Archive for the 'Article 50' Category


Selling time. What passes for Theresa May’s strategy

Wednesday, April 3rd, 2019

Picture credit: Sunil Prasannan

We spend all our lives buying and selling time. We sell our time to employers. We trade time for convenience when deciding where we live and what we are prepared to pay for that.

Oddly, we talk of buying time but we never talk of selling time, even though we do both. This is a gap in the English language. For the last few months that has been all that Theresa May has been doing.

After Theresa May lost the Conservatives’ overall majority in the unnecessary 2017 general election, it was apparent that she had lost authority. She successfully bought time in the election’s wake (which on this occasion was the wake of a funeral and not of a boat) by telling MPs that she would serve as long as they still wanted her.

She used that time to negotiate the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration with the EU. This was unveiled in November and it received the type of critical reaction that theatrical types politely call mixed. With the clock ticking down on the Article 50 timetable to 29 March 2019, Theresa May had limited amounts of time at her disposal and she had to decide how to spend it to secure an acceptable result to her.

She concluded that her deal would not pass in December, so she decided to spend a month over Christmas working on MPs’ hearts and minds. She did not get the value she sought for what she sold: Generals December and January were never going to help her when MPs were hearing on all sides how vehemently constituents and party members felt about the subject.  

She did, however, get a windfall bonus that was worth that month and then some: as a result of her decision dissident Conservative MPs obtained and lost a vote of no confidence in her, cementing her in place as party leader for another year.  

You can argue whether it was unwise for the dissidents to shoot their bolt then or whether it was unwise for Conservative MPs then to give her their backing (or both).

Whatever, she got a freedom of manoeuvre in the short term that she did not previously have.  In order to secure this, she made another big sale of her personal time, this time promising publicly that she would not fight the next election.

She did not use her time well. Theresa May stuck rigidly to one path: the one that she had agreed with the EU. There have been murmurings in the papers that the EU is deeply unhappy with the way in which Britain has approached agreeing the withdrawal agreement.  

Hardline Leavers and unreconciled Remainers alike have grounds to object (as has anyone with a passing interest in good or even adequate governance) but the EU has not. The one thing that Theresa May has unflinchingly sought to do is secure the agreement that she had negotiated with them.

It has, however, been obvious for months that objective was unattainable. It should have been jettisoned much sooner. Instead, the Prime Minister sold the rest of January and all of February on manoeuvres to steamroller her deal through. It didn’t work. Anyone who could count, as LBJ would have advised her, would have seen it wouldn’t work.

She was aided by a supine Parliament, that accepted her airy and loosely-framed commitments rather than take control of the process sooner. As always, however, tactics without strategy is the longest way to defeat. She was defeated again in the second meaningful vote. She then threatened Parliament with the cliff edge of 29 March if it did not pass her deal.

This gambit was thwarted by the EU offering her more time, to at least 12 April, that she could not afford to seem not to take. She then sought to sell more of her personal time by promising her own MPs to resign if they passed the withdrawal agreement. This bargain was turned down.

Now, in extra time, Theresa May is down to trading remaining minutes, this time by seeking finally to involve the leader of the Labour party in what should always have been a national decision. If a deal is to be struck with him it will need to be struck by Monday if there are not to be more indicative votes.

The price of this bargain – for just six days – is huge. She has probably definitively lost a cohort of hard Leave backbenchers, many of whom appear to be seriously weighing voting against her in any Parliamentary vote of no confidence. Her party is splintering on both sides and if the Conservative party were to lose even three more MPs, it would no longer have a working majority with the DUP. Far more than three on each side of the party are very close to the end of the road with the party.

So what next? The Prime Minister is bereft of a strategy. This has been clear for some weeks. Perhaps some form of deal will be reached with Labour. Since the leader of the Opposition has no obvious reason to help the Prime Minister out, a failure to agree must be the likeliest outcome. If a deal is reached, it will inevitably involve something that will be called a customs union and very possibly some form of referendum (not to include this would devastate Labour’s own supporter base).  

Either of those would be too bitter a pill for most Conservatives to swallow. Both together look like a lethal cocktail for both the Conservatives and Theresa May. So for this reason too, an agreement looks less likely than a failure to agree.

In that case, there will be more indicative votes on Monday. The residual party discipline of the Conservatives can then be assumed to have definitively evaporated. This will not make finding a way forward that commands a majority of the Commons easier since the bulk of the Parliamentary Conservative party now dresses to No Deal.

Theresa May can be counted upon not to take any step that will shorten her tenure as Prime Minister but she can be counted upon to take any step, including the burning of her own future, to extend her present. To that end, it would suit her better to look overborne by events than actively to have taken any step to bring about either a deal that her party would not stomach or actively to have taken any step to effect no deal.

