What are we to make of last night’s votes on Brexit in the British parliament? Are we edging closer to a deal in time for 29 March? Or towards a crash out on the same date? Or towards a postponement? You can find advocates of each of these in this morning’s media coverage.
The official Conservative line is this: the victory of the Graham Brady amendment shows that there is majority for the government’s deal if only the Irish backstop can be made to go away. So the prime minister Theresa May will go back to Brussels, and the EU side will crack, in spite of all their protestations to the contrary, because they fear a no-deal, which will disrupt commerce, to say nothing of an advantageous legal settlement, and, not least, leave the Irish border in fog. Parliament will then endorse the revised deal, and scramble to enact the necessary legislation to ensure a smooth formal exit on 29 March.
This is straight out of the backseat driver’s guide to negotiations, beloved of the Tory Brexiteers, who have shown little skill at front seat driving, but remain experts in the backseat variety. I am very sceptical that the EU side is going to give anything like enough ground. The optimists are looking in the wrong place for potential progress. The key is not the EU officials based in Brussels, but the Irish ones in Dublin. If British Brexiteers show little understanding of EU politics, they are experts in it compared to their comprehension of Irish politics. I’m no expert in either brand of politics, and I had been expecting, even hoping for, signs of flexibility in Dublin, given the terrible impact a no-deal would have there. But there is absolutely no sign of it. I suspect that there is a deep-seated mistrust of British (and Northern Irish Unionist) politicians. The Irish seem to like the EU (in spite of the rough treatment meted out to them in the Euro crisis) because it is their best hope of reducing their dependence on their high-handed neighbour. What we are learning in the whole sorry Brexit business is that politics trumps economics. This is as true of Brexit supporters as it is of anybody else – but their leaders seem to think that what is true of them is not true of their Irish and other EU counterparts. But then again, they aren’t worried about a no-deal outcome either. They calculate that if there is severe disruption, public anger will turn on the EU institutions, which will consolidate the grip of hard Brexiteers on the British political system. They might be right.
So is Mrs May’s plan doomed to failure? Actually no. The deeper significance of last night’s votes is that, as the deadline advances, nerves are starting to fray. That is evident in the uncharacteristic unity of Conservative MPs. Only 8 voted against the Brady amendment, and nine abstained. But I think much more significantly there are signs of nerves amongst Labour MPs. Seven voted for Brady and six abstained. That is about double the size of previous Labour support for the government backed approach. Still not big numbers, but is it the growing trickle that suddenly turns to a flood? Furthermore the Labour leader appeared to offer an olive branch to Mrs May by suggesting a meeting, though we shouldn’t expect anything from this.
So Mrs May has reason to hope that, when she comes back from her renegotiation with no more than token concessions, enough Tory and Labour MPs who had previously voted against her deal will either change sides or abstain. There will need to be quite a few, though, as there is little chance of pleasing the Ulster Unionists.
If that doesn’t work, the only hope to avoid a no-deal is for the government to work with Labour on a new deal, moving to a softer Brexit, with a postponement of the leaving date until the summer. This doesn’t look very likely. Even less likely, based on last night, is that a cross-party group of backbenchers will be able to force a postponement of the evil day.
So my interpretation of last night’s votes is that both a deal, close to the existing one, and a no-deal crash, have become more likely, with an exit on 29 March. A postponement, either leading to a softer Brexit or to a referendum are both less likely. And the tension just ratchets up.