This was first posted on Facebook on 25th December 2020, with support from my Ko-Fi network.
At 9:30 this morning, 27 Ambassadors (representatives from the EU countries with the rank of ambassador to the European Union) met to be briefed on the details of the EU-UK Brexit deal that will be provisionally applied from 11pm 31st December. At lunchtime, they all signed the letter to the European Parliament endorsing the decision to apply the deal provisionally until fully ratified.
Even in lockdown, this is probably not how they expected to spend the morning of Christmas Day (though Sebastian Fischer, Germany, asserted he was going to enjoy it because “nothing is more fun than to celebrate Christmas among socially distanced colleagues”).
Boris Johnson could have recalled Parliament to sit for several days to discuss the deal and vote to ratify it – there is nothing “provisional” about the UK’s agreement to it.
(Technically, it’s the Speaker who recalls Parliament, but the Speaker does so after representations from Ministers that it is in the public interest to recall Parliament during recess, and it is the government that sets the agenda and the recess/recall dates.)
Boris Johnson has recalled Parliament for Wednesday 30th December, debate to begin at 9:30 for one day only: the legislation will be called the Future Relationship Bill. There is no excuse for this – the first item on the agenda is to be a motion allowing virtual participation in debates, essential when the UK is mostly in hard lockdown, but meaning the virtual debate could begin earlier in the week, since MPs require no travel time to return to Westminster.
The Future Relationship Bill will have its readings in the Commons bracketing a committee of the whole House to scrutinise it as far as that is possible in a single day, and off to the House of Lords for a still hastier debate and vote: the legislation must receive Royal Assent before 11pm 31st December.
This has been Boris Johnson’s modus operandi all along with regard to Brexit: he illegally attempted to prorogue Parliament, he rushed through his Withdrawal Agreement in a single day’s emergency debate, he launched the Internal Market Bill so late that it did not receive Royal Assent til 17th December, the day the UK Parliament broke up for Christmas recess.
The Future Relationship Act 2020 will bind the UK to a 2000-page trade deal that the 27 national governments of the EU have yet to scrutinise – and, unlike the UK, they can take their time, find the points they don’t agree to, propose changes, and so forth. The meeting of the Permanent Representatives Committee this morning was the only constitutional means by which the EU could even provisionally agree to the deal that Boris Johnson dragged out to the last minute, and – reportedly – didn’t allow the EU to announce had been agreed to til the 24th, allowing him the evening of the 23rd to call backbencher MPs and assure them that this deal was a victory for himself and the UK, it really was.
(Hilariously, he is apparently counting points – 28 key battles won against Brussels only winning 11! I wonder how he’s counting them.)
On 30th December, Boris Johnson will want his deal to pass but the European Resarch Group Tories, having met in Star Chamber to discuss what they have managed to read of the 2000 pages of the deal, will likely talk themselves into voting against it.
If they are still afraid of Boris Johnson’s power to apply consequences to disloyal MPs, they might only abstain. But I think they are fully expecting Johnson to be gone by spring, and will need the political boost to go on as Brexiter MPs saying that no deal would have better than the bad deal.
Keir Starmer has a different set of choices.
- He can whip his Labour MPs to vote for it (and they mostly will, on the understanding that this deal is now the only deal available to the UK and therefore is better than crashing out in no deal). This enables him to take the position that he has been statesmanlike in doing what is best for the country – but enables the Tories to jeer at him, every time he questions the negative effects of the deal or of Brexit, that he voted for it.
- He can whip his Labour MPs to vote against the deal, and this – if Brexiter Tories and the 47 SNP (and NI MPs and LibDems) also vote against it – might be enough to ensure it doesn’t pass and Boris Johnson is exposed as a lame-duck Prime Minister who – like Theresa May – couldn’t get his Deal through Parliament. This would likely have the effect of bringing down Boris Johnson’s government, but it would certainly mean no-deal Brexit for all of us. While still possible, I don’t think Starmer will do that.
- He can whip his Labour MPs to abstain. With a cluster of 82 MPs (SNP, the NI MPs, and LibDems) voting against, plus however many ERG MPs defy the whip and vote against – Boris Johnson still commands over 300 MPs minus the ERG, and the deal will pass. Within the House of Commons, this enables the Tories to jeer at Keir Starmer for a ditherer who couldn’t make up his mind to vote for against the deal, and outside the House of Commons, it depends how good pro-Brexit propaganda is in the news services to convince Leave supporters that Brexit is still a dashed good thing, whatever their personal experience of it.
These are not easy choices and I don’t envy Keir Starmer having to make up his mind between them.
For the SNP, it’s much simpler: they’ve said they’ll vote against it, and they will. Their vote will not affect the outcome either way, it’s a political stance against Brexit, part of the ongoing campaign to win a pro-independence majority in the Scottish Parliament in May and campaign for an independent Scotland returning to the benefits of EU membership as soon as we vote for it.
If you’re celebrating today, Merry Christmas.