So I expect there to be no breakthrough deal brokered by the party leaders, for indicative votes next Monday to take place, for the government to give no steer and, probably, for the institutional gridlock in the House of Commons to continue. By this point, the Conservative party may well have lost control of Parliament through further defections.

After that, who knows?  Can anyone even try to see further ahead than that?

Alastair Meeks


The pressure mounts on TMay with a divided cabinet and 11 days to go

Monday, April 1st, 2019

Chris Grayling ready to put his job on the line

So another day when all the focus is on Westminster and Mrs. May’s cabinet as they pitch in with their own positions to try to influence this massive decision for the future of the UK.

TMay is already in a weakened position with much less control of the Westminster agenda following the procedural defeat which put so much extra power in the hands of MPs

This is how Sam Coates in the Times is reporting it:

“Theresa May was warned last night that she faced resignations and a split in the Conservative Party if she agrees to pursue a “soft” Brexit this week.

Ministers including Chris Grayling and Penny Mordaunt have made it clear they would consider resigning if the prime minister bows to the will of the Commons, should it vote for a customs union with the EU tonight…

..Several ministers are preparing to confront her at cabinet tomorrow to warn her against pursuing a softer Brexit and a number of Downing Street staff, including Stephen Parkinson, a special adviser to Mrs May, would oppose a customs union.”

Surely parliament should be sovereign here on an issue so important which cuts the major parties. Grayling and Mordaunt are in danger of overplaying their hands if they think that TMay can do other than bow to the will of the Commons.

Mike Smithson


No Deal remains imminent and likely

Saturday, March 30th, 2019

Picture Judy Goldhill

The Withdrawal Agreement remains an unmet EU expectation

A failure to understand the other side’s point of view has been more than a running Brexit theme: it’s infected every aspect of Britain’s relationship with what’s now the EU throughout the last seven decades. Unsurprising then that miscalculations and misunderstandings continue to be made. That the same problem affects the domestic dialogue of the deaf that represents the Leave-Remain debate is hardly a cause for consolation.

The cost of the failures resulting from that lack of empathy on both sides is profound and on both sides (EU and UK) results from an excess of introspection and a lack of imagination. Nor are those failures necessarily over and some of the worst may yet be to come.

You might think that the European Council was clear in its statement that any A50 extension beyond April 12 was conditional on passing the Withdrawal Agreement (in which case it would be to May 22), or on presenting a clear alternative way forward which implicitly is both credible and deliverable but that the Withdrawal Agreement is a sine qua non whatever else might be proposed or agreed. Apparently not.

This is important because without the Commons’ approval of the WA there can be no agreement and, quite possibly, no further extension: Britain would leave the European Union without a deal a week on Friday.

Since the start of the year, I’ve thought that when it came down to it, enough Labour MPs would come to the government’s rescue to see it over the line precisely because of the risk of No Deal. No longer. Labour remains remarkably united in opposition to the deal (which is commonly referred to as May’s Deal but which is just as much – probably much more, in fact – the EU’s deal). Without the DUP and without 20-30 ultras on her own benches, May cannot get her deal ratified without Labour support, official or otherwise.

Here again the bedevilment of introspection and distraction strikes. Parliament will spend Monday and possibly Wednesday of next week debating options for Phase 2 of Britain’s withdrawal; the nature of the future relationship post-transition. However, without an agreed exit to Phase 1, this is not just pointless but delusional. It’s not so much rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic as heading back down to the Dining Room and arguing over whether to order venison or lamb.

When the EU talks of “the UK indicating a way forward”, it does not mean re-writing the Future Relationship (though it is open to that, within limits); it means that if the WA will remain unagreed beyond a further short extension, then either some extra-parliamentary political process that will lead to either the Agreement’s ratification, or an outright reversal of Brexit. Nothing else makes sense.

Some will argue that there is in fact an overlap; that the government could gain approval for its Withdrawal Agreement if it were to link it to either a permanent customs union post-transition, or a second referendum (details to be confirmed – don’t think these would be trivial), or both. In one sense that’s true but there’s a political problem here. While those two options did come closest to gaining the House’s support last week, they did so almost entirely off the back of the votes of opposition MPs. Tories were almost entirely opposed. Even if the government were to try to make the linkage, it’s difficult given May’s weak authority to believe that it could carry it through. The No Confidence vote in Dominic Grieve from his constituency association last night could well be indicative of a new and unwelcome front in the battle; one which makes the scope for compromise still harder.

Where does this leave us? Whatever the House decides next week – which may well be that it still doesn’t like any of the options unless artificially forced into supporting one through preferential voting, which isn’t really of much use – the fundamental question on the Withdrawal Agreement will remain unanswered. At some point reality will bite in an unpleasant way, possibly at the European Council meeting due on April 10. As Sabine Weyand noted yesterday, the Commission regards No Deal as a likely outcome, with what appears to be a large degree of acceptance. By contrast, to the extent that the Commons considers No Deal to be a risk, it’s a distant or conceptual one; this unreality is not helpful.

