Four weeks ago I was worried about writing this column on the eve of the last major parliamentary debate on Brexit. Anything could have happened, rendering my speculation obsolete by the time you read it. I shouldn’t have fretted. Anything could have happened but nothing did.
Here I am again. Groundhog day. It’s Tuesday. There’s a big debate tomorrow.
You’ll have found out all about it by now. So let me go out on a limb with a prediction. Nothing happened yesterday. Well, nothing of substance anyway.
I’ve never known a juxtaposition of such a massive need for things to be done with such an inability to make them happen. It’s beyond frustrating. I hear people say let’s just get it over with. I’d put up my hand to make it stop right now. Sadly, it isn’t going to stop and it isn’t going to be over anytime soon.
But beneath the surface some things are getting clearer. First, it is now pretty inconceivable that the UK will leave the European Union on March 29th. Even Theresa May admits that’s unlikely and the government is preparing to bring forward a proposal to extend Article 50. The only problem is as far as the government is concerned they only need a short extension of the process to finalise the details. That’s nonsense. We are nowhere near agreeing the first principles of leaving never mind the details.
And of course, the EU, all 27 other countries, have to agree to an extension. Now, quite reasonably they’ve said that they can see how an extension would be necessary if there was a fundamental rethink by the UK government and/or they needed to consult the electorate in an election or referendum. They will need some persuading to extend just to discuss the current proposals for longer.
Which brings me to the second thing that is becoming clear. There’s no majority for the government’s withdrawal deal, no matter how many tweaks or codicils are tacked onto it. The hard right Brexiteers will pretty much resist anything the EU has agreed to on the basis that if the EU wants it they don’t.
The defections from the Labour and Tory parties have had surprisingly little impact. This most certainly is not the SDP mark two. Partly because the newly independent MPs don’t actually represent a world view in the way the SDP did. But also, because these are different times. These days a government can lose a parliamentary vote by 230 and not bat an eyelid.
So what will happen? Well a new deal is possible. The most likely way to get to that is to take the whole debate about the Irish backstop out of the withdrawal agreement and into the debate on future trading arrangements with an extended transition period.
That means we can spend another three years debating whether to have no deal with the EU after the transition or a fully-fledged free trade agreement. As an exercise in can kicking it’d be superb. It would, of course, resolve nothing. But it might keep the Tory party together – and there are plenty here who see that as the main point of this whole exercise.
In the midst of this continuing chaos we are moving closer to a second vote on Brexit. Scotland never voted for this in the first place but there is now a majority in England who would vote to remain. Indeed, 110 out of the last 121 UK opinion polls suggest that result.
The SNP have been campaigning for a people’s vote on the terms of Brexit since last summer. It seems like Corbyn may now be coming to that view – although strangely he never uttered the words in a ten-minute response to the PM on Tuesday.
Written for the Edinburgh Evening News - 28th February 2019