Expert View

This was a bad week for Britain

by David Hannay | 14.12.2018

David Hannay is a member of the House of Lords and former UK ambassador to the EU and UN.

Well, that was the week that was – and, in Brexit terms, a pretty awful one for the UK by anyone’s analysis. First came the government’s handbrake turn preventing Parliament pronouncing on Theresa May’s deal. Then came the helter-skelter dash around Europe in an effort to persuade 27 other EU countries to reopen or, more realistically, to embellish the Brexit deal which the prime minister had signed up to with such fanfare a mere two weeks earlier.

Act Three was the prime minister’s survival in a vote of confidence by her MPs, which left her with 117 angry, mutinous members of her crew, determined to vote against her deal whenever it is brought back to Parliament. And finally back to Brussels to be told by the EU27 that, much though they would prefer the original deal to be ratified, the Withdrawal Agreement, including the Irish backstop, was untouchable.

So what has changed as a result of all this frantic and, let’s admit it, rather humiliating activity? Nothing has changed, as May herself is wont to say.

In terms of the negotiations in Brussels, that handbrake turn was probably unhelpful. If the deal had been rejected in the Commons on Tuesday, May would have arrived in Brussels on Thursday with a stronger and more clear-cut case for seeking those reassurances which she says she needs.

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As it was, our neighbours refused to give any assurances that we wouldn’t be trapped in an unending Irish backstop. The language on the other side of the Channel noticeably hardened. Out went pledges that the backstop “does not represent a desirable outcome”, that “it would only be in place for a short period”, and that the EU “stands ready to examine whether any further assurance can be provided”. In went commitments to the integrity of the single market first and foremost, and to ramp up preparations for a no-deal Brexit.

Very little was forthcoming, in either substance or form, which will lead to the attorney-general updating the advice he gave to the Cabinet, before the original deal was concluded, that the UK could not unilaterally avoid or terminate the backstop. The chances of that are vanishingly small. And without it, what are the chances of those 117 mutineers – and of the Democratic Unionist Party – changing their view on the deal?

There was one piece of good news this week and that was the ruling by the European Court of Justice that the UK could unilaterally withdraw its notification to leave the EU at any time before March 29 and, by so doing, stay in the bloc on the current basis of our membership. So it really is up to us to decide whether we want Brexit, and no one else gets a say.

Where do things go from here? Anyone who expects the prime minister to shed much light on that when she reports back to Parliament next Monday on the European Council meeting is likely to be disappointed. Prevarication and obfuscation are more probable. But time really is running down. Both business and the government are incurring heavy costs as a result of the uncertainty and of the need to plan for the eventuality of crashing out with no deal – even though that remains unlikely.

But, until the present deal is put to the test in Parliament, it is impossible to move on to considering a preferable Plan B. When that time comes a clear frontrunner will be giving the electorate a say on this whole sorry mess.

Edited by Luke Lythgoe

6 Responses to “This was a bad week for Britain”

  • Why doesn’t BBC news keep Remain in the list of options more clearly? And are the People’s Vote technicalities (not just the Questions) in need of clarification? Can the House of Lords somehow break the log jam? What has been going on there? It would help to have a coherent statement of the case – or various cases – for overriding 2016.

  • We are not humiliated by our EU partners, we are humiliated by the appalling and pathetic example of non Government. It must be obvious to the 27 that the UK has got itself into some kind of blind lemming like charge based on an ill thought out Referendum…..voted on by the elderly, the lied to, and people with some kind of weird ‘principles ‘ about sovereignty. They only have to do the maths to know that Leave is not the choice of the ‘British People’, only 17m out of 65m….not any kind of mandate.

    Don’t blame the EU, blame ourselves……as Boris said in 2014…. if anyone remembers.

  • Just a small point which I have never heard:

    The wrath of the minority 17 million, if the UK were to remain in the EU, would be absolutely miniscule compared to wrath of 66 million!

    Therefore anger is relative.

    Brexit means wrecking the economy. Less tax income. Less money for all public services – schools, hospital, police, social care, education – is pretty obvious.

    Along side this, companies going bankrupt, millions becoming unemployed, and people’s lives being wrecked.

    I’m quite decided about which wrath that I’d like to endure!

  • If some of the politicians who want Brexit had an independent small business, how would they cope? They make the decisions and we have to deal with the dreadful consequences and worry about the future all the time. Why change our relationship with the EU when it has been working for so many years?

  • Withdraw A50 and simply cancel brexit. A new referendum will be costly, time consuming and expose the public to expert opinion manipulators who will have their way with us. Thanks to huge contributions made by those at home and abroad they will, once again, be an effective force and who’s self interest does not include the well being of the UK or those that live here.

    Withdraw A50. We have the right to do so and lack only the political will (and courage) to make it a reality.