The political theatre in the play that is Brexit



The last week or so has seen a new act of political theatre in the play that is Brexit. Whilst nearly three quarters of a million were marching for a people's vote in London on the 20th October, speculation behind some closed Tory doors was that this week we will see a leadership challenge.

The  next few weeks are critical for all of us, not just the political parties. For some individuals and parties though it is crunch time. Will May survive and will she still be Prime Minister when Philip Hammond  delivers his autumn budget next week? Will the DUP even support it (given a bloody nose this week with Diana Johnson’s Private Members Bill and Creasy/McGinn/ Tugendhat amendments to the Northern Ireland Bill).

The drama of Brexit has been littered with surprises. Tuesdays Cabinet meeting allegedly saw some jaws drop when May announced the government was planning to charter ships to ensure we have sufficient food and medical supplies stage in the case of a No deal. And the National Audit Office said it’s too late to prepare UK borders for no-deal Brexit

Some senior Tories also appear surprised about the backstop - despite it first appearing on December 8th 2017 based on a Joint Report   agreed by the negotiators of the Commission and the United Kingdom Government and  confirmed again in the  Draft Withdrawal Agreement of February 28th. The fact is the British government have already agreed to “a legally operable backstop” within the accord - and ages ago. So basically, no surprise there.

The EU is surprised that this is new to some given they have managed to keep up with the plot however they have taken a very dim view on the lack of progress on the Northern Ireland border.

Unsurprisingly this has led to exasperation from many. According to the   The Irish Times, a Government Minister has said that reneging on the “backstop” by the United Kingdom to avoid a hard border after Brexit could open parts of the withdrawal treaty already agreed to renegotiation.

The Times goes on to say that Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney will raise the stakes to a  prospect of a no-deal Brexit should the UK fail to honour its backstop commitment within the deal with the EU. “There will be no withdrawal agreement without the backstop, end of story,” he said. “To suggest moving away from that now is not going to fly with Ireland or the EU as a whole,” he said.

The Government has rejected a suggestion by UK Brexit secretary Dominic Raab in a newspaper that an extension to Britain’s exit from the European Union after a transition period would be “an alternative” to the backstop guaranteeing no return to Border checks in Northern Ireland.

The sensitivities around Northern Ireland should not be underestimated. As Colin Harvey said in a recent piece “the EU played a major role in supporting peace-building: it eased pressures on the island by making the border effectively invisible for most (but not all), and drew the sting from contested citizenship by providing a common framework of European identity and associated entitlements…. the scale of anxiety in Northern Ireland flows from the belief that another pillar of the peace process is being torn down and that a supranational framework of guarantees and relative security will disappear”.

But this is a plot with many twists and turns. Leaked government papers seen by The Times suggest a “long-running” multi-year transition period on a “rolling” basis with an “annual decision point” where any transition extension is reviewed. No option comes risk free it seems. And the question of UK preparedness for anything is demonstrated by the

Hansard Society report suggesting that of the 800 changes to legislation through statutory instruments (SIs) needed for Brexit , only 71 have been passed so far.

And finally to add to the drame  is the meaning of the meaningful vote. This reared it's less than beautiful head again with the issuing of a note from Dominic Raab suggesting that it will be a take-it-or-leave-it, my-deal-or-no-deal choice. As  BBC's Laura Kuenssberg says it's a "big fat row waiting to happen".

The choices left for May are narrowing with each passing day.  And her Party whilst growing increasingly unhappy with her handling of Brexit need to be careful because under Tory rules, once a vote of confidence has been won, another one can’t be held for another year. Its a headache for everyone including Labour. If it’s straight choice between No Deal or Chequers then how will Corbyn whip his MP’s? If as recent polling suggests the Labour membership, and the majority of Labour MPs, are at odds with Corbyn’s belief that we must leave.

Over the next few weeks th Brexit Civil Society Alliance shall be monitoring what is happening, thinking about how we can best make the voice of civil society is heard loud and clear and try and scope out the various scenarios to make timely interventions

Malene Bratlie