Brexit weekly: 5 things

Vote or no vote?

The Parliamentary session between the beginning of October and Christmas is always incredibly busy, and now more so than ever. If you really, really like Select Committee hearings then the opportunity that Brexit brings for inquiries, evidence sessions and hearings is a joy – there were no fewer than five Brexit-related Committee hearings on Wednesday in the Commons alone.

The main talking point to emerge from this cacophony was David Davis’s assertion in front of the Brexit Committee that a trade deal with the EU might not be done until the “59th minute of the 11th hour”. Leaving aside the impact that this would have on citizens, consumers and businesses, it would also mean that Parliament itself would, in the end, have no vote at all on the outcome of negotiations between the UK and the EU. Not quite the “meaningful say” promised by Downing Street earlier this year.

Both Mr Davis and, at Prime Minister’s Questions, Theresa May moved quickly to ‘clarify’ – politician speak for specifying what they were meant to say, not what they actually said – the Brexit Secretary’s comments, Mrs May promising that there would, after all, be a vote. But on what? In a Parliamentary vote you can pick two options, or abstain, so realistically MPs and Peers will get a vote on whether to accept a deal with the EU (however bad) or crash out of the Union with no deal. That’s not really a choice at all and most MPs know it. Perhaps that’s why they’re getting their Select Committee hearings in now.

The return of the thing

Talking of Parliamentary scrutiny, the EU Withdrawal Bill returns to Parliament for its Committee Stage on 14th November.

Government has delayed and delayed and delayed sending the Bill back for scrutiny (it’s over a month late) for the very sensible reason that it fears it will lose a whole raft of votes. Amendments have been tabled from MPs across the Commons on everything from enshrining a post-Brexit transitional period into law to limiting the use of delegated acts to amend EU law being bought into UK law. The problem that the Government has that these amendments are rather popular – on principle for some, as a matter of political expediency for others.

The other problem for the Government is that there are over 300 amendments already and we can probably expect the number to rise. Expect too the sort of repeated late-night Commons sittings and associated drama that have barely been seen since the Maastricht debates in the early 90s, where a weak Conservative Government faced repeated rebellions about its Europe policy. Of course, the rebels then will be demanding loyalty from their Tory colleagues now: funny how things change isn’t it?

Chris Heaton-Harris Calling

One of those in charge of ensuring that Conservative MPs vote the right way (i.e. the same way as the Government) will be Tory Whip, Chris Heaton-Harris. Tory rebels may be in for an easier ride than they first thought though, as it turns out that Mr Heaton-Harris will be distracted by the book he is apparently writing on Brexit and British academia.

The first we heard about this much-anticipated study came from Universities Minister Jo Johnson, who gave the forthcoming tome as a reason for Mr Heaton-Harris’s letter to universities, on Commons headed notepaper, asking for details on course teachers and content related to Brexit. Whilst many university administrators and academics had seen Mr Heaton-Harris’s letter as a clear attempt to search for perceived anti-Brexit ‘bias’ in the academic sector – before moving on to unknown next steps; perhaps a House of Commons UnBritish Activities Committee? – Mr Johnson, who only recently demanded that universities commit themselves to free speech, was happy to correct them. Of course it was for a book, though this was a fact that Mr Heaton-Harris himself had inexplicably forgotten to mention. Perhaps he didn’t want to use up all his words just yet.

In truth Mr Heaton-Harris’s clumsy attempt to intimidate universities just embarrassed the Government, particularly after Mr Johnson’s extolling of free speech in academic institutions just a fortnight earlier. The them vs us attitude to Brexit was tried by the Conservative Government in June’s election. It clearly worked very well. The Conservatives can at least stop their own party Whip from writing any more silly letters: they will struggle to do much about Daily Mail carrying on their own doomed culture war against Remain voters.

Ivan the Terrible

Up in front of yet another Select Committee discussing Brexit – this time the Treasury Select Committee – this week was Sir Ivan Rogers, the former UK Permanent Representative (in effect Ambassador) to the EU. Sir Ivan famously quit in January this year, sending a blunter-than-usual resignation letter to colleagues that outlined his concerns with the Government’s negotiating strategy.

At the Treasury Committee hearing, Sir Ivan was happy enough to expand on some of these concerns. In particular he recalled his advice to Theresa May that Britain would be “screwed” if it rushed into triggering Article 50. As soon as that’s done, Sir Ivan accurately said, then it’s the EU27 who have all the power.

The man in Brussels was ignored in favour of the man from Birmingham, as Mrs May’s political advisors, led by her former chief-of-staff Nick Timothy, pressed her to set a date for the triggering of Article 50 and the beginning of the end for Britain in the EU. Since the triggering of Article 50 in March 2017, just about nothing has gone right for the Prime Minister: an election effectively lost at home and Brexit talks, operating on a sequence Britain never wanted, being more frustrating than the UK has anticipated. “Told you so” Sir Ivan graciously avoided saying to the Treasury Committee.

Spooky Selmayr

It’s nearly Halloween, the time of the year where we all choose our favourite cartoon villain. For many in Britain, that role will be played in 2017 by Martin Selmayr, the chief-of-staff to European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker who, fortunately for the British in need of a hate figure, also happens to be German too.

Mr Selmayr is suspected by many of leaking details of Theresa May’s recent dinner with Mr Juncker to a German newspaper, particularly since these details happened to be more than a little unflattering to Mrs May – the Prime Minister being variously described as tired and “begging” the Commission President for help.

It is perhaps likelier than not that Mr Selmayr did let slip a few choice details to a journalistic friend and that it’s not the first time he has done this. What is less clear is whether it actually matters or not. The impressions of one aide to one EU political leader will not make much difference given that every other EU leader has the opportunity to see Theresa May every six weeks or so. Indeed, given the fuss caused in the UK – imagine a newspaper being rude about a European political leader, huff the British press with an entirely straight face – the primary objective of Mr Selmayr seems to be nothing other than having a bit of fun with po-faced British newspapers and political commentators.


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