Writing About Brexit: we despair

EdinburghEye on Ko-FiThis was first posted on Facebook on 22nd January 2020, with support from my Ko-Fi network.

I haven’t written about Brexit since 3rd January, or even about the Labour leadership election, or Scottish independence, and I meant to do all three.

The day I planned to take as a Kofi day was Thursday 9th January, and as some of you know, instead I took a personal day for something else, and this gave me time to think and thinking was honestly depressing.

I have seen several articles by people who should know better saying hopefully that the amendments that were voted down by Boris Johnson’s bullet-proof majority in the Commons but re-instated in the Lords, where Johnson doesn’t have a majority, will make a difference.

They certainly would if they remained in the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, which today is having its Ping Pong stage – that is, going back and forth between the Commons and the Lords til the two houses agree on a wording.

For about 108 years, the rule of Ping Pong as our houses of government play it, is that the House of Lords can delay a government bill for up to two years until wording is agreed, but they can’t veto a bill that started in the House of Commons (except for Private Member’s Bills, bills submitted in the last month of a Parliamentary session, and bills to extend the lifetime of a Parliament) and under the Salisbury Convention, they can’t vote down a bill that was in the government’s manifesto when they were elected.

Could the Houe of Lords delay the Withdrawal Agreement Bill for two years? No. For the Lords to do so would clearly be against the spirit and practice of the Salisbury Convention, because there is a hard deadline by which the Withdrawal Agreement Bill must be voted through its Third and final reading in the Commons and get Royal Assent, and that hard deadline is next week.

Next week – certainly before Friday 31st January – the Withdrawal Agreement Act has to have received Royal Assent and has to go to the European Parliament to be ratified by the MEPs of 27 countries. British MEPs had their last session earlier this week. One Brexit Party Limited MEP, June Mummery, excelled her party’s reputation by wondering publicly who was now going to defend the UK’s interests in the EU Parliament now British MEPs weren’t going to be there.

Ian Blackford, Westminster leader of the SNP MPs, has asked to attend a meeting of the Privy Council to argue against Royal Assent as the Withdrawal Agreement Bill affects devolved matters in Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, and therefore under the Sewel Convention requires consent from the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Scottish Parliament, and the Sennedd, and all three bodies have voted against it. Blackford is unlikely to get access to the Privy Council, but even if he did, it would make no difference: the Withdrawal Agreement Act will get Royal Assent next week and its approval by the European Parliament is a formality.

We are leaving the EU on Boris Johnson’s terms at midnight Brussels time, Friday 31st January. There is nothing any of us can do to stop this now, and no hope that Johnson’s 80+ majority will do anything but vote as their leader directs. All the Conservative MPs willing to rebel against Boris Johnson’s Brexit have either been deselected and lost their seats, or silenced by the moral authority of a Prime Minister who has 365 MPs in the Commons and who won that majority in a General Election fought and won on the policy he is pushing through.

According to the uncodified constitution of the United Kingdom, the only constitutional issue with what Boris Johnson is doing is the fact that he doesn’t have the consent of the devolved legislatures – and too plainly, the 345 English Conservative MPs do not care a bit for that breach of the UK’s constitutional settlement, and therefore the 20 Tory MPs representing Scottish and Welsh constitutiencies had better not either. (In Northern Ireland, there are no unionist MPs who support Boris Johnson’s Brexit.)

There is no way to make the best of this. We enter a transition period at 11:01pm Friday 31st January during which the UK may try to negotiate a trade deal with the EU. This is only possble by 31st December 2020, the hard deadline (1st January 2021 begins a new budget period for the EU) if the UK negotiators give in to the EU on every point, and as the EU is well aware of this, they can afford to play hardball: if the UK doesn’t have a trade deal agreed with the EU by the end of the transition agreement, the UK’s economy is going to tank.

Brexiters will doubtless point out smugly during the transition period that the UK has now left the EU and the consequences Remoaners predicted haven’t come to pass, ha ha ha, but as during transition the UK is permitted to trade with the EU as if it was still a member and must keep itself aligned with EU standards and requirements, the worst ahead should be expected from 1st January 2021, when the UK will either be trading with the EU on the EU’s terms as specified in the trade deal, or the UK will have crashed out in the hardest of hard Brexits and will be trying to trade with 27 EU countries on *their* terms. (“Trading on WTO terms” is something literally no country has tried because it is so obviously damaging.)

During the 11 months left of 2020, the UK will be desperate for trade deals with the countries the UK-as-a-member-of-the-EU had trade agreements with. All of those trade partners will know this. The UK doesn’t have enough skilled and experienced trade negotiators for even one trade deal negotiation, let alone dozens. This is such a nightmare that I cannot conceive how badly it can go.

And behind all that, the looming threat of a trade deal with the US negotiated by Donald Trump’s government. Trump is currently being impeached for misuse of power and obstruction of justice by US Congress. The Republican majority in the Senate may well vote on party lines to find him not guilty, this time, but evidence is still coming out of high crimes and misdemeanours and I suppose it’s possible Trump could even end up being impeached twice in 2020. Johnson could end up tying the UK to Trump’s government only to find that from November 2020, a Democratic President is in the White House. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader of the House of Representatives, has soecified that any trade deal with the UK is conditional on our honouring the Good Friday Agreement – which the UK is in breach of, if there is a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

Boris Johnson can readily ask for an extension to the transition period by June 2020 – that’s in the agreement, and EU-27 will agree to it, because they understand how impossible it is to settle a trade deal in 11 months. But Boris Johnson has already said he will not ask for an extension: he is counting on a trade deal with the US.

But if there is a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives after November 2020, and there seems no reason to suppose there won’t be, and especially if there is a Democratic President in the White House from January 2021, there will be no trade deal with the US unless Boris Johnson has either asked for an extension to the transition period or settled a trade deal with the EU which includes a transparent border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. That means Johnson will have something like six weeks to make up his mind to beg for an extension well after the deadline has passed, or to give up on trade deals with the US or the EU – both will insist on the Good Friday Agreement being upheld.

And of course – we Remainers were right. Brexit is a terrible idea, a huge act of national self-harm, and is going to go dreadfully badly. Boris Johnson is fully aware of this; he has apparently banned any use of the word Brexit after 31st January. At that point he will have “got Brexit done”, and any further problems will not, according to his line of propaganda, be his fault: the EU, immigrants, Remoaners, etc, can all be blamed instead.

There is really nothing very much that can be done to prevent the will of a Prime Minister with an 80+ majority in the House of Commons. I’m sorry. But there it is. I am full of despair.

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