It was quite the evening in the House of Commons last night. Theresa May was stepping up to debate her Brexit deal with the House – meaning, she had to stand in the middle and hear from all sides how bad most MPs think it is, something she’s signed up to do for four more days – yet before that had even happened, she had lost three votes already. Two involving the government not releasing the legal advice on Brexit (the second vote causing the House to hold the government in contempt, something that has never happened before in all of British history) and one that has a huge bearing on what happens if – and it increasingly looks like when – May’s deal fails to get the backing of the Commons.
The Grieve amendment, back for a second go since it was voted against by Grieve himself during the Withdrawal Bill reading, passed this time 321 to 299. It means that the House now has procedures through which it can decide what happens if there’s no deal in a substantive way. It becomes much, much harder for the government to stop that now that this amendment has passed. With it, some clarity spins into view. Some Remainers have rejoiced thinking that this means a second referendum could be on the cards. But I’m really not so sure when you look at things more closely.
No deal almost certainly won’t happen now, unless by some monumental screw up. But what is much more likely than a People’s Vote is Norway Plus. Think about it: there are way more Tories who will vote for this over another referendum. That isn’t actually the crucial bit, however (if push came to shove, a lot of the Norway Plus Tories would vote for another referendum if it was that or no deal) – what makes Norway Plus much more likely is what the Labour Party does, and more notably, the leader of the opposition’s actions.
Corbyn doesn’t want a second referendum. Let me put it another way: he’d go way out of his way to avoid one taking place. The reason is obvious: Labour would be put in a very difficult position, and no one more so than him, a life long Brexiteer. He would be forced to half-heartedly campaign for Remain, while McDonnell and Starmer both outflanked him on the topic. Win or lose, Corbyn comes out of it a diminished figure. With Norway Plus, he gets Brexit without any further hassle to himself. He will probably figure that with Brexit settled, politics can go back to “normal” and he can talk again about austerity and all that; more importantly for him, Corbyn can get back to being on the same side of every argument as most Labour members, as opposed to being uncomfortably on the wrong side of the Brexit question.
I’m not saying a second referendum won’t happen – hell, anything could still happen. Just after the Grieve amendment, I think Norway Plus looks way more likely. Even that is a somewhat complicated place to get to from where we are now – but I think more MPs will want to go there than have to have the country experience another EU referendum. One MP in particular, Jeremy Corbyn, could prove instrumental in what happens to Brexit.
Is the ‘Plus’ in ‘Norway Plus’ ‘Plus The Customs Union’?
If so, does that require the EU’s agreement (my reading is that just joining EFTA (the actual Norway option) doesn’t require the EU’s agreement, just the agreement of the four EFTA states themselves; but presumably joining the customs union would require the EU’s agreement).
Would the EU be minded give that agreement, given it surely believes now that it has the UK by the short and curlies and can force it either into either the humiliation of accepting the Withdrawal Agreement or the humiliation of remaining in the EU?
Jeff Kenner says
Yes the EU will offer it (it has already) but it won’t alter the Withdrawal Agreement as Norway plus Customs Union will have to be negotiated with the EU and the EEA countries after Brexit day. Still needs a backstop in case a future UK Government changes its position. Basically it is the same as EU membership but without participation rights.
Right so it’s not actually a goer as the main thing which stops MPs accepting the Withdrawl Agreement (the backstop) will stop this being acceptable as well.
Paul W says
As I understand it, Norway Plus is EFTA plus the European Economic Area (single market lite) plus the Customs Union. None of the four EFTA country is in the Customs Union for good reason, though three (excepting Switzerland) are in the European Economic Area.
Although some argue that the UK is already in the EEA, and thus could simply continue as a member, there is no reason to doubt that joining EFTA-EEA plus the Customs Union would require negotiations with both sets of players, i.e. EFTA and the EU. In addition to which, we have good reason to believe the EU would demand a backstop arrangement.
What I have yet to see explained with any convincing clarity is why EFTA-EEA+CU+backstop is any better than Mrs May’s actual Deal, given that the EEA package comes complete with, inter alia, a membership subscription and freedom of movement. But there we are.
So… in the event of the vote on the Withdrawal Agreement failing, what amendment could possibly be made to the report motion (which is what the Grieve Amendment and seriously, was politics not confusing enough without two Dominics on opposite sides?, enables) which would make the UK end up in the EFTA + EEA + Customs Union, given the EU would almost certainly block the UK joining the Customs Union without a backstop [which would thus return us right back to the new agreement not getting a majority in the Commons]?
Joining EFTA is a separate issue and a separate negotiation.
Remaining in the EEA and the Customs Union is certainly feasible and one of the options that Barnier outlined from the start. I am not sure about the question of the backstop. Committing to the Single Market carries its own version of Article 50, but the time allocated is only one year.
Normally this should not need a backstop, but given the antics of prominent UK politicians (Davis and Johnson for example) confidence is so low that it is quite likely that EU leaders might want legally expressed guarantees. In international relations crass stupidity has consequences.
Remaining in the EEA and the Customs Union is certainly feasible and one of the options that Barnier outlined from the start
But given that the May deal is so much better for the EU than that outcome (as it makes us a total slave rather than a trading partner), why would they go backwards?
Paul W says
The EU have made it very clear they would want to hang backstops on any Deal. Given no-one wants a so-called hard border on the island or Ireland – not the UK, not Dublin, not Brussels or even the WTO – the interesting question is why is there a need for this backstop at all (as opposed to some side-deal undertaking to have no hard border)? The EU’s very own Prince of Darkness, Martin Selmayr, appears to have his own answer to that question. Likewise, I suspect Ireland’s Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney have theirs. And I am sure the need to protect ‘frictionless’ trade doesn’t feature very highly in either answer. Their motives are suspect.
It is fairly simple: the ink had hardly dried last year before cabinet ministers were openly speculating about reneging on the phase 1 agreement. This signalled a need to make any further agreements legally watertight.
There is a commitment amongst all 26 other EU states to protect Ireland. The negatives for the EU would be catastrophic if Ireland were seen to be sacrificed at the behest of rich pressure groups. However, if the UK revoked Article 50 what backstop would anyone insist upon? There would not be one. The closer the UK is to the Single Market and Customs Union, the less the need for a backstop. Partnership in the EEA demands a one year process for leaving(I think it is Article 127 – op 127 is the first of Beethoven’s late string quartets), It is in this time that a backstop to protect the Good Friday Agreement would be insisted upon.
So long as the UK was committed to the single Market and Customs Union that situation is what the backstop would have been for Northern Ireland anyway. Paranoid imaginings are no substitute for reality and no, in the EU this agreement is not considered to be good for EU countries.
Paul W says
What has the backstop got to do with the Good Friday Agreement?
Nothing. The EU’s role in formulating the Good Friday Agreement consisted of a handshake for the photographs. The so-called backstop is a crafty political device. It has to go.
You appear to be ignoring the existence of a country that is an EU member state, called Ireland. Ironically, the fact that you are not exactly untypical has the effect of making a backstop more necessary.
Can you point to which page of the Good Friday Agreement (a) makes a backstop necessary or (b) even mentions the border at all?
To help you out you can get the text here: