You’re not alone in wondering what the Prime Minister is up to. Could there be any method in her apparent madness? Two weeks before the Parliamentary vote on her Brexit deal, she’s flying around the country trying to sell it to the public who won’t be voting on it.
What do we know, or at least think we know?
She’s absolutely ruled out a second referendum. She’s sure to win a vote of confidence in the Commons that might pressure her towards a General Election, because she has the confirmed ongoing support of the DUP (despite not having their support for her Brexit deal vote, and she can’t deem that a confidence vote under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011). And she would be insane to volunteer a General Election over it, even if she could get two-thirds of the House to agree as required under the Act, which is plainly not going to happen. So she is refusing to let the public vote on her Brexit deal.
The clock is ticking down to 29th March 2019, when we’ll leave the EU unless Parliament amends the related legislation. Mrs May has said she definitely won’t do that, and only the Government can even try. So that’s clear.
Barring miracles or extreme whipping, and frankly even with them, she clearly can’t win the so-called ‘meaningful vote’ in the Commons on 11th December. More than enough of her own MPs have confirmed they will vote against her deal, and there’s no sign that sufficient hordes of Labour MPs will defy their party’s whip and rush to her aid. Also clear.
There’s no majority in the House for any other kind of deal, much less for no deal. And while there probably is a big shy majority for remaining in the EU, the vast majority expressly voted to accept the public’s 2016 decision to leave, as well as being mandated to do so having incorporated it into their 2017 election manifestos. All this we know too.
Even if a majority of the House votes on the 11th to tell her to try to renegotiate with the EU or take some other steps, it’s entirely the Government’s decision, and Mrs May has said she won’t do that. Moreover, the EU is insisting they won’t re-open the deal either. While they would say that at this point and perhaps it’s not an absolute block, getting all 27 countries to sign off on something as significant to the EU as the Brexit deal was no mean feat, so changing it in any material way at short notice seems wishful thinking.
The other possibility is that the Government changes course, perhaps through a change of leadership towards either softer or harder Brexit terms, either way leaving it following a more divisive course which would surely also be voted down in the House. And which putative Conservative leader could command greater support than Mrs May anyway?
All of this seems clear. So what is she up to?
Only a fool would try to predict what will happen in these circumstances, so here I go. (If I turn out to be wrong, I can always delete this blog!)
Mrs May knows she will overwhelmingly lose the meaningful vote on her deal on 11th December, and any follow-up vote on it. But she has to make a show of trying to win, proving that she is committed to her deal, and will do whatever it takes to get it ratified. That last point is key.
As Mrs May doesn’t want to face a General Election, any more than she wants to go back cap in hand to the EU only to go through all this again with probably the same result, her only option is to bow to the insistence of Parliament (and “the people”) and let the public decide: Her Deal, No Deal, or No Brexit.
She’s already been using that form of words, while refusing to explain how No Brexit could happen. She’s steadfastly and repeatedly objected to a second referendum on the grounds that it’s undemocratic after the first one. You can’t keep going back till you get the right answer.
So she needs to be forced into it reluctantly, indeed kicking and screaming. She then remains the true democrat, and the second referendum decision will be the choice of her opponents. And they must, as arch-remainer Tony Blair insists, commit up-front to abide by it. The second referendum must therefore be legally binding on the Government, and not just advisory as the first was. Indeed, it was its advisory-only status that has caused much of the heartache to date with 48% of the country voting against leaving, so their preference also had to be taken into account, without anyone able to define objectively what that means.
To do this means extending the Article 50 timetable to allow for the second referendum, the subsequent UK legislation implementing the vote, and further EU negotiations if Mrs May’s Deal is not chosen.
The ECJ is likely to rule shortly that the EU would have to agree to amending the Article 50 process, as otherwise other member states could trigger Article 50 just to try to improve their membership terms, and then withdraw it at will. But there’s every reason to believe they would agree to an extension and even its cancellation as, despite the irritation of the last two years, they’d far rather the UK remained, or at least left on the terms they’ve already agreed rather than without a deal. If ratification of the agreed deal can’t be achieved by Parliament, then the only other way is to put it to a binding vote of the public.
The question put in the second referendum can only logically be Mrs May’s Deal, No Deal, or No Brexit. There are too many competing forces in the House and beyond to allow for anything else. Even Mr Blair accepts this, although he prefers just No Deal or No Brexit as the purer choice, but the Government could not opt for that as it has to argue for the deal it has signed with the EU.
And as we need a clear and decisive outcome, one of those three choices has to get over 50%, which means using the Single Transferable Vote mechanism. If no option achieves an overall majority on the first count, then the second preference votes supporting the least favoured option get redistributed, guaranteeing a majority for one of the two remaining. We already use STV a lot, for example in local elections, so we don’t need to agonise over that.
In my view, that means either Mrs May’s Deal or No Brexit wins, with the odds favouring Mrs May’s Deal. That’s because No Deal is clearly the least favoured option by the vast majority of MPs and, at least according to pollsters and pundits, the country.
Until the last few days, I was confident that No Dealers would make Mrs May’s Deal their second preference, as at least that means leaving the EU. But intriguingly a number are saying they’d prefer to remain in the EU for now with the option of trying again later, rather than risk being locked permanently into a never-ending customs union and, in Northern Ireland’s case, EU Single Market regulations. So I think the jury’s out on whether the second referendum will lead to our remaining in the EU or adopting Mrs May’s Deal. But I still reckon the most ardent Brexiteers will ultimately opt, however unhappily, for the other Brexit option: Mrs May’s Deal.
Although a bit of a digression but intriguing nonetheless, we know that the Irish backstop ties Northern Ireland to EU Single Market regulations indefinitely, as well as remaining (with the rest of the UK) in an EU customs union. This is of course one of the most contentious aspects of Mrs May’s Deal, but I’m not so sure it’s unintentional by the Government.
I say this as not only does it reflect overt support for the union of Northern Ireland with Great Britain by preventing a customs border down the Irish Sea, but maintaining Single Market regulations in Northern Ireland will also make it much easier for Irish re-unification when the next vote on that takes place there, and that will be after the demographics have inevitably changed in favour of Irish nationalists.
Of course re-unification is not the policy of the Conservative and Unionist Party. But the current Northern Irish Unionist majority is disappearing fast, and let’s not forget that 56% there voted to remain in 2016, against the UK’s overall 48%. So Northern Ireland could well leave the UK in the not too distant future. Hence the vigorous rejection of the Brexit deal by the DUP, which is entirely rational in this context. But is it so unreasonable for the British Government – albeit covertly – to prefer to face the reality of the changing Northern Irish demographics and that population’s Europhile tendency, and so smooth what’s inevitable?
If I’m right, there is method in Mrs May’s apparent madness of preaching to those to whom she is currently refusing to allow a second vote. It’s little to do with encouraging the public and local Conservative Party chairs to put pressure on their MPs to support her, despite that apparently being the official line. Mrs May is instead showing her absolute commitment to her Brexit deal, to no customs border in the Irish Sea, and to democracy, while stealing a march on the referendum campaign. Not mad at all.