Thursday was as eventful a Brexit evening as one would expect, even if not particularly consequential. Theresa May’s government and the European Commission adopted a common political declaration, which will accompany the 586-page Withdrawal Agreement.
What matters is the legally binding treaty concluded last week, which sets the terms for the UK’s departure in March 2019. If ratified, it means that the EU will set regulation and the UK will follow regulation for 21 months or more.
In the meantime, the UK will fulfill the financial obligations it undersigned while being an EU member state. That so-called divorce bill of £39bn (just under €45bn) is a payment for which many in the UK expect a tangible return.
Thursday’s political declaration was presented as something like a return. The non-legally binding document is a declaration on how the UK and the EU envisage their future, together but apart. In the words of the Liberal Democrats leader, Sir Vince Cable, the 26-page document is little more than an “agreement to have an agreement.”
All eyes are now on London.
Sure, there is an EU Summit in Brussels on Sunday. However, there is little doubt now that the EU 27 will rubber-stamp the Withdrawal Agreement. But, what will the British do?
With this question in mind, European Interest sought out Tom Brake MP, the Liberal Democrat’s Brexit spokesman. We met in his office at Portcullis House, across the House of Commons. An MP since 1997 and with ministerial experience, Brake has a keen sense of politics and policy, direction and process.
Process now matters. He did not look optimistic, but rather upset and defiant. Among other things, he explained how it is still technically possible for Brexit to be averted.
European Interest: There appears to be no majority to seal the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement; there appears to be no majority for Remaining in the EU. What are the options now?
Tom Brake: As regards the Withdrawal Agreement, that is my reading too. However, I would question that there is no majority for remaining in the EU.
The Prime Minister will come back from Brussels, and she will describe the Withdrawal Agreement as the best thing that could be achieved. A debate on the merits of the Withdrawal Agreement will take place, in which MPs have already expressed strong views.
Those on the Remain side will say it is hopeless, as it ensures the UK gets less influence at a higher cost. We will ask for a second referendum, “a People’s Vote.”
On the hardline Leave end of the spectrum – those who want us to become an imperial power to rule the waves akin to the 1850s Britannia, like Jacob Rees-Mogg – will say that this is Brexit without Brexit. Then amendments will be tabled, which will be defeated.
Labour will stand up and say that “if we were negotiating” we would get all the benefits of the Customs Union and the Single Market, without free movement of labour, payments to Brussels, European Court of Justice jurisdiction, and so on. “We would get what you want,” will be the message. And they will vote against the motion.
The Scottish National Party will say much of the same as Labour but will propose that each constituent part of the UK maintains its own relationship with the EU. Scotland will want to retain not only the Single Market but also freedom of movement. That will be defeated.
Liberal Democrats will back a cross-party amendment, let by GPs (doctors), for a People’s Vote. We are not sure whether Jeremy Corbyn personally will be on board by then. That is the question. If that amendment is not moved, the Liberal Democrats will table a similar motion on their own. But, it will be defeated.
All amendments will be defeated, but the government will be left with nothing.
Then, three things can happen:
First, there is the “back pocket” theory, namely that Theresa May will come back from Brussels with something grand that will convince the European Reform Group (led by Rees-Mogg), who will, in turn, be able to tell their constituents “see what our pressure did.” I don’t see that happening.
Secondly, May continues to bring the same motion to parliament, again and again, until someone blinks in fear of a cliff-edge Brexit.
Then comes the third scenario. The question is “can she ignore the parliament?” Because, theoretically, the debate does not bind the government. So, she could say “thank you”, but we do not carry forward a people’s vote. But the Withdrawal Agreement bill is legislation, and that will have to pass.
Is no deal better than a bad deal? If not, would you say there is any other deal on offer, other than the one negotiated by Theresa May?
There is nothing else on the table. Labour and the European Reform Group are lying. There will be nothing new on the table.
As for the Liberal Democrats, if the GPs amendment does not pass, we will table our own, which will not pass; however, the theory is that having gone through the motions – and the government’s motion defeated – Labour MPs will be pressed to make a choice.
Jeremy Corbyn could be isolated, standing by himself, because he is the last person that will shift his position and support a people’s vote.
The difficulty is that there is little appetite in the EU to negotiate anything dramatically different.
There are various options being discussed, including a Norway-style EEA membership; but, I do not expect Brussels will be enthused with the prospect of re-opening negotiations for a new framework. Broadly speaking, I have no expectation that there will be a new round of negotiations.
We are trying to rally support behind (Labour’s Shadow Brexit Secretary) Keir Starmer, to outlaw “No Deal” and then force through a people’s vote.
Labour’s Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell suggests a minority Labour government could be formed to manage an emerging crisis, should Theresa May fail to pass the Brexit bill in parliament. How do you view this prospect?
We already have a minority government that cannot stop the opposition from passing amendments to its Finance Bill.
Labour cannot find any support in the House of Commons to do any better: not from us, not from the Conservatives. So, it is a pipe dream.
And many Labour MPs are going to run a mile before taking on any responsibility for Brexit. McDonnell himself would run a mile before managing a cliff-edge Brexit. He just found something of interest (to the media) to say when he spoke about minority government.
The Liberal Democrats, along with the Scottish National Party, the Green Party, the Welsh Party, and some Conservatives have been advocating for a People’s Vote.
How do you respond to the following two objections:
- a) first that this is a logical slippery slope in which “best-out-of-three” arguments could emerge;
- b) secondly, that a referendum would accentuate polarization without any guarantees that it would not produce the same result.
First of all, the country is more polarized now than two years ago. Amid Remain and Leave, there are just people bored with the issue.
For me, to get closure on this, I want a “People’s vote” because that would take place in a climate of greater awareness. If people with a greater knowledge of the effect of Brexit vote for it again, then I have to accept they have done it with their eyes open.
Until recently, major protagonists of the Leave campaign did not seem to understand the implications of Brexit. David Davis was talking about a bilateral deal with Germany, so he clearly did not understand. Dominic Raab admitted he does not understand how our trade was so heavily reliant on Dover and that would be a problem.
So, our understanding now is improved. And if those who understand that we are missing out on everything from trade to the Erasmus programme go along with Brexit, I will accept that decision.
Domestically, there has been nothing but Brexit for the last two years. So, it would be clearly time to move on; I would end campaigning there and then.
And I accept that if we did win, with an unconvincing vote – say 53-47% — then we would have to defend the result and that we probably have to revisit the issue. I know the EU would want a guarantee that this issue is buried before staying on, but no UK government can guarantee that. Only a 65% victory would bury the matter.
The Liberal Democrats governed with David Cameron. With the benefit of hindsight, did you do everything you could to stop the referendum from taking place? Was it right to hold a referendum?
We did not have a referendum while we were in Coalition.
Liberal Democrats always argued that the right time to have a referendum was at the point of a Treaty change. So, rather than voting in-or-out, you vote whether you want to pool your sovereignty with other member states further. And then you can accept a Treaty or not.
I would argue that Cameron expected to rule with the Liberal Democrats, again. So, he included a reference to a referendum in his manifesto, hoping that we would be there as his alibi to renege on his commitment. Unfortunately, he secured a majority.
And he did none of the ground work required to win a Remain campaign.
Every prominent Conservative MP (except Kenneth Clarke) had spent their entire careers accusing the EU of being responsible for just about everything. Then Cameron calls a referendum and argues against the case he and the Conservatives have been making for 30 years, holding his fingers crossed.
The campaign was focused on the economy. The Leave campaign was more emotional and, therefore, more effective.
Jeremy Corbyn has been a longstanding opponent of the EU, and he left most Labour party members confused. He did not want to be clear; of course, I accept that part of the problem is that he did not want to share a platform with Cameron, shoulder-to-shoulder. I will never forgive either Corbyn or David Cameron.
Is the Conservative Party “UKIP light?” Is the Labour Party a Party of “Marxist Restoration?” And if both of these assumptions are true, what is the matter: has the UK lost middle ground voters or middle ground politicians?
The Conservatives are UKIP light. There are outrageous people like Jacob Rees-Mogg.
I don’t know whether Corbyn and McDonnell are Marxists, but they are a very left wing. They think of the EU as a corporatist organization that prevents state subsidies and nationalisation.
When Corbyn says the EU will stop an UK Government from nationalizing railways, he is wrong. But he is right that we cannot subsidize the steel industry or any other industries we want to subsidise. The World Trade Organization will also object to us subsidizing our steel industry. But, unless our model is North Korea, I don’t expect us leaving the WTO as well.
So, the question is why the Liberal Democrats don’t have 40%? in the polls.
The main answer is the first-past-the-post-system. Polarisation does not free up people to move to the center, because they are scared of the left or the right extreme.
The prospect of a Jeremy Corbyn Prime Minister is for some people scary. The Conservatives are of course exaggerating when they say that Labour would spend 100bn more. But, my problem is more Labour’s track record on public spending.
Right now, we have challenges like Artificial Intelligence – that is eating jobs – as well as a shaky National Health Service, a suffering prison service, a policing challenge, and others. I don’t want to see a government spending £10bn in re-nationalizing water. The water sector works well. I am not dogmatic, that is why I am a Liberal Democrat.
The Liberal Democrats have only timidly presented itself as a rallying platform for the House of Commons Middle Ground, left and right. Do you see any scenario in which the Liberal Democrats open their ranks to Labour and Conservative MPs?
Clearly if any liberal with a small “l” approached us, we would probably welcome him or her. In reality, particularly for the Labour Party, that is problematic. Labour is a tribal Party and anyone moving down that road would be accused of “selling out.” What is possible is that some MPs will set up their own party. There is also a remote chance of a businessman putting down 20-30 million pounds to set up a new party. But the UK is a political system inherently hostile on startup parties. To win a parliamentary seat in England, you need 35% of the vote; that is hard for a newcomer.
So, May 2019 will be the first European election without UK participation?
If we secure a People’s Vote that will take place in April, May, or even June: from “go” it will take 22 weeks minimum. This takes us close to or beyond the 26 of May.
That will be a major headache for the EU. We cannot have a member state in the EU but without MEPs. And the UK seats are redistributed already or held back for accession countries. We will have to find an interim solution, such as current MEPs staying on.
How do you see the EU missing Britain?
The UK has traditionally pushed for opening up markets and often set a reform agenda. Britain in this respect will be missed. Of course, no one will miss Nigel Farage in the European Parliament. We won’t miss him either if he heads for the US.