from the SNP's Ian Blackford who called the prime minister a liar before being forced to apologise.

Calling a Member or Hon Member a liar is not permitted in the chamber – on pain of suspension – which makes for the odd situation where the penalty for calling someone a liar is greater than it is for actually lying. Mind you, Blackford had just accused the prime minister of living in a parallel universe and that, apparently, is permitted. He was also allowed to call the prime minister's deal "a fraud".

But if respect is hard to come by in the Commons, that is nothing compared to the sentiment outside the institution. There can rarely have been a time when the MP collective has been regarded with such profound contempt by the public at large - and even by the international community, with the Czechs remarking on the infantilisation of politics.

If contempt solved anything, we would be well on our way to a rapid solution for Brexit. Sadly, that is not enough. And nor, it would seem, are Mrs May's efforts.

Her statement told us nothing we didn't already know: that the EU will not reopen the withdrawal agreement while the UK "needs to see legally binding changes to the backstop, and that that can be achieved by changes to the withdrawal agreement". With that in mind, the UK and EU teams will hold further talks to find a way forward, whence president Juncker and the prime minister will meet again before the end of February to take stock of the discussions.

That was basically it, following which we were told:
The talks are at a crucial stage, and we now all need to hold our nerve to get the changes that this House requires and to deliver Brexit on time. By getting the changes we need to the backstop, by protecting and enhancing workers' rights and environmental protections and by enhancing the role of Parliament in the next phase of negotiations, I believe we can reach a deal that this House can support.
Understandably, opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn was less than happy. "Our country is facing the biggest crisis in a generation", he said, "yet the prime minister continues to recklessly run down the clock".

Complaining that we had been promised a deal last October that did not happen, with a promise of a meaningful vote on a deal in December, which also did not happen, he asserted that MPs had been told to prepare for a further meaningful vote this week.

But this was to be after the prime minister had again promised to secure "significant and legally binding changes to the backstop". And this had not happened. Now, Mr Corbyn declared, "the prime minister comes before the House with more excuses and more delays".

To be fair, despite a lot of happenings not happening, Mrs May had come before the House with something quite special. She had delivered a belief system. And the basis of this new faith is simple: while the EU is not prepared to reopen the withdrawal agreement, the prime minister believes her team can ignore everything she is told by the EU and negotiate changes that the EU says won't happen.

This belief will sustain the prime minister until the end of February, and Mrs May was generously inviting MPs to join her in this exciting exhibition of blind faith. Nor can this be so very much to ask. As we leave February and enter what should be the final month of the Brexit process, we will enter uncharted territory. Then the believing has to stop and Mrs May will have to deliver.

Very few people, I would venture, would be prepared to wager serious money on Mrs May delivering. So the smart money is on speculating on how she will spin her failure – with or without the help of the EU. We wait in awe to see whether she can put something to parliament that will motivate enough MPs to ratify the withdrawal agreement.

This, we are told, will happen on 27 February if it is to happen at all. If it doesn't the government will table another of those magical mystery amendable motions, allowing MPs to play their incomprehensible games – incomprehensible to themselves and just about everybody else.

As to what happens after that, there is already considerable speculation, centring around a choice between accepting a revised deal or a prolonged extension to the Article 50 negotiations.

For want of that, the media can always do what it does best – make things up. There is nothing wholly out of bounds, right up to a military coup, if that takes your fancy.

That should keep the media entertained until the next possible milestone, which could be as early as 13 March. If parliament has by then not ratified the withdrawal agreement, MPs might get to opt for a no-deal Brexit or request the government to seek an extension to the Article 50 period.

After that, there is the European Council scheduled for 21-22 March in Brussels. There, in theory, Mrs May could broker a last-minute agreement and rush it home for parliament to ratify it before the skies fall in.

This would involve running a cart and horse through all known statutory procedures, cutting the usual waiting period for international agreements to be ratified.

The timescale makes this more than a little fanciful, but it would also breach the EU's procedural guidelines. The European Council (EU-27) does not engage directly in the negotiation process. It approves the mandate and allows – in this case – the Commission's Michel Barnier to get on with the job, then responding to his recommendations.

Basically, therefore, if there is nothing agreed by the time the European Council meets, the chances are that the game will already be over. But that doesn't stop the media speculating about a make-or-break vote in the Commons on 26 March, 72 hours before Brexit – based on whatever is decided in Brussels.

The narrative for that is that MPs would either be given the stark "deal or no-deal" choice, with Mrs May daring MPs to dump the nation in the mire, or then be given the choice between Mrs May's deal and a prolonged Article 50 extension.

Given that choice, it is thought possible that MPs could opt for the deal – assuming the choice is real, where the EU-27 would be prepared to approve any extension. There is some hope that the ERG members could react positively to this, fearing that Brexit might be cancelled altogether if a long delay is accepted.

Nevertheless, the need for unanimous approval of all 27 Member States would make this a high risk strategy. Any one of them could refuse to play ball or demand conditions that prove unacceptable. And then, the period offered could end up being very different to what the UK actually asks for.

And all the time, 29 March looms as the automatic deadline, when, in the absence of a withdrawal agreement, the treaties cease to have effect. There still seem to be many MPs who don't realise what default actually means. It is not possible, by procedural means, to take a no-deal "off the table".

With that, we have no means of knowing whether Mrs May's real intent is to secure a no-deal Brexit and, despite her denials, is running down the clock. But if she is actively seeking to avoid a no-deal, she has an odd way of showing it. Her approach to Brexit is daily looking less like a coherent policy and more like the despairing tactics of the Imperial Japanese Navy in late 1944, resorting increasingly to Kamikaze strikes. 

There is no way that this ends well.






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