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Cooper-Letwin has probably killed Brexit

April 6th, 2019

The stars that brought Brexit about are falling out of alignment

Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn are not what you would call transactional politicians. May was famously described by Ken Clarke as a “bloody difficult woman” whose time at both the Home Office and No 10 has been marked by single-minded stubbornness. Corbyn, by contrast, was for decades an activist-politician on the fringes of Labour, and has maintained many of the habits and practices afforded the awkward squad MP despite or even because of his new status as Leader of the Opposition: he regards his twin elections as party leader as an endorsement of those policies and methods. Little surprise then that the talks aimed at finding a compromise way forward to break the Brexit deadlock have ended in failure.

That the talks are happening at all is a measure of how desperate the PM is. It was always going to be extremely difficult to find a deal that could simultaneously have won the support of the EU, the Commons, enough of her MPs to avoid being overthrown, and the DUP so as to avoid being No Confidenced. It might always have been an impossible task: it probably is now.

The one thing that could have forced the hands of enough players to have secured agreement was pressure of time. May has been criticised for running down the clock and to an extent, that’s fair: it has been a deliberate strategy. However, it’s not the whole story: the clock has also run down as a natural consequence of the unwillingness of so many other participants in the drama to compromise too. The EU has bargained hard; Tory MPs (not just the ERG) chased unicorns long after the season was closed; opposition MPs remained overwhelmingly against the Withdrawal Agreement despite it being almost entirely in line with their Party’s policy in terms of Phase One of the process. Moving too far in any one direction couldn’t manufacture a majority and risked the government into the bargain. There are many things she could and should have done differently that might have generated greater reserves of goodwill and space for manoeuvre now but I’m doubtful that even if she (or some hypothetical alternative PM) done so, there was a viable road to a ratified Withdrawal Agreement.

Unless time forced (or forces) the matter. Take away the impossible and all that remains is No Deal, Revoke or her deal. That, at least, was the case until Yvette Cooper and Oliver Letwin (via an obliging John Bercow) threw a spanner in the works.

It’s only becoming clear now how important that precedent-breaking decision was to allow MPs to amend the business order motion. This isn’t to blame Bercow in particular. The government generally has too much power over parliament and if a majority exists for something then there ought to be the means to express that. All the same, the consequences of having done so are now escalating rapidly and are likely to continue to do so.

From originally taking control of business simply to express opinions on Brexit options (and, in keeping with the rest of the process, failing to find majority support for anything), MPs went way beyond that original intent and rammed a Bill through the Commons against the government’s opposition – something previously inconceivable; it will likely become law on Monday.

Pre-empting that political fact, the PM has now asked for another A50 extension and, crucially, all-but conceded that European Parliament elections will be held next month. It has to be far more doubtful that she would have done so had the Cooper-Letwin Bill not gone through. In that case, May could have gone to the EU on Wednesday still asking for an extension to sort out the implementation by May 22 or June 30 but in the expectation that the Council would stick to its previous position: approve the Agreement first – which would have set the scene for a final Meaningful Vote on Thursday against a hard deadline little more than a day away.

In truth, No Deal is not off the table and, as such, remains dangerously unexpected as an outcome, even if its chances have fallen since last week. While May can be mandated to request an extension, the EU can’t be mandated to agree it and the Commons can’t mandate itself to approve the terms of such an extension in advance (or has in effect chosen not to do so). There remains too great a belief in the Commons in its control over events.

With Brexit likely to be kicked into the longish grass next week at the European Council, if the delay suggested by Donald Tusk is ratified in the hope that something will turn up in Britain in the interim to break the deadlock, attention inevitably turns to what that might be.

Before going there, we need to remember that if something doesn’t turn up then we’ll simply be repeating the process of the last six months for twice as long. Absent of the time and process pressures that force MPs to vote for their second- or third-best option, they’ll be back to hunting unicorns.

But something almost certainly will turn up. Theresa May is highly unlikely to be Prime Minister of Leader of the Conservatives next March. I still expect this summer to be the natural time to replace her although if she doesn’t stand down then, either voluntarily or under irresistible pressure, then her 12-month protection still expires in time for a replacement in the early part of 2020.

What an A50 extension to March 2020 does mean is that the Tory leadership contest would take place with Britain still in the EU. That will change the election’s dynamics and considerably increase the chances of a prominent and (in the eyes of believers) unsullied Brexiteer winning; something not conducive to reaching agreements – or conducive to good government for that matter if the record of Brexiteer cabinet ministers is anything to go by.

However, the consequences of a long extension don’t end there. The EP elections are manna to Change UK, UKIP and the Brexit Party alike. PR, the lack of local candidates, the national campaigns, the capacity to make protests, the focus on the EU, their clear messages set against the difficulties beset all three established main GB parties: all could help to propel the two newcomers and the returning UKIP to the forefront. Such a result would not only have a spill-over effect on Westminster voting intention and media coverage, it would add to the internal pressures within Tories, Labour and Lib Dems.

What it won’t do is produce a Second Referendum, or at least, not immediately. Opposition remains sufficiently high among MPs (and especially between the Tory government and Labour front bench), and the details of such a poll remain sufficiently contentious to mean that no decision will be taken on one before the summer recess. Unlike the Cooper Bill, this isn’t one that MPs could force through.

There is though an even higher chance of a general election. The chance of one being prompted by the DUP defecting after May’s Withdrawal Agreement gained consent has diminished but there are now many more realistic routes. The government is only a few MPs from losing a majority even with the DUP and a change of leader and policy could easily shed those. Likewise, a new PM might try to cash in on a honeymoon period (real or anticipated) in the autumn. The Newport West result will have encouraged Tory MPs that things aren’t quite that bad, and while the EP elections might be bad for the Tories on the right, they could be even worse for Labour on the left with Change as well as the other established left-of-centre parties challenging them. That too would lessen the Con fear of a general election – whether wisely or not given the Pandora’s Box being opened.

What it does mean is that May’s deal is finally doomed and with it, her premiership; its last chance of ratification will fall with a long extension. However, that deal, for all its faults, remains just about the only one that could be done with a Tory government. If it isn’t acceptable then No Deal remains the only option – and that would have to be after a general election that returned a largeish Tory majority: unlikely under a Boris or Raab.

Any other result will see a Brexit which is already slowly but steadily slipping away, vanish like melting snow in the April sun.

David Herdson