A little under a year from now, parliament has an opportunity to deliver a rebuke to the government’s Brexit strategy that would make its latest rebellion look like a gentle wag of the finger by comparison.
Lawyers are quick to caution that the dramatic vote on Wednesday night to amend the EU withdrawal bill does not in itself give MPs a right to veto Brexit next autumn. The revolt led by the former attorney general Dominic Grieve merely prevents the government from ploughing ahead with whatever exit deal it secures in Brussels without first establishing support in the House of Commons.
In theory, therefore, the threat of a “no deal” Brexit still hangs over the negotiations. MPs are also unable to directly force the rewriting of any agreed divorce arrangement, let alone assume that European negotiators or MEPs would accept any suggested changes in time for it to make a difference.
“What this amendment, on its own, doesn’t do is directly enable parliament to force government back to the negotiating table if it doesn’t like the deal,” said Mark Elliott, professor of public law at Cambridge University. “Nor does the fact that parliament could amend the bill approving the withdrawal agreement mean that parliament could amend the agreement itself. That’s a matter for negotiation between UK and EU.”
But in practice few of the domestic steps that the government needs to take to prepare the country for exit of any kind can be now be taken without these newlyemboldened MPs agreeing to it first. The Brexit secretary, David Davis, has already warned that he now faces a “very compressed timescale” – and that assumes parliament can be satisfied he is heading in the right direction.
Why this matters is that there is very serious possibility that the exit deal on offer late next autumn is anything but attractive to many in Westminster, or beyond.
Since perceiving lukewarm commitment among cabinet Brexiters for the first-phase concessions agreed by Theresa May last week, EU leaders have been making increasingly tough noises about how they will approach phase-two negotiations.
Despite a direct appeal by Davis, talks on a trade deal are unlikely to even begin until March 2018, which leaves barely six months to agree anything substantive before the whole exit agreement needs to be put before parliaments in Strasbourg and Westminster for ratification.
Sources in the EU are therefore adamant that the “deep and meaningful” trade deal promised by the British government will have to wait until well into the two-year transition phase, and probably even longer than that.
All that they envisage offering the Brits by next autumn is a “heads of agreement” commitment to a “stripped down” free trade deal, such as that recently struck with Canada, the precise terms of which would we thrashed out after Britain has left.
Eventually such an arrangement might charitably be called a “Canada plus” deal, because it would have to include basic agreements on aviation and fisheries that are not covered elsewhere, but the idea of the kind of “Canada plus plus plus” deal, including more lucrative services sectors such as banking, that was promised by Davis, is seen as laughable in Brussels.
Now Britain has conceded to all the key financial and legal demands in phase one, they are prepared to keep the lights on, the exports flowing and the planes landing in phase two, but are determined to make it all look considerably less attractive than full single market access. The idea of swift special carve-outs for the City of London is for the birds, insist those who Britain relies on to offer them.
This is a triple blow for Downing Street.
Firstly it sets up another series of disappointments even more embarrassing than the concessions that were forced upon it in phase one. Even this week, Theresa May’s former adviser Nick Timothy was still arguing that achieving a much more generous deal than the Canadians should be a doddle because Europe is keen to liberalise access to its service markets – a claim that was questionable even before Brexit.
Secondly, to the extent that the UK can prevail on individual member states to argue its corner, this is all likely to happen long after Brexit rather than when it still inside the club and has leverage on other divorce issues. Britain will be seeking its super-duper FTA as a third-party country, not as a member state.
Most importantly what it now also does is ensure that the package presented before the UK parliament at the end of the process is likely to be very thin gruel indeed. May could well have caved in on the €40bn divorce bill, a role for the European court of justice and the principle of regulatory harmonisation to avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland, only to find that she has just the outlines of a “stripped down” trade deal to show for it.
At the very least, Wednesday’s vote means parliament will be leaning hard on ministers to improve on what they bring back. “This gives parliament more leverage: the government will have a stronger incentive to bring back a deal that is likely to garner parliamentary support,” said Elliott.
Yet, if the deal is both poor and all that is realistically on offer, pressure could also mount for a rethink of May’s opposition to full single market membership as a “soft” alternative. This is why Wednesday’s vote has brought a rare moment of cheer to many campaigners against hard Brexit and a glimmer of hope of a wider rethink.
“The headlong rush to an extreme Brexit without an opposition is now over. Around the country campaigners, unions, MPs and community groups rose up and said enough is enough,” said Eloise Todd of the group Best for Britain. “Theresa May and her ministers now need to listen … Next year’s meaningful vote means no Brexit is a credible option, and if that is what is best for Britain and its people when the government comes back with a deal that is the course we should take.”
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