04 April

No deal remains a clear and present danger

No deal remains a clear and present danger

Theresa May has proved herself once again to be an expert at kicking the can down the road.

Her pitiful appeal this week for still more time to fix Brexit changes nothing. The Irish border will remain an intractable problem and the DUP – for all the money it has pocketed – will continue to withhold its support. As challenging as the parliamentary arithmetic remains, I must say that her attempt to form in all but name a party of national unity with Jeremy Corbyn is still surprising given how they feel about each other.

Will she and Corbyn go to the emergency summit together – the odd couple of British politics, trying to present a united front to our European partners on the world stage?

With this national crisis still unfolding, let us please get real. The narrow victory for the Cooper-Letwin bill to instruct Mrs May to seek an extension to Article 50 and avoid a no-deal Brexit has not by any stretch of the imagination precluded it from happening. The legislation will no doubt pass in the Lords on Monday, despite the disgrace hours of filibustering.

There is, however, little about the Bill that is straightforward. Allow me to explain. If it becomes an Act, the Cooper Bill demands a motion regarding an extension be put to the House of Commons the day after it comes into force.  If the EU Council proposes an extension itself, there must then be a motion to approve agreement of that proposed extension in the House of Commons.

The Cooper Bill is complex


If Parliament were to decide to agree the Withdrawal Agreement and the EU then extends the Article 50(3) period until May 22, I think the Cooper Bill, assuming it becomes an Act, could be used to extend this extension again, but only until the Withdrawal Agreement comes “into force” – i.e. if ratified by the EU Parliament and both Houses of Parliament.

In so much of the Brexit process, UK politicians and Parliament have been accused of talking to themselves. It is now, however, engaging with a third party – so what are the options open to the EU in respect of the Cooper Bill/Act? In practical terms, it could

  • Refuse the request to extend, which would mean that the UK will leave the EU on April 12 without a deal
  • Agree to the request and extend the Article 50 period
  • Make a counter-proposal – which would mean Mrs May would once again have to move a motion in the House of Commons, thereby beginning the whole process again
  • Offer to extend Article 50 subject to certain conditions, e.g. participation in European elections. The Cooper Bill, incidentally, makes no provision for this possibility.

As you can see from the above, the Cooper Bill is complex, and it means, so far as I can deduce, no-deal remains a clear and present danger.   A no-deal Brexit could occur in spite of the Bill in a number of the scenarios.  A full legal explanation can be found here from Professor Mark Elliot.

Sir Mark Sedwill, the cabinet secretary, apparently stunned Ministers recently by distributing a report that spelt out exactly what no deal would mean. He told them to prepare for a recession significantly worse than 2008, a police force that can no longer keep order, food prices shooting up by 10 per cent, direct rule in Northern Ireland, and a deluge of legal claims against the UK Government.

We need now to set some red lines of our own


Even more alarmingly, Matt Hancock, the health secretary, when asked if he would be willing to guarantee that people would not die from medicine shortages as a result of a no-deal Brexit, chose not to respond. Parliament may have made it abundantly clear that it does not want the UK to leave the EU without a deal, but it remains the legal default position in the absence of any consensus or alternative.

There is no point wasting time fretting about whether we are to have a new tenant in Downing Street, a general election or a confirmatory vote, when what our MPs need to do is to remove without delay – and without ambiguity – the Damoclean no-deal sword hanging over our heads. This is only fair, not just to businesses who are wasting valuable resource planning for no deal, and for people deciding where to study, live or retire.

It would also stop what I consider to be criminally negligent use of taxpayers’ money: providing for an imminent crisis our politicians have created and can now prevent.  We have learnt that the Government has re-directed £2 billion to no-deal provisions, hired some 10,000 staffers, and redeployed hundreds of civil servants to help over-stretched departments.  It’s also putting about 3,500 troops on standby and has teams in a bunker under the streets of Westminster ready to direct operations if things turn nasty.

If only the magic money tree could have been shaken to such great effect during all those years of austerity to have alleviated human suffering.

We have a moral responsibility now not just to our own people, but the peoples of all European countries who will also, to varying extents, suffer if we exit without a deal and proper provisions in place. We need now to set some red lines of our own and make it clear we have minimum standards when it comes to safeguarding security cooperation, trade and citizens’ rights.

Frankly, it beggars belief that members of the Cabinet are only now being acquainted with what no-deal means. Since September 2018, my team at has been emailing and sharing reports and blogs based on expert input about what crashing out of the EU would mean to schools, food and drink supply chains, the NHS, people whose lives depend on medicines, road haulage and the fashion industry. Several MPs that we have sent these reports to have responded with gratitude, but others – maybe those who a freedom of information request found had not bothered to read the 58 impact studies – chose not to acquaint themselves with the facts.

Human life is more important than ideology


No longer can the real risk to human life be considered subordinate to blind and increasingly discredited ideology.

Even now that Mrs May is pleading for a further extension beyond April 12, she will have to give a credible reason. It is something of an under-statement to say that the patience of some of the EU member states is wearing thin. Mrs May is nothing if not proud and she must know that, unless she thinks radically, she will be unceremoniously booted out of office. A snap election, with the country offered a choice of Brexit or Brexit, does not, however, strike me as a sensible option.

As a private citizen, I am generally reluctant to give any advice to our elected representatives, but it seems to me to be a matter of simple common sense what should happen next, whatever Mrs May’s tactics are really about.

What I propose is that another draft Bill, that preceded the Cooper Bill be passed after any extension granted at the Emergency Summit next week – ie. the European Union (Revocation of Notification of Withdrawal) (No. 3) Bill – the Kennedy Bill (The Cooper Bill is European Union (Revocation of Notification of Withdrawal) (No. 5) Bill).

1)         Present this draft Bill – or a binding motion – that is straightforward and that has the virtue of stopping without any ambiguity no-deal being the legal default;

2)         Achieve sufficient cross-party support for the binding motion, so the Speaker selects it;

3)         Suggested substance of a no deal binding motion:

a) Parliament instructs the Government that, as a constitutional requirement for its negotiating mandate in its future dealings with the EU, it is not prepared to authorise the U.K. leaving the EU without a deal at any point (whether now, during an extension period or during transition period – or extension to transition period)

b) any future negotiating parameters to include limits to the exercise of the Government’s prerogative in negotiating the future trading relationship  (as stated in the Nandy/Snell motion, which would ensure Parliament a vote on the Government’s future negotiating mandate, as constitutional requirements

c) formalise those constitutional requirements in the Withdrawal Bill and or amend/repeal the European Withdrawal Act 2018 as necessary

d) seek extension as appropriate/necessary to formalise those arrangements.

I know this is all very complicated, but our elected representatives – and our Government – have a responsibility to keep all of us safe and well. This situation cannot and must not be allowed to continue. There is no time left for anything other than clear, unambiguous thinking and action.