One scenario which I haven’t seen mentioned before but which I think we should now take seriously is the possibility of a post-Brexit ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement. If Britain does sleepwalk into a No Deal Brexit, the awakening won’t be a happy one – not for Britain but also not for the EU and especially Ireland. And despite every attempt to kill it off, the Withdrawal Agreement would still be there, unloved but available (Bercow permitting, though he’d find it hard to stand in the way of the will of the House, should such a will exist). For want of anything better, it could probably still be agreed: Article 50 isn’t entirely unambiguous on the point but to me, the wording doesn’t suggest that the window for concluding the agreement closes when the departing state leaves. Indeed, it would be bizarre were such a bar to exist – and if one doesn’t exist, then why not use what’s already there?

Of course, implementing the Agreement would have huge domestic consequences. The DUP, who would accept Remain or No Deal but practically nothing in between, would probably withdraw support from the government, leading to a general election. The Conservatives would be split and led by a lame-duck leader. Labour would have finally, in some numbers anyway, backed the Tory Withdrawal Agreement, and would be split between Rejoiners (who might see the transition period as the last realistic option to get back in before divergence takes place), and those who accept the fact of Brexit and want to move on.

That, however, is several moves down the line. Before then, we have the small matter of seeing the wood out of the trees these next two weeks.

David Herdson


Where we are now summed up in two betting Tweets

Friday, March 29th, 2019

And on Betfair

Mike Smithson


Johnson edges back to favourite on the day that TMay’s future could be decided

Wednesday, March 27th, 2019 chart of movement on the Betfair exchange

On the face of it a lot could be decided today that will give us a clearer view of Britain’s and Theresa May’s political Futures. The two are clearly interlinked.

With even some of her most hostile opponents within the parliamentary party now supporting her deal the prime minister is facing her backbenchers this afternoon when it’s widely expected that she’ll be pressed strongly to give an indication of her exit date.

It has been her ambivalence over this since she lost the party its majority at the June 2017 General Election that has caused a lot of tensions. While the Tories have been happy to let her take on the battle of dealing with Europe there’s virtually nobody in  the party comfortable with her leading the Tories at the next general election. Memories of her GE2017 performance are still strong. She’s somebody who loses the party seats not gains them.

In December she was pressed to give a commitment before the confidence vote in her that she would go before the general election but that’s not enough. The party wants a date and if she gives a specific undertaking this afternoon that might help secure some of the extra support she requires to get her EU deal finally through.

How that fits in with today’s Commons events where MPs will be taking part in an indicative ballot on which of the various scenarios they’ll support is hard to say. One of the options that’s not there is Theresa May’s deal.

For the prime minister’s plan to succeed it probably requires none of the alternatives that are being voted on to actually secure majority support and that might be easier should she commit to her MPs  a firm and early exit date.

Meanwhile in the next CON leader betting the chart shows that Johnson is now back as favourite slightly edging in Michael Gove. I’m not too sure either of them will end up with the top job and the fact the favourite is only a 19% shot suggests that there is great uncertainty.

In another Betfair market it is an 88% chance that TMay will go this year.

Mike Smithson


The indicative votes are the right question at the wrong time

Saturday, March 23rd, 2019

Unless a WA is agreed, they could all be pointless

Brexit means Brexit, Theresa May once said. Even at the time, the slogan was widely derided as meaningless and nebulous – though politically, there’s value in something that’s all things to all people. Indeed, Labour is engaging in an almost identical exercise at the moment, where almost nothing is ruled out but very little is explicitly ruled in: everything remains on the table, presumably in the hope that someone else will make the decision and so avoid Labour landing with any of the blame.

As an opposition, that might just about be a viable strategy, if a pretty craven one. The more fervent supporters of one outcome or another will be upset, especially those who want to Remain via a second referendum (which was briefly Labour’s official policy, though no longer, apparently), but the majority of the blame will be aimed at the government.

Which is fair enough. Governments are meant to develop and deliver policy, and “Brexit means Brexit” isn’t and never was a policy, any more than the ‘Leave’ instruction on the 2016 ballot paper was. By the time the government finally got round to fleshing out and pinning down the details – the Chequers away-day – the concept settled on was already unpopular and the PM was already set on her self-imposed tramlines.

In reality, the indicative votes now (probably) being scheduled for next week should have formed part of a national debate held shortly after the referendum result, which could have both informed policy development and produced deeper and wider ownership of that policy. At the latest, the discussions should have happened after the botched 2017 election, when the Tories lost their majority and it was clear that parliament was going to have a very major say in how Brexit developed.

