Sunday 10 March 2019

The Tory Politics of Extending Article 50

Blimey O'Reilly, Brexit's back! It never went away, but Theresa May's playing for time effectively meant Brexit went into abeyance. For a brief period, the media and the politics started talking about other things, like Labour's crisis, the knife crime epidemic, and the two minutes hate against Shamima Begum. Even Tory Islamophobia made national headlines for once. This period is past, now. It's the week. The week. The VERY BIG WEEK.

On Tuesday the Prime Minister brings her deal back to the Commons. Her gamble was to waste time while the clock ticked down. She knew the EU were not going to make any changes to the Irish backstop, but what she was banking on were the wobbly nerves of enough Tory and Labour backbenchers to get her deal through. For the Tories, May hoped the fear of their not getting a Brexit at all would encourage them to vote it and hope it can be changed later. After all, it this is good enough for Michael Gove and Chris Grayling, why not others? For the Labour benches, her eggs were in the any deal is better than no deal basket, and given plenty of the party's MPs are not in favour of another referendum nor remaining by the back door, they would line up and save Brexit - and her political bacon while they're at it. Is this going to happen? Well, we're not going to see a result as bad as last time, but the Sunday politics programmes all put the predicted margin of defeat into three figures. In other words, nothing will change because nothing has changed. The deal is all set to fall. Again.

Then comes Wednesday. If May has lost, the Commons gets to vote on whether we should exit without a deal anyway on the 29th, or no. If you're someone who's a touch superstitious, this coincides with my birthday and it is not unknown for very bad things to happen on this otherwise happy occasion. I mean, the possibility of the UK crashing out of the EU without anything in place. What could possibly go wrong? Well, in this case nothing. Only an asteroid impacting on the no lobby would prevent no deal's rejection. And this brings us to the third vote - whether to ask for an extension to Article 50.

The prospect of such has got some Brexiteers very sweaty indeed. The ERG's Steve Baker and Nigel Dodds of the DUP have warned very dire consequences if Brexit is delayed. "It would be a terrible affront to democracy!" they wibble, and would "extend uncertainty" and sap business confidence. Like this pair of cretins care about such things. For Baker and his crackered comrades, a chaotic no deal Brexit is one hundred per cent their game plan. For the DUP, it's the maintenance of an obsolete statelet and an increasingly irrelevant community division to keep them politically afloat that matters above all else. But let's explore their warning anyway and whether there's any substance to it.

First thing's first, delaying Article 50 is not the same as revoking it and so the consequences are different. Going out there to say "we've got to delay this thing" is not the same as scrapping it, which could have serious consequences. For the likes of the ERG the extension worries them because it increases the chance of a second referendum, which Leave are not at all confident in winning. Or it could see May get boxed into a much less disruptive Brexit deal, like the one Nick Boles has been hawking about the Tory backbenches and is even prepared to reach an accord with JCorbz to get. Or May could cave to Labour's customs union-based Brexit. Or even worse, a general election. Or May sticks to her deal and spends three more months with her head in the sand and we end up back where we are now. All pose the ERG project a threat, but this is internal Westminster stuff. How would it play out in the real world?

For punters fed up of hearing about Brexit, even moar Brexit is going to go down like the proverbial cup of cold sick. Wait until they hear about the 20 months of trade deal negotiations we've got to look forward to. But most people would reluctantly accept an extension - you're not about to see the far right riff-raff outside of Westminster find their numbers swollen by angry leavers. The problem is what happens at the level of passive support for the Conservative Party. As explained a number of times, Brexit is the glue sticking its coalition of voters together. When May has wobbled, like when Chequers initially appeared to be a soft Brexit position, the more conditional Tory voters jumped ship to UKIP. Most of them have since drifted back but for the likes of Baker and Rees-Mogg, anything smacking of delay could see them bleed away again. For what worries them above all are the two or three million hard leaving, Tory supporting voters who aren't about to take to the streets but would be permanently estranged from establishment politics, and opt either for the kippers, Farage's latest vehicle, or stay away from the polls. They might be at odds with May's strategy, but like her the ERG need the party and will struggle to preserve it at all costs. Opposing an extension of Article 50 is a barely significant cost set against keeping the Tories in the field as a going concern.

From a technical point of view then, there are very good reasons to extend Article 50. The option of a more positive outcome and more time for no deal planning obviously recommend it, and on that basis alone Labour MPs should vote for its extension. One trusts the other parties, including TInG will do so. But those political difficulties more delay would cause the Tories? Yes, that makes extending it a political must.


Karl Greenall said...

The very idea that the Tories could be visited very soon by their very worst political nightmare is so, so marvellous! Of course it would be thoroughly deserved for the appalling damage they have inflicted on the country for their own selfish and ideological reasons.
Bring it on.....

Boffy said...

There are good reasons (for them) why the ERG will not vote for May's deal, besides the reasons they give. Bojo never thought Leave would win the referendum. He actually talked about negotiating a better deal to stay in, on the back of a Leave vote, or a strong showing.

For the ERG/Eurosceptics, the EU is a good scapegoat, that gives them a niche within politics to operate from. They must also see that a No Deal crash out would be a disaster, as opposed to their idea of a managed No Deal. So, for the ERG voting down May's Deal, even if that means Brexit is cancelled is a better option. It means they keep their scapegoat to attack whilst not being blamed for the catastrophe that would arise from a crash out.

It means May takes the can for calling Brexit off. If as I expect May calls a GE, it means they have the opportunity to put forward Bojo/Gove/Mogg as the next PM, who will go into office promoting a managed No Deal/Canada, but which for Bojo will be seen as opening the door for his original plan of negotiating further concessions to stay in.

May now looks set to pull the vote again, so as to prevent other options being discussed, in the hope of forcing support for her deal, in the days before March 29th. It looks a hopeless prospect for her, and would spell the end of the Tories.

Speedy said...

"Or May sticks to her deal and spends three more months with her head in the sand and we end up back where we are now."

Given previous behaviour this seems most likely - with the hope that faced with a real cliff edge MPs will vote for her deal.

However, Macron has said why agree an extension if nothing new is offered? And I think he's right - the EU would be canny to refuse an extension in the hope there is a parliamentary coup and Labour's soft Brexit is agreed.