The Easter recess has belatedly arrived and MPs have returned to their constituencies after the most intense spell of Parliamentary activity anyone can remember.
The period since New Year has been given over to Government attempts to get the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) “over the line“. The Commons have voted three times on the WA and on each such occasion the Government has been heavily defeated.
Shortly before recess, in indecent haste, Parliament passed the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 5) Bill. The Bill, introduced by the Conservative Oliver Letwin and Labour’s Yvette Cooper, was promoted as preventing the dreaded “no deal“. In fact, it did nothing of the sort. It simply permitted the Prime Minister to seek an extension of the article 50 period, but obliged her to do nothing further than that.
It was, indeed, a spectacular exercise in futility, because the Prime Minister, having given over 100 assurances to the Commons that the UK would certainly be leaving the EU on 29 March, attended the European Council on 10 April and prevailed on the other 27 member states to extend the article 50 period to 31 October. It was something she intended to do anyway, and the Letwin–Cooper Bill was consequently a monumental waste of time.
The House returns on 23 April. Members on both sides will be focused on seeking a way to break the WA impasse. It is unlikely that that will be achieved by the talks continuing between the Government and the Labour front bench, which appear now to have virtually stalled.
Compromise is clearly called for; and, as a Brexit-supporting Conservative, I and similar-minded colleagues have shown willingness to exercise it. However, that compromise has not been reciprocated by the EU.
The WA represents a thoroughly bad deal for the UK. It requires us to pay the EU a minimum of £39 billion, with little or nothing in return. For up to 45 months, it keeps us in the EU’s customs union and regulatory system