Ignore the hot air from cabinet members about a no-deal Brexit

  • If we are en route to leaving without a deal, no member of the cabinet who fancies taking over from the prime minister would want to inherit such an almighty storm.

  • Chuka Umunna MP

People ask: what next on Brexit? What is actually going to happen? What is the process by which things will come to a head in the House of Commons?

There has been a lot of commentary on an agreement being reached either at a special meeting of EU Council leaders later this month or at an EU Council meeting on 13 and 14 December. The truth is, the first key moment will be when an outline agreement – if one is concluded – which has tentatively been given the nod by most member states, emerges a few days before any summit. It will then be formally signed up to at the meeting, pending ratification by the European Parliament and the UK Parliament. For the reasons I outlined last week, it would be wrong to call this agreement a “deal” – think of it more like a memorandum of understanding with a view to reaching a proper deal later.

Ignore the bluster and hot air from cabinet ministers about being prepared to leave without a deal. If we are en route to leaving without a deal, no member of the cabinet who fancies taking over from the prime minister would want to inherit such an almighty storm – it would doom their premiership from the start.

The prospect of succeeding Theresa May is the primary motivation of at least a third of the cabinet (Jeremy Hunt, Sajid Javid, Michael Gove, Penny Mordaunt, Dominic Raab and Gavin Williamson are among those who want it and are busily trying to get colleagues to support them in that aim). A successor in a no-deal situation would go down in history as an even worse PM than May. So, the ticking clock, if anything, will force things somewhat and call their bluff.

On the EU side, they want to clear Brexit off the table before the election campaigns for a new European Parliament start in earnest in January – that is the universal view of EU ambassadors and ministers I talk to. We are convulsed by Brexit – they, in the main, are not.

The Irish and Dutch governments perhaps are the most consumed by the issue but the EU has to contend with a huge number of other things and they all have their own domestic political challenges. This is a distraction many of them could do without. The temptation to leave most of the big issues – such as the future trading relationship – to be settled once we are in transition but after we have left is immense.

If an agreement is reached with the EU at the EU Council, then what? Under the terms of the EU Withdrawal Act 2018 passed earlier this year, once an agreement is reached, that “withdrawal agreement” will need to be approved by a resolution of the Commons before we proceed through the exit door. That vote – commonly referred to as a “meaningful vote” – will be the next big moment, and will probably occur around two weeks after the agreement at the EU Council being reached.

The key issue for May at that point will be: does she have the votes for the resolution approving any agreement she reaches with the EU to pass through the Commons?

As things stand, this looks doubtful. Many of the hard-right Brexit champions have indicated they are unhappy that what she has proposed is not a sufficiently “clean break” from the EU. The DUP, on whom the Tories rely for their majority, have also said they are not happy with what is on the table. On the other side of her party, Remain supporter Jo Johnson resigned from the government on Friday claiming it would be a “democratic travesty” not to have a People’s Vote on the agreement. Given we do not know what the final contents of that agreement will be, it is impossible to reach a judgement on how many Tory MPs on either side of the argument would vote against it.

However, all opposition parties will be whipped to vote against it. So the key issue for Jeremy Corbyn will not be whether he whips us to vote against the deal but: does he align with May – and go along with the notion that 650 MPs decide whether the UK accepts May’s agreement with the EU – or does he think the public should be given a final say with Remain on the ballot?

The motion to approve the agreement can be amended to provide for such a national poll – four medical doctors, who also happen to be MPs, have already given notice that they will table such an amendment at the point of the “meaningful vote”. Labour will not be able to duck the issue.

When asked on Saturday by Channel 4 News whether he agreed that there should be a People’s Vote, Corbyn said: “Not really, no.” Instead he would prefer a general election in order to pursue a different kind of Brexit. But the idea of a general election is a complete red herring and everyone knows it – it won’t happen because an early election requires two thirds of the Commons to vote for it and no Tory MP will do so.

This leaves a final vote on the deal, which is an “option” according to Labour Party policy – even then, though, the party’s biggest affiliate, the Unite trade union and shadow chancellor John McDonnell are publicly opposed to Remain being on the ballot.

Were Corbyn and McDonnell backbenchers at the time of the 2016 referendum, it is inconceivable they would not have campaigned for Brexit. Had the leadership campaigned for Remain in 2016 in the vigorous way they campaigned in the general election in 2017, I do not believe a majority would have voted Leave given how close the result was. In 2016, immediately after the referendum, there was the ludicrous demand from Corbyn that Article 50 be triggered immediately – this shows where their instincts lie.

If this pattern continues, it will not stop the failure to wholeheartedly back a People’s Vote being considered a complete betrayal of the interests of working people who stand to lose most from any kind of Brexit. As Jo Johnson illustrates, the number of Conservative MPs supporting a People’s Vote is increasing so much that if Labour MPs were whipped to vote for it, it would have a good chance of passing. In fact, the numbers are so high now that it would have a good chance of passing even if not all Labour MPs followed the whip – so there is no avoiding the reality: it’s in Labour’s hands whether the public gets a final say on the deal or not.

Whether May’s agreement passes or not, if the people are denied democratic involvement in their future, there will be no hiding place when 700,000 Brits who marched to be given a Final Say – and the 1 million  who signed the Independent’s petition asking for the same – demand to know why.