Novara Media’s senior editor, and our favourite literal communist, Ash Sarkar breaks it down
Brexit – that process by which 52 per cent of the electorate voted to make 100 per cent of the country unbearable – has come to resemble a dramatic TV comedy which keeps killing, and then bringing back, largely interchangeable characters in an attempt to stave off cancellation. Except, instead of ending on a lukewarm series finale, it’s the economy that gets taken off the air.
At the time of writing, one day after Theresa May presented her long-awaited tentative withdrawal agreement to her cabinet in a five hour long meeting/hostage situation, there have been five resignations. Three of these were people that I had to google (Shailesh Vara from the Northern Ireland Office, Suella Braverman who’s a Junior Minister from the Department of Exiting the European Union, and Anne-Marie Trevelyan, who’s allegedly a PPS in the Department of Education). More importantly, May also lost two cabinet ministers. At 9am today, November 15, Dominic Raab (the one who looks like Matt Hancock on anabolic steroids, and was recently very surprised to learn that Britain is separated from the continent of Europe by a body of water) resigned his role as Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union. An hour later, Esther McVey decided that making the existence of welfare recipients a living misery was no longer enough of an inducement to go along with Theresa May’s Brexit deal.
This isn’t the first time that one of Theresa May’s attempts to deliver the 2016 referendum result has shattered upon contact with her party. Cast your minds back to this summer, when Harry Maguire was doing bits in the World Cup, and Love Island was on every night. Tresemmé’s ‘Chequers Deal’ resulted in the resignations of Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson (still feels weird saying that phrase) and our previous Brexit Secretary David Davis – and that’s before it was even formally presented to EU negotiators, so that it could be ritually savaged by Michel Barnier.
May has been flailing in her attempts to drum up a Brexit that doesn’t result in A) a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, B) euthanising economic growth by crashing out of the EU on World Trade Organisation terms, or C) a backbench rebellion by leading Brexiteers. All this is made infinitely trickier by a bit of politicking engineered by David Davis earlier this year, which blocked MPs from being able to direct the government’s actions in the event that getting a deal with the EU flopped – basically, making a No Deal Brexit more of a likely outcome than no Brexit at all.
Confused? We all are. Here’s your handy guide to what the fuck is going on with the Brexit deal as it stands.
WHAT’S THE DEAL WITH THE ‘IRISH BACKSTOP’?
So what’s actually on the table? None of the key points of the Brexit deal come as much of a surprise. The ‘Irish backstop’ is the most contentious point in the 500+ page document. It means that in order to avoid a hard border, which would contravene the terms of the Good Friday Agreement and potentially lead to a revival of the violence we saw during The Troubles, the UK as a whole would remain inside a customs territory (unless a trade agreement is reached by June 2020).
Northern Ireland would remain in a full customs union and regulatory alignment with the EU, the UK in a ‘bare bones’ version of a customs union, and in order to prevent the need for customs checks between Northern Ireland and the Republic, there would be extra ‘non-customs checks’ on some goods between Northern Ireland and the UK mainland (are you with me?). If at some point the UK wanted out of this backstop, both the UK and the EU would have to form a joint committee within six months, and jointly agree to end it.
WHY IS EVERYBODY SO ANGRY?
Brexiteers, who were never that keen on the terms of the Good Friday Agreement anyway, are furious because this backstop arrangement – despite it being a last resort if trade negotiations fail – gives the EU an effective veto over the UK being able to wriggle out of the regulatory orbit of the EU. In fact, Tory Brexiteers have suggested that in order to avoid the hard border, we could just track goods crossing international boundaries using technology that, errr, hasn’t been invented yet.
The Democratic Unionist Party, aka the evil bigots Theresa May formed a government with in 2017, have balked at the idea that Northern Ireland will have closer trading ties to the Republic of Ireland than the UK mainland. Meanwhile the Scottish Nationalist Party, backed by an electorate which voted 62% for Remain in 2016, are wondering aloud why Scotland can’t also effectively stay in the single market and customs union after Brexit if Northern Ireland gets special treatment (hence, strengthening their arguments for independence).
The Irish backstop is almost certain to mean that Theresa May – if she survives this week – won’t be able to get her deal through a Parliamentary vote. If, by some miracle, she does, there could be the very realistic prospect of the United Kingdom breaking up as a result of it.
WHAT ARE LABOUR SAYING?
Labour have been treading a fine line over the past two years. They’ve been trying to appear like sufficiently reluctant Leavers to their pro-EU urban constituencies, while at the same time, avoiding being hammered as the ‘party of Remain’ by the Tories. So now what? Well, after managing to broker a delicate agreement at their party conference this year, Her Majesty’s Opposition are (at least on paper) committed to measuring Theresa May’s deal against six tests. If the deal fails to live up to these criteria – which is pretty much a nailed-on eventuality – then they will vote it down when it is presented to parliament in December.
The idea is that a defeat would trigger a no confidence vote, and with no alternative government being formed within 14 days, we’d get another general election, which Labour would win and – at last – we’ll get to see Jeremy Corbyn strolling into No. 10 and humming “Talkin The Hardest”.
There are two potential spanners in the works. The first is that Labour MPs repping Leave constituencies might be tempted to vote for Theresa May’s deal, because they don’t want to look like they’re trying to usurp the referendum result. However, with hardcore (and slightly terrifying) Labour Brexiteers like Kate Hoey and Graham Stringer saying that even they probably would vote against the deal, this looks pretty unlikely.
The second (and potentially larger) spanner is that self-identifying moderate Labour MPs who have been vocally anti-Brexit in the past couple of years will being eyeing the prospect of a ‘No Deal Brexit’ like spooked horses. Time is running out for there to be much hope of a second referendum before Brexit Day next March. It’s likely that a few Labour MPs will be wondering whether it’s better to go along with a crap deal rather than no deal, all in the interest of national unity. But it’s difficult to see how Labour MPs – in particular, the ones who’ve been castigating Corbyn for the last three years for not opposing the Tories and/or Brexit robustly enough – will manage to justify voting with the government to push through their rickety Brexit.
Theresa May’s shonky withdrawal agreement has managed to piss off both Brexiters and Remainers; it’d be a sauceless politician who passes up the chance to please both of these voting blocs at once.
WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN NEXT?
It’s likely that there are more ministerial resignations in the pipeline -– though whether it’s Penny Mordaunt, Michael Gove (who’s said to have been offered the job of Brexit Secretary), or perhaps even a Tory Remainer is anyone’s guess. Jacob Rees Mogg’s letter of no confidence in Theresa May has been sent to the 1922 Committee. If 48 Conservative MPs write to Graham Brady, the committee chair, to demand a no confidence vote, then a leadership challenge will be triggered – and then we could potentially be faced with a new Prime Minister without having had a general election.
Labour will be hustling to work across parliament to be able both vote down the deal and swerve a no deal catastrophe by pursuing urgent motions and amendments to the meaningful vote. And Arlene Foster – the DUP’s chief agent of chaos – will be setting off as many clusterfecks as possible to ensure that the union between Northern Ireland and the mainland isn’t weakened in any way, even if that means scuppering her party’s confidence-and-supply arrangement with the Tories.
The only thing that’s certain is that now it’s all to play for. If anyone needs me, I’ll be watching the pound tank against the dollar, and stocking up on antibiotics and bottled water.