Despite the turbulence of last week’s votes, the law remains that the UK will leave the EU at 11pm on March 29. The Remainer plots – supported on some votes by certain unruly ministers – to seize control of the parliamentary timetable or force a second referendum were all defeated.
But the Commons did resolve that a short extension to June 30 2019 should be sought on the condition that “the House has passed a resolution approving the negotiated withdrawal agreement.” The Prime Minister will, therefore, present her deal to the Commons again. Without substantial changes, I will vote against it again and I cannot see how the House – having already emphatically rejected it twice – will change its mind.
The Withdrawal Agreement is riven with problems, but objections to it have understandably focused on the Northern Ireland backstop. By creating a new political entity called “UK(NI)”, the backstop abandons the Government’s commitment to uphold the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. It is a clear breach of the Belfast Agreement’s Principle of Consent and the requirement to consult the NI Assembly.
Compounding this, the UK would have no unilateral right of exit, so it could be locked into its arrangements indefinitely, with laws imposed on us without a say by 27 other countries. For all the Government’s efforts, this appalling fate is still built into the Agreement and, as the Attorney General said this week, “the legal risk remains unchanged”.
Some have argued that the UK could avoid being permanently trapped by invoking Article 62 of the Vienna Convention, which allows a party to withdraw from a treaty if there has been a “a fundamental change of circumstances” since it was signed which was “not foreseen”.
But this is not the escape route it seems, as the bar to what constitutes a “fundamental change” is set incredibly high. In the 1990s, for instance, Hungary invoked Article 62 to withdraw from a treaty signed with Slovakia in 1977 on the grounds of the region’s political changes. Czechoslovakia had been dissolved and the Soviet Union had collapsed. Yet these profound changes – the biggest in my lifetime – were deemed to be insufficient.
The Withdrawal Agreement will, therefore, remain unacceptable to the House of Commons. It simply is not Brexit. That takes the short extension proposed by Thursday’s vote off the table.
We are then faced with the question of what a longer extension would be for. The motion notes that “it is highly likely that the European Council…would require a clear purpose” for any delay and, with the House having emphatically rejected the ludicrous notion of a second referendum, no “clear purpose” is apparent.
In any case, can either main party seriously contemplate the political damage which a delay would cause?
The Conservatives’ senior voluntary body – the National Convention – was right when it voted by a ratio of 5 to 1 that “Another referendum, a delay beyond the European elections, taking ‘no deal’ off the table or not leaving at all would betray the 2016 People’s Vote and damage democracy and our party for a generation.”
Seventy-five per cent of Conservative seats at the last election voted Leave. How will future candidates hope to win their seats if we have reneged on our promises? Any extension beyond 23 May will require a European election, at which the Conservative Party would be slaughtered.
Can Labour seek to form a Government if it pushes for an extension? Of the 100 Conservative seats with the smallest majority in which Labour came second, 78 voted Leave. What chance will a Labour candidate have in any of those?
We are, therefore, left with the option of leaving without a Withdrawal Agreement as the Malthouse Plan B sets out. This need be nothing to fear. “No deal” is not an end state. Under Article XXIV of the WTO’s General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, so long as the UK and EU agree to a free trade agreement and notify the WTO of a sufficiently detailed plan and schedule for it as soon as possible, we could even maintain our current zero-tariff, zero-quantitative restrictions arrangements while the new deal was being negotiated.
Such arrangements are now the only way of delivering Brexit on time and in full. We would leave on 29 March as the law requires, honouring the votes of 17.4 million people and fulfilling the Conservative and Labour manifesto pledges. Brexit will not go away, and the future of parliamentary democracy relies on MPs having the integrity to deliver on the largest democratic exercise in our history.
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