George Pascoe-Watson: Theresa May is in touching distance of a Brexit deal

Written by George Pascoe-Watson on 8 February 2019 in Opinion

Many principled Labour MPs are now ready to come on board, while other people need to climb down. 

Theresa May is in touching distance of a Brexit deal. And today the Prime Minister is relying on Brussels and Boris both bending to bring it to life. Of course, there is every reason to believe we are “so near, and yet so far” from the Withdrawal Agreement becoming a reality. But all it will take is for the EU to give Mrs May a legally binding commitment - Britain will not be stuck in a Northern Ireland backstop for ever. That, and for Boris Johnson and the European Research Group of hardline Brexiteers to agree.

Many principled Labour MPs are ready to come on board. Especially if Mrs May comes forward with a Bill on workers’ rights, a fund for forgotten communities and other measures. And Britain will be ready to leave the EU on March 29. Technically, we will leave then. The PM does not want to delay Article 50. But we’d still be subject to the European Communities Act until Parliament could push through a replacement. We’d be in. And out. For a short time.

Jeremy Corbyn’s flourish of a new plan is a non-starter. Neither Labour nor the Conservatives would go anywhere near a deal which keeps Britain in the Customs Union. It just wouldn’t be Brexit. The word is that in Brussels, decision-makers have finally concluded that a second referendum is dead. And – fascinatingly – Brexit-supporting newspapers like The Sun are turning up the heat on their own cheerleaders like Boris and calling on them to do the right thing.

The prospect of Britain missing the Brexit boat would be on them. What irony if their failure to be flexible kept Britain in the EU forever. But so is the prospect of a general election any time soon – one which many Conservatives believe would see them lose their seats and hand Mr Corbyn the keys to number 10.

For the deal to happen, many individuals will have to climb down. And that’s hard. Perhaps Donald Tusk’s “hell” outburst was chaff before he dilutes his own position. But a No Deal Brexit must remain an option. This is leverage Britain needs – for two very good reasons. Brussels and member states, especially Ireland, would suffer grievously if Britain leaves with no arrangements. And so they need to know No Deal remains a strong possibility. Also figures like Liam Fox at the International Trade ministry need the prospect of No Deal on the table. Why? Because Trade Agreement Continuity depends on countries around the world “rolling over” existing relationships Britain currently enjoys.

Whilst those countries assume a Withdrawal Agreement will be put in place, there’s no incentive for them to sign continuity agreements. And the danger is we leave without them in place. The last two years have been incredibly damaging. Brutally so. To many individuals, to organisations, to alliances and friendships. And to politics and faith in our system. But now there are growing fractures between the business community and government – divisions which might not heal for a time.

Ministers reveal to me that more and more, pro-Remain business trade bodies are making life harder for Britain than it needs to be. Their complaint is this – top secret briefings to certain business groups are being leaked to undermine the government. These relationships of trust are breaking down and are unlikely to be rebuilt any time soon. This matters. Firms both large and small desperately rely on their representative bodies to fight their corners in government. But it those bodies are no longer trusted or listened to in the corridors of power, they can no longer do their job. And that’s a risk to their membership subscriptions, some mandarins tell me.

Many people are rightly fascinated by the body language on view this week. I predict it will get worse before it gets better – if it ever really improves. It’s hard for ego-driven politicians to protect their reputation when they’re about to fold. They worry that they’ll be seen as weak and inconsistent, lacking principle. So prepare for more anger, outrage, cold-shouldering and abuse. But Theresa May is now in touching distance of a Brexit deal. If these are the death throes of the negotiating process and a deal is to be done, then it might just be worth the pain.


George Pascoe-Watson is a partner at Portland Communications and former political editor at The Sun.

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