This was first posted on Facebook on 23rd December 2020, with support from my Ko-Fi network.
Christmas Eve Eve.
Here is where we are.
At 11pm 31st December, that is in less than eight days time from when I am writing this, the transition period ends, and the UK (except for Northern Ireland) is trading with the rest of the world (except where a new trade deal has been made already, which is … not many) on “WTO terms”. (This isn’t good.)
We’ve discussed at length earlier what Boris Johnson’s problem is trying to negotiate a deal: he needs to see everything in terms of winning and losing, and he needs to be able to present himself as the winner. This is not how trade deals work.
The European Parliament had its last plenary session on 17th December. No deal can be approved. The deadline to request an extension of the transition period passed on 30th June, even if Boris Johnson had been willing to ask for one.
The European Research Group are not enough MPs to overturn Boris Johnson’s 79-MP majority in the Commons, but they are likely enough MPs to trigger a leadership contest (55 letters is all it takes). The European Research Group are the MPs who want – who wanted all along – to be the winners and the victims simultaneously: to demand Brexit without defining Brexit, ot assert that only by leaving the EU and everything to do with it can they stop the EU from doing down the UK. It is impossible to make the ERG happy: if you gave them what they said they wanted, they would take that as a given and demand more and claim victimhood because they aren’t getting it.
If we crash out of the EU in no-deal Brexit on 31st December, the ERG MPs will still not be happy, because the UK will still have to trade with the perfidious countries of the EU, and collectively, they have far more economic clout than the UK did in its prime – and the UK is well past prime.
But crashing out in no-deal Brexit would have terrible and immediate consequences. The government’s “reasonable worst-case scenario” was laid out initially prior to the pandemic: when we are cresting a wave of infections for which the Tier 4 lockdown comes too late to prevent – this is, to put it blandly, an unreasonable worst-case scenario.
It is too late for a deal to be scrutinised by either the European or the Westminster Parliament before it is applied: it is not possible for the European Parliament to meet in plenary session now til January, and to be ratified by the EU, the 2000-page deal has to be translated into 27 official languages, voted on by 27 parliaments, and returned to the European Parliament. (I presume an emergency recall of Westminster Parliament could take place by Zoom, though Jacob Rees-Mogg has strenuously objected to such modern goings-on.)
If a deal is settled by close of day tomorrow, Christmas Eve, it is agreed the ambassadors of each country to the EU will meet, provisionally agree to it being applied to the UK-EU from 11pm 31st December, and an official letter (which is reckoned to take, by itself, four days to draft) will be sent out to each EU country for provisional approval.
The Westminster Parliament is likely to be recalled on Sunday 27th, two days in to Tier4 lockdown.
This will avoid, at least, the worst-case disruption – worse than that which a mere 48 hours of stoppages caused. The deal will still have to go through process for full ratification – and it is unlikely to make the ERG MPs happy: as noted earlier, it is unlikely that anything could make them happy. They have announced that as soon as the full text of the deal is public, they will convene what they refer to as their Star Chamber, and examine it in detail.
The Star Chamber was an invention of the Tudor monarchy, a court which had the power to punish crimes which might not be illegal but which loyal privy councillors to King Henry (7 or 8) felt ought to be illegal, and which English monarchs following found increasingly useful, to be able to declare something criminal and find people guilty and fine them, Sir William Blackstone notes drily in his Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-1769) that it was abolished (1641) “to the general joy of the whole nation”.
It seems strangely appropriate that the Brexiter MPs should revive a legal name that had lived on only in metaphor for secretive procedings with no due process, and declare themselves the unlawful court of social and political oppression through the arbitrary use and abuse of power.
This convening of their Star Chamber means that when MPs return from recess in January and can scrutinise the 2000-page deal, which they have bound the UK to because it was that or crash out in no deal, the first Parliamentary scrutiny will be that of this semi-official group determined to find everything wrong with it they can.
Keir Starmer will likely have whipped Labour to agree to it: the SNP have already declared they will not vote for it: but with Labour MPs who obey Starmer and Conservative MPs who obey Johnson, the deal will pass.
But it is quite possible that, though Boris Johnson hopes to have this greeted as a grandstanding last-minute victory, now the deal is done and Johnson (and Starmer) can be held responsible for it, Johnson will be gone as soon as Tory MPs can figure out who they’re going to vote for to replace him.
So to be clear: if we hear a deal has been agreed to on Christmas Eve, we may stagger along a while longer – we will at least not be crashing out in no-deal Brexit.
If no deal has been agreed to by close of day Christmas Eve, then we really are finally out of time, and have a week left to contemplate what’s coming to us.