At Labour party conference a few weeks ago, at Fringe events featuring prominent Labour MPs in favour of a public vote on the Brexit issue, the Benn Act was viewed by speakers as a silver bullet. It was taken as read by Hilary Benn himself and Emily Thornberry that with Boris’s “do or die” strategy in ruins (his only credible route to a deal), the anti-no deal majority in Parliament could then exert itself and deliver a second referendum. Much of the chatter revolved around a debate of second order proportions – general election before public vote on Brexit or vice versa?
At the time I thought that premature – and a major miscalculation on the first count. Johnson’s team had been working vigorously on bilateral negotiations with Dublin with advisors on regular shuttles to and fro. And the Benn Act was a potential accident waiting to happen because the letter was clear on the length of the extension but unclear on its purpose beyond vague speculations on further negotiations.
Why should a three-month extension resolve a political impasse that a six-month extension could not?
In that light, the leader of the opposition Jeremy Corbyn’s support for a two-stage solution to Brexit (general election followed by a renegotiation of the Withdrawal Agreement followed by a public vote in which Labour would campaign for Remain) seemed borderline insulting – why should the EU indulge the UK’s flannelling for any longer?
It now appears that the first assumption was straightforwardly wrong. The second is now in real jeopardy. Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the EU Commission, told Sky News’ Beth Rigby: “If we have a deal, we have a deal and there is no need for prolongation.”
Now, that statement should be taken with a pinch of salt. Juncker is a slippery character prone to bouts of extreme mischievousness – as PM of Luxembourg he was always an extremely vocal advocate of reforms to tax evasion at a European level, while, it is alleged, overlooking what was going on in his own backyard (notable cases involving Amazon and Vodafone, for example).
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Indeed, Luxos in general are proud of their ability to face all ways at once: chichi “Luxembourgeois” to their French cousins, “Luxemburger” to the business-like Germans on their eastern flank, and simple “Lëtzebuerger” if they want to be folklorique.
So what is Juncker playing at? The EU 27 have the final say on an extension, but he is pointing them towards no extension.
There may be a part of him that relishes bouncing the UK parliament into a deal vs no deal wager. But there is a more straightforward explanation too – the Benn Act was always likely to lead to an accidental smash with the member states. They want this over. Varadkar wants it over; Macron wants to forge ahead with his liberal Europe agenda. There are real concerns that Brexit arguments could leak into the horse-trading that will unfold before next year’s crucial EU Budget.
Remainers have failed to understand that since Theresa May returned with her Withdrawal Agreement, which would have kept the UK tightly bound into the EU legal order, via the UK-wide backstop, they faced a simple choice – admit defeat for now, regroup and campaign to rejoin further down the line (on the basis that the UK would remain in “dynamic alignment” with EU rules with no say over them) and accept that the internal dynamics of the Tory party would lead to a harder form of Brexit, either delivered through no deal or through negotiations conducted by a more aggressive Brexiteer candidate like Boris.
They also underestimated the extent to which the EU might well be wedded to an agreement they actually spent quite a lot of time and political capital negotiating. Two miscalculations that spell an historic defeat for the Remain cause, perhaps more fatal than the loss of the 2016 referendum.