Thursday, 14 December 2017

Two cheers for amendment 7

Goodness knows remainers have had little enough to cheer about since June 2016 and so it is not surprising that the passing of ‘amendment 7’ in defiance of the government has been greeted with delight. I am not sure, though, that it warrants any more than two cheers and possibly not even that. Likewise, the Brexiter depiction of it as a betrayal of Brexit is ludicrous, and serves only to demonstrate that victimhood is their comfort zone.

The main significance of the amendment lies not so much in the fact that it was passed but in the fact that it was not defeated. That is to say, had it been defeated that would effectively have represented the moment at which parliament had decided to have no substantive involvement in Brexit. It would also have signalled that there was no point at which the putative Tory rebels would rebel, and it is they who hold the key to any shifting in the government’s position on Brexit. They, or at least some of them, did and should be applauded for that given the undoubted pressure if not intimidation they will have been exposed to. And this in turn may embolden them and others to rebel again – in a sense, having taken the flak once they have less to lose from future rebellions, whilst having won means that other potential rebels can believe there would be some point in sacrificing their careers.

So all of that is on the positive side. But all it really opens is the tiniest keyhole of possibility for affecting what happens with Brexit. On the face of it, it means that parliament will be able to vote on whether or not to implement whatever deal with the EU the government negotiate. What this will mean in practice is far from clear. If it just means ‘this deal’ or ‘no deal’, it means nothing since as even Brexiters now seem to realise any deal is better than no deal. It is, I suppose, conceivable but highly unlikely that things will have changed in such a way by then that the choice got set up as ‘this deal’ or ‘seek to revoke Article 50 notification’. Or it could, conceivably and perhaps just slightly more likely, be that by that point the EU-27 had given a very strong signal that extending the Article 50 period would be agreed. Then, the vote could perhaps be ‘this deal’ or ‘re-negotiate under an extension’.

What all this underscores is that – for all the talk of parliamentary sovereignty and taking back control – what happens with Brexit is now largely beyond the control of the UK and largely in the control of the EU. This has been so ever since Article 50 was triggered. That was the point at which parliament, thanks solely to Miller’s victory in the Supreme Court, really did have a moment of complete control - and gave it away.

Increasingly it is clear that the decision by the government and endorsed by parliament to give Article 50 notification when it did and in the way that it did was a calamitous mistake of historic proportions. It set a shape for hard Brexit the implications of which few in the government seem to have understood and which neither the public nor parliament really support. It was done without, as we now know for sure, any rigorous assessment of the impact of hard Brexit or any serious planning for the negotiations. We can see that both the EU and indeed the Irish government were far better prepared than the UK at the point the Article 50 letter was sent. And the timing of that letter was solely dictated by the political imperative for Theresa May to assure the Ultras that she was ‘sound’ on Brexit.

From that moment onwards, the British parliament became a sideshow to the ineluctable reality of time draining away, and the power balance shifted irrevocably to the EU-27. A lot of the excitement about the amendment 7 vote derives from the fact that British political journalists have not caught up with that fact. They have a huge expertise and a sophisticated understanding of Westminster politics - the procedures, the votes, the personalities, the drama - and are heavily invested in regarding that as central to the plot. By contrast (with some honourable exceptions) very few British political journalists have more than the most superficial grasp of Brexit issues. This is very evident when politicians are interviewed and are allowed to get away unchallenged with glaring, basic factual errors about, for example, how the Brexit process works. It isn’t because the journalists are necessarily biased for or against Brexit, it’s that they don’t have enough knowledge about it. Similarly, there is very little understanding of EU politics, and that has been true throughout Britain’s membership.

There is a parallel here in the way that some politicians seem to think that Brexit is a solely domestic political process. This was most recently and most egregiously manifest in David Davis’ pronouncement that the phase 1 agreement was not, after all, binding. It seems not to have occurred to him that this would come to the notice of – and would dismay – the EU with whom the agreement had so tortuously been made. And this in turn reflects the fact that so much of Brexit is bound up not just with domestic politics but, more precisely, with the internal politics of the Tory party. Davis’ comments seem to have been intended solely to re-assure the Ultras.

Which brings us back to the amendment 7 vote, which is yet another manifestation of the Tory party’s 30 year European war to which, through the Referendum, they have shackled the entire country. But as a result things have now moved on. The games within and between British political parties are no longer centre stage and the over-focus on Westminster has become a grotesque anomaly since Article 50 was triggered. Of course parliament may, depending on how things develop, come to re-gain a significance in the Brexit process. It would be very foolish indeed, given the instability of the government, to bet against the possibility of some new parliamentary conjuncture leading to a dramatic change or reversal of policy. But, for now at least, it is a sideshow. Last night’s vote was significant to the extent that it put a bit of life into the show but it was very little, and probably too late.

[This is probably the last post I will write on this blog this year. I’m really very grateful indeed to the large number of people who have read the blog this year and hope that you will continue to do so and find it of interest. I’m sorry that I have had to disable comments – the reason was the combination of abuse and spam bots. I don’t see why I should provide a forum for either.]

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