Richard North, 13/03/2019  

Whatever you make of Brexit and of last night's vote, there is one unarguable point to make. Since June 2016, the prime minister and her government, alongside the houses of parliament, have had only one [main] job – arranging our formal withdrawal from the European Union.

Parliament's second rejection of the Withdrawal Agreement, by 391 votes to 242, represents a failure of these bodies to deliver. It can be dressed up any which way but the fact is that these bodies were charged with the task of getting us out. And, with sixteen days to go before we are due to leave, they still haven't sorted it. That is a failure by any measure.

As far as parliament is concerned, we see a consistent and almost obstinate refusal of the many to get to grips with the simple reality of what is involved, the choices involved: to ratify the Withdrawal Agreement as a precursor to what the prime minister calls an "orderly Brexit"; or to leave without a deal.

This refusal was well-evident in the debate before the vote, where we see multiple references to diverse alternatives. But, poking through was what amounted to a refusal of the entire body to take responsibility for the Brexit decision. This, as much as anything, explains the popularity of the second referendum and the "peoples' choice". If the people choose, the MPs don't have to.

Understandably, in her response to the vote, Mrs May was direct and to the point. "I profoundly regret the decision that this House has taken tonight", she said, expressing her continued belief "that by far the best outcome is that the United Kingdom leaves the European Union in an orderly fashion with a deal".

One might take issue with her then claiming that the deal we have negotiated "is the best". It is a very bad deal and a little candour from the prime minister wouldn't hurt. We are in this situation because Mrs May put us there, largely through her inability to understand what she was dealing with.

How different the debate might have been if she had approached it from that perspective. "Look people", she might have said, "I've completely messed up this whole Brexit thing. I've manoeuvred us into a cul-de-sac and there is no way out other than the Withdrawal Agreement: it's shit or bust".

But such clarity is not given to our government's leader, even if she wasn't wrong when she told the House that the mess she had stitched up was the only deal available. That much has been made clear time and again, not least by just about everybody who is somebody in the European Union.

Now we're in this mess though, we need a plan and, in this respect at least, Mrs May is the last grown-up standing. Two weeks ago, she said, she had made a series of commitments from the very Dispatch Box at which she was currently standing, "regarding the steps we would take in the event that this House rejected the deal on offer".

In order to stand by those commitments, Mrs May was to table a motion for debate which is to be held today to test whether the House supports leaving the EU without a deal on 29 March. The motion, though, was not something the children could be happy with. It reads:
That this House declines to approve leaving the European Union without a Withdrawal Agreement and a Framework on the Future Relationship on 29 March 2019; and notes that leaving without a deal remains the default in UK and EU law unless this House and the EU ratify an agreement.
No sooner tabled then the kiddies took over, with the Spelman-Dromey duo offering an amendment which seeks to strike out the "no deal as default" clause. They want parliament simply to reject leaving without the withdrawal agreement and the framework declaration.

If this or Mrs May's motion gets the approval of the children, Mummy will then tell her government to implement that "decision" – not that it actually can directly. What she then plans is another vote, this one on Thursday, when the House will be asked whether it wants to seek an extension to Article 50.

If the House votes for Shangri La, then the government "will seek to agree that extension with the EU and bring forward the necessary legislation to change the exit date, commensurate with that extension".

And there lies the devil – tucked away in the detail. We're getting plenty of vibes from the colleagues on this, typified by Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte, who declares that should the UK hand in a reasoned request for an extension, "I expect a credible and convincing justification".

In actuality, the odds look to be in the UK's favour, if that is the right word. Pat Leahy of the Irish Times reminds us that it will have to be agreed unanimously by the EU-27, most likely at next week's European Council.

Says Leahy, though, once requested by the UK, there seems little doubt that it would be granted. Nobody, outside of a small group of hard line Brexiteers in the House of Commons, wants to prompt a crash-out for which nobody (including the Irish Government) is prepared. So there will almost certainly be an extension.

There lies my view, for the only reason the "colleagues" might agree to an extension is to allow them better to prepare for a no-deal. But, as Mummy May makes "clear", "voting against leaving without a deal and for an extension does not solve the problems that we face".

The EU, she says, will want to know what use we mean to make of such an extension, and this House will have to answer that question. Does it wish to revoke Article 50? Does it want to hold a second referendum? Or does it want to leave with a deal, but not this deal?

Says our prime minister, "these are unenviable choices, but thanks to the decision that the House has made this evening, they are choices that must now be faced".

They are also false choices. Even now, the idea of parliament seeking to revoke Article 50 seems unthinkable and, over the weeks and months, it is painfully obvious that there is appetite neither in the House nor the country for a second referendum. As for another deal, this is simply not on the table. The EU will refuse on any grounds to entertain more negotiations.

Needless to say, nothing of this penetrates the thick skulls of the Muppet tendency, including Steve Baker, Nigel Dodds and Nicky Morgan. They want a "managed no-deal" which would entail Brexit being delayed until 22 May, whence the government would "offer to pay Brussels to strike standstill agreements with the EU lasting until no later than the end of 2021".

This one has been tried before – a very transparent way of sneaking a transitional period under the barrier without the backstop. Yet, already, Michel Barnier has referred to the "dangerous illusion" that the UK can benefit from a transition in the absence of the Withdrawal Agreement. "Let me be clear", he says, "the only legal basis for a transition is the Withdrawal Agreement. No withdrawal agreement means no transition".

So, we're back in fantasy land, a place some MPs have never left, and where they will be later today. Demanding that the UK government rejects a no-deal is akin to Canute's courtiers demanding that he turns back the tide. As Mrs May's motion notes, "leaving without a deal remains the default in UK and EU law unless this House and the EU ratify an agreement".

Yet, for as long as the children refuse to address this simple truth, it seems we are doomed to their stupid games, in the House where they bray like donkeys and leave their brains at the door.

We could have stood the prime minister making a mess of Brexit, but when MPs follow suit, we have a real problem on our hands. Much more of this and people will seriously be asking what parliament is for.

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