Richard North, 21/10/2019  
 


I am still not sure of the fate of Johnson's attempt to re-introduce an approval motion for his deal, supposedly due to be voted on today. At the time of writing, opinion seems to be split on whether Bercow will block the attempt on the basis that it is a repetition of Saturday's vote.

If a vote does go ahead, then some sources indicate that Johnson could carry the day, with the Financial Times suggesting he could bring in a majority of five votes – while admitting that the result is on a knife-edge.

A successful vote on the Monday could have the effect of restoring the original timetable, aimed at taking us out on 31 October. A final, legally checked text of Johnson's deal has been formally conveyed to the European Parliament. There could be a "consent" vote as early as Thursday, the last day of the current Strasbourg plenary session.

Trying to predict the unknowable, if Bercow does block the vote, that leaves Johnson falling back on the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, which the government apparently plans to fast track. Parliament is to be asked to abandon its child-friendly hours and sit late into the nights and for some of the weekend – with another Saturday session in prospect.

In this event, if Verhofstadt does stick to his original plan of holding off the EP consent vote until he's seen the whites of their eyes in Westminster, that will mean – most likely – a vote in the 13/14 November plenary, delaying Brexit perhaps until the end of November.

However, as regards the response of the EU to Johnson's extension request, there now seems less uncertainty with reports that the European Council might meet in special session next week, after the UK parliament has finished its business, to decide how to react.

According to The Sunday Times, the Council is poised to grant the three-month extension requested by Johnson, but also including the break clause which he suggested, terminating the extension period if the deal is ratified before it is due to end.

Nevertheless, it seems that options are being kept open in case the Bill runs into serious trouble, as it could do if MPs try to force a Labour-inspired referendum amendment, which could significantly delay ratification. In that case, there might be a move in the European Council to increase the length of the extension, possibly bringing it to the end of June.

It appears that Norbert Röttgen, Angela Merkel's ally, is in favour of the longer delay, giving the UK "time to sort itself out". In this, he seems to have the support of Antti Rinne, Finland's prime minister and holder of the EU’s rotating presidency. With Donald Tusk, he is taking soundings in the EU capitals over the next "few days", and says it makes sense to allow extra time.

Whether indeed the UK – or, more specifically, parliament – can sort itself out is moot. As well as its referendum amendment, Labour might be intending to support an attempt to include membership of the customs union in Johnson's deal.

Seen as a "wrecking" amendment, this would require the government to reopen negotiations with Brussels – something for which there is no appetite – putting the whole process back into the melting pot. At the very least, this ploy could slow down the progress of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill.

Needless to say, Westminster is bubbling with talk of plots and schemes, including an idea that, if Johnson is successful on Monday in getting an approval vote – which assumes it will not be blocked by Bercow – he will use it to withdraw his extension request.

There is no means of telling how serious a prospect this might be, but there is a suggestion that it could lead to retaliation. MPs are resorting to what is being called "guerrilla war", trying to block the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, building on the sense of anarchy which is prevailing within Westminster. Any such outcome, though, risks us dropping out of the EU without a deal, the very outcome the swamp dwellers claim to be trying to prevent.

Broadly, while the Westminster politico-media establishment immerses itself in its eternal soap opera, the sentiment in the wider world is one of increasing irritation.

There is undoubtedly a section of the public which has no sympathy for the games being played, and endorses Johnson's view of wanting to see Brexit "done". Every twist and turn in the soap opera, so lovingly documented by the media, is seen as just another attempt to delay our departure from the EU.

This is certainly the impression that foreign secretary Dominic Raab sought to convey on the BBC's Andrew Marr show, talking of a "breach of faith" with the voters. He adds that there are "many people in the EU" who are "deeply uncomfortable" about a further delay to Brexit. Like his cabinet colleagues, he is urging MPs to "get on, get it through the House of Commons, and move on".

There is definitely an air of electioneering in what Raab has to say, and the Telegraph is talking about Downing Street drawing up plans to force a general election which could take place as soon as 28 November. How it plans to make that happen is not revealed.

Yet, contrasting with what are described by Raab as "the shenanigans in parliament", the Guardian paints a picture of MPs on all sides of the house holding their nerve to subject Johnson's deal "to forensic scrutiny, undistracted by his totemic Brexit deadline of 31 October". It thus intones:
While the EU may not respond immediately to Britain's request for an extension, it must not conspire with Mr Johnson to allow a no-deal Brexit to take place at the end of the month. The prime minister may wish to dash for the line. It is absolutely not necessary or advisable for the rest of parliament to do the same. Three and a half years of deadlock, almost entirely caused by arguments between Tory leavers, does not mean that, suddenly, anything goes.
"However much MPs, and the rest of us, are suffering from Brexit fatigue", the paper says, "this deal needs to be fought every step of the way in the crucial days to come".

Thus do we get a sense of the divide where, no less engaged in self-serving manoeuvres for electoral advantage, Labour is nevertheless convincing itself that, by opposing Johnson's deal, it is acting in the greater public interest.

Where the party might have a better case is in articulating concern about claims that Johnson's deal will allow the country to "move on". If the outcome is, as the Guardian puts it, that we move into "a truncated and ferociously contested transition period lasting until the end of 2020", the net effect might simply be to defer a no-deal Brexit for fourteen months.

Either way, as Andrew Cooper in the Evening Standard observed back in February of this year, "the proposition that, far from marking the end of the tedious and vexatious period of negotiation, the fact of Brexit will actually trigger a new and almost certainly much longer and more complex new phase of talks, can bring focus groups to horrified silence".

That reality, perhaps, is being lost in the current turmoil, but it needs restating. The Withdrawal Agreement is just that – it gets us out of the EU. The long-term relationship will be determined by the talks yet to come, and there is where the real battle lies.

With the warring parties exhausting themselves (and the public) with the current "shenanigans", one wonders whether there will be any energy left to fight that more important battle.






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