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Wednesday, January 16, 2019

A failure of opposition

It may seem strange to argue that the Tory Government's 220 vote defeat on a major plank of policy is not just a failure of Government, but of the opposition as well, but bear with me.

There is no doubt in my view that Theresa May is the architect of her own misfortune. She squandered a Tory majority in 2017 with a snap General Election, which she effectively lost. Despite that she hitched her fortunes to the DUP, making any settlement with the EU impossible, just because of the Irish border issues. She is a fighter, but she is flailing around in the ring on her own, boxing shadows.

In these circumstances, it was the duty of the opposition, in the national interest, to take a clear and constructive position. The Liberal Democrats, the Greens, Plaid Cymru (but see the comments to this post) and the SNP did that. The official opposition under Jeremy Corbyn however, sat on the fence and played it for party advantage. For that alone, in my view, he has disqualified himself as a potential Prime Minister. You cannot play games with the country's future in this way.

Corbyn argues that this can only be resolved by a General Election, and yet he has no alternative position on Brexit to put before electors. He has now tabled a motion of no confidence, but in doing so has chosen a moment when he cannot win. If he had been serious about toppling this Tory Government then, as I argued here, he would have tabled that motion when Theresa May withdrew the first 'meaningful vote' in early December, and before Tory MPs attempted their own coup d'grace.

But what of the way forward? Is a third referendum, a people's vote now a possibility? One Labour MP argued on Twitter this morning that yesterday's vote leaves us with no question to pose in a further plebiscite. I disagree. A modified deal, could still feature on a ballot paper, on the grounds that MPs cannot be trusted to determine the future of the country and, as this is the only deal available, the people should be asked to give direction to Parliament.

The problem is that I don't believe that a referendum, asking people to choose between  the deal or staying in the EU, would get through the House of Commons. I believe that MPs would insist on adding a third options of 'no deal' to the ballot paper, and that would make a plebiscite unworkable.

It is not that I don't believe people could make an informed choice on three very clear but complex options, though the campaigns would be very difficult, and we would risk a low turnout, it is that a three choice referendum is likely to leave us in limbo, without a clear majority for any option. Even if we had multi-choice voting the outcome would be disputed, with all sides crying foul. It has got to the stage, in my view, whereby a people's vote is no longer a viable way out of this mess.

That leaves us with the House of Commons as the final arbiters of the Brexit dilemma. God help us. It would mean Labour having to let their MPs vote with their conscience, for Corbyn to stop playing politics with the country's future and for the Prime Minister to start acting in a non-partisan, cross-party way. But, if all of those things happened, and it is unlikely, what would be the compromise?

The Norway-plus option is one possible solution, but as I pointed out here, it is far from perfect. It would cost us more, we would have no say on the rules and regulations we would be subject to, it imposes tariffs on the export of fish and agricultural products, and we would continue to be part of an agreement that allows free movement of people, no bad thing but nevertheless one of the Brexiteers' red lines.

There is of course a no-deal exit, with all the chilling consequences for our economy that involves. I doubt if many MPs want that. but we could slip into it by default, and of course MPs could vote to stay in the EU altogether.

What happens now depends on the Government's poker face. My bet is that May will go back to the EU, get some minor changes to the non-binding political agreement, and then sit it out until MPs, faced with exiting without a deal, decide that it is better than nothing.

Whether MPs would allow her to get away with that is also unlikely. They may well decide to take charge of the process themselves, but can they get a majority for any alternative.? The country really is going to hell in a handcart.
Peter. Please add Plaid to your list otherwise it looks like the Lib Dems are repeating the errors that were made in Ceredigion in the last election.
The error in Ceredigion was drawing inferences from Leanne Wood's position rather than just quoting her and letting people draw their own conclusions. In fact in the debates she did say that Plaid would respect the result of the referendum.

I haven't included Plaid because they have been ambivalent on this, even to the extent of Adam Price arguing that a no-deal Brexit will actually help to deliver his primary aim of an independent Wales.
I have added Plaid to the list of opposition parties in the main post but their ambivalence about Brexit continues. Jonathan Edwards was on the news earlier and indicated he was in favour of the Norway option.
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