Thursday, 14 March 2019

An extension could be the right move

From the looks of it, it looks like Mrs May is looking to run her deal past parliament for a third time. It is almost certainly going to fail again. David Lidington, Minister for the Cabinet Office, indicated in the Commons that the government would allow MPs to hold a series of votes on possible ways forward on Brexit if MPs rejected the PM's deal for a third time. That all but assures defeat.

At that point, it is possible that we would see a consensus on a softer Brexit requiring a longer extension. This seems to be in line with the thinking in Brussels. This morning Donald Tusk tweeted "During my consultations ahead of EUCO, I will appeal to the EU27 to be open to a long extension if the UK finds it necessary to rethink its Brexit strategy and build consensus around it".

The general view in Westminster and Brussels is that there is little point in extending unless there is a more concrete point to it than a few extra weeks for the UK government to fanny around. If we are going to extend then we will have to go back to Brussels with a plan and a parliamentary consensus. We no not want to be back here again with everything hanging in the balance.

Though all trust is exhausted with the public, with many now questioning whether Brexit will happen at all, and many more having succumbed to Brexit fatigue, this won't be a popular decision but it strikes me as the more sensible route.

It is clear that there is no love for the withdrawal agreement as it stands and even my support for it is only in preference to no deal at all. It would serve as a suboptimal stepping stone we would revisit down the line. If, however, there is a window to push for a more amicable departure then we should welcome an extension. If parliament gets its act together then an Efta EEA solution could be lodged as the direction of travel in which case we have the basis of a workable destination.

Though this would undoubtedly lead to euro elections and a major domestic row, we would at least have a direction and it would buy time to firm up our external policies including trade for when we do finally leave. Having a direction which then safeguards jobs is likely to further marginalise the remain camp. The scare tactics are the only tool in their box. Once these disappear, they've got nothing.

Much of this, though, depends on trusting parliament - but if the soundings on Twitter are anything to go by, I think many in parliament know perfectly well that the leave voting public will not tolerate being cheated.

Were we to set down an EEA Efta path I would be entirely happy with that - to draw a line under this whole debacle and look forward to developing a positive new relationship with the EU. Those clamouring for no deal don't seem to appreciate that no deal does not bring an end to the process, rather it shifts it to more uncertain grounds where we are still negotiating with the EU but from a far weaker position. No deal is not a destination nor is it the basis for any future relationship.

As far as I'm concerned, any departure that sees us out of the EU, retaining much of our economic strength, while also shafting the zealots of the ERG would be a wholly positive move for the UK. If then we can say the referendum has been respected and we have moved forward on the basis of a parliamentary consensus, rather than leaving by way of a political accident, we are in a stronger position to start repairing the divides in the country. The average reasonable voter will accept Efta membership. It would certainly enjoy more popularity than the EU in the longer term.

As to the chances of this happening, they are not remote. We have seen "Norway then Canada" and "Norway Plus" and "Common Market 2.0". There is a kernel of a clue and between them they at least have a vaguely plausible destination in mind which is more than the rabble do. It stands more of a chance at winning a parliamentary consensus than the year zero approach favoured by the ERG.

If even that much escapes parliament then it looks like we are drifting toward the exit without a deal. This is not something I welcome but reluctantly resign myself to. This is not a consequence of our vote to leave. This is a consequence of the institutional incompetence of our politico-media class. This is the consequence of a deeper more profound decay. If parliament can't get its act together now then it won't until they are shaken out of their complacency.

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