Unfortunately, to have apparently contracted-out Brexit policy to parliament as a whole, at a time of her own maximum personal vulnerability would probably have been a provocation to her MPs too far. It’s the sort of thing that PMs in complete command of the situation can do. May was not in such a position in June 2017 (which is one reason, among many, that she should have been replaced at that point).

However, having missed that opportunity, the Commons is in danger of making the opposite mistake now. What would, two years ago, have been strategic thinking is now – with only three weeks to the next cliff edge – a dangerous distraction.

The reality is that there are only three meaningful short-term Brexit options at this stage: the Withdrawal Agreement as agreed, Revoke, and No Deal. Everything else is either process (e.g. referendums, changes of government, general elections etc), or else a matter for the Future Relationship. There is neither the time nor the political space to develop an alternative withdrawal framework. Nor is it necessary to do so.

What does need to be decided is whether Britain should leave at all, and if so, whether it should leave without a deal. Some will argue that this dismisses the idea of a second referendum. Indeed it does, and for good reason. We have spent 33 months since the last referendum going nowhere for lack of a majority view, never mind a consensus. Even if a referendum could produce a useful mandate – itself far from certain – simply agreeing the terms for a vote will be far harder and more contentious than is being given credit for; probably so hard as to make it doubtful as to whether it’s achievable under an A50 extension.

Instead, if the decision of the House is to remain, it needs to take that decision itself. Similarly, if it is to leave, then it either needs to pass the Withdrawal Agreement or decide to leave without a deal. The fact that the Commons doesn’t want to do any of these things is precisely the reason we’ve ended up where we are. Granted, it’s not a very good deal but it’s all there is and, in truth, given the parliamentary maths and the positions adopted by the EU, it’s probably close to all there could be. While it’s easy for MPs and others to blame May, and for May to blame MPs, the fact is that both have run down the clock. May has done so as a deliberate political tactic but the Commons has equally failed to support any practical alternative via an amendment.

The time for that prevarication is now past. The minimal extension means that No Deal by accident remains a very real possibility, for want of an alternative. Indeed, the fact that there has been an extension and there will be indicative votes is likely to rob parliament of the sense of urgency it very much should have.

Instead, assuming that the Commons does want to leave and doesn’t want No Deal, it should pass the Withdrawal Agreement, either with conditions attached as to the future relationship, or with the intent of holding a wide-ranging debate immediately after Exit on the strategy for Phase 2. For the Conservatives, that should also involve a leadership election (which admittedly also brings the risk of unicorn-hunting but less critically so than if the contest is before Brexit takes place).

Will it? I’m doubtful. Labour MPs, including the leadership, still seem primarily interested in avoiding contact with the process, whether out of fear of Remainers or Labour tribalists determined not to back any ‘Tory’ measure (even if it had been amended as Labour want). With enough ERG Ultras plus the DUP to bring the government’s support way below 320, that means there simply aren’t the votes there. Engaging in displacement activity doesn’t change that, and nor can the can be kicked again (or not much – the EU doesn’t lose anything from postponing again at April 12 but we’re talking weeks only).

To my mind, betting markets, parliamentarians and commentators alike are underrating the risk of No Deal. If it is to be stopped, it has to be stopped. At the moment, there aren’t enough people willing to do so.

David Herdson


Get ready for the no deal Blame Game

Thursday, March 21st, 2019

There’s little doubt that the Mail’s front page this morning correctly sums up the current position in relation to brexit with just 8 days to go. Given what the EU response was to Theresa May’s request for more time and her ongoing desire to get her deal approved then there must be an increasing chance that No Deal becomes what happens.

If what we have been led to believe a No Deal would entail that looks like a catastrophe which will impact on the lives of millions of people. Inevitably, if this indeed what happens, there’ll be a massive blame game.

Theresa May with her complete rigidity has continued to use everything to just to get her deal through and has not been ready to countenance any change or deviation. Corbyn’s not helped. Last night he refused to attend a meeting of party leaders to try to sort things out because Chukka was there. How petty but perfectly predictable. These events will be remembered.

It was always said that May’s plan to get her deal agreed was to take the nation to the cliff edge with agreement to her deal being the only option. Maybe that will work. She’s certainly not deviating from the plan

In all of this TMay has been hugely helped by the ERG’s move in December to no confidence her. She survived, of course, and at the same time got 12 months immunity from such a move being repeated.

No deal remains a 20% chance in the betting. That might increase during the day.

Mike Smithson


On a huge day of political betting a no deal Brexit on March 29th move from a 12% chance to 22% in fourteen hours

Wednesday, March 20th, 2019 chart of movement on the Betfair exchange

The other big market movement today

Mike Smithson