Brexit Update: The New Nero

A no-deal Brexit is not yet "nearly inevitable"; but the probability of such rose further last night.

Updating on my 1 April article, the conduct and outcome of yesterday's indicative voting on Brexit in the House of Commons, which again rejected all the options on which it was asked to vote, can and should be summed up as a latter-day equivalent of Nero fiddling while Rome burned.

It now looks likely that Parliament will have a third go tomorrow, 3 April. But, even though the motion calling for "a permanent and comprehensive UK-wide customs union with the EU" was defeated by just three votes and two of the other three options also came close, there is certainly no guarantee of majority support for anything.

Before this, though, today will see a five hour cabinet meeting, the first three of which will be the so called 'political cabinet', ie no civil servants in the room. Prospects for this meeting are accurately summed up by today's edition of The Guardian as follows.

"After parliament had its say, cabinet ministers will have to decide whether to tack towards a closer future relationship with the EU in an attempt to build a majority; head for a no-deal Brexit on 12 April; or give [Mrs] May’s deal a final shot this week, probably on Wednesday.

Several cabinet ministers, including Andrea Leadsom and Liam Fox, are adamant that a no-deal exit would be preferable to a customs union – and they claim the support of more than half of the parliamentary party, many of whom signed a letter to [Mrs] May making the point.

The home secretary, Sajid Javid, a contender to succeed [Mrs] May as Conservative leader, made his position clear on Monday, tweeting that a customs union might appear to be “some kind of soft comfort blanket” but was “in reality more of a straitjacket”.

However, another well-organised group of ministers, including Amber Rudd and David Gauke, are determined to avoid no deal and believe [Mrs] May should instead seek a cross-party consensus."

Widespread speculation that the possibility of calling a snap general election will also be discussed in almost certainly justified, although it is not clear whether Mrs May and her cabal of close advisors are serious about this or simply seeking leverage to try to dragoon the Tory dissenters over her deal into voting for it if she can bring it back to the House for a fourth attempt tomorrow or, possibly, Thursday.

However, I am still struggling to believe that Mrs May can get her deal approved given the strength of feeling over the Irish backstop among not only DUP parliamentarians but also the ultras in her own party (coupled, admittedly, with Labour's seeming determination, in its efforts to try to force an early election, not to support her come what may). There still seems to be a belief in some quarters - voiced as recently as last night by, among others, Steve Baker who seems to have assumed leadership of the hardline European Research Group following Jacob Rees-Mogg's decision to back the May deal - that the EU27 will cave in on the backstop. Such hopes have almost certainly (and understandably) been fuelled by the news that German Chancellor Angela Merkel is to fly to Dublin on Thursday 4 April for talks on Brexit with the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, who is himself in Paris today to meet French President Emmanuel Macron.

It is not impossible that I may be proved wrong about this - after all, those who point out that Brussels came into the Brexit negotiations claiming that nothing was agreed until everything was agreed do have a point; but I still only put a low probability on the EU27's capitulating on the backstop.

To be fair, it is the case that the 'nothing is agreed until everything is agreed' mantra has been applied very widely in EU negotiations. BUT its applicability has almost exclusively been to internal processes and broadly within the established rules albeit with a bit of bending from time to time. What is at stake in the case of the backstop is one of the single most important elements in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, ie an open internal border in Ireland which has played an essential part in the massive economic input which the EU has made in sustaining what remains a fragile peace process as well, experts on both sides of the border insist, significantly reducing the security risks which were ever present when the border was effectively ‘hard’ pre-1998.

In other words, there is a principle at stake here which is the equivalent of the EU's 'club rules' - and one which the EU27 has consistently been clear is a red line.

As far as I can tell, there has been no sense so far that any member of the EU27, not even the Republic of Ireland which stands to be the hardest hit by a no-deal Brexit, is about to blink on this. What does appear to have changed, however, is that the 27, possibly because their contingency planning has advanced to the point where they can reasonably hope to minimise economic fall-out (as well as a strong desire in some capitals, eg Paris, simply to get Brexit out of the way irrespective), look like they are prepared to accept a no-deal Brexit rather than allow a hapless UK government and deeply divided parliament to continue fiddling.

The bottom line? I don't quite agree (yet) with last night's tweet by the European Parliament's Brexit coordinator, Guy Verhofstadt, that a no-deal Brexit is now "nearly inevitable". But we are getting very close to that point.

Alastair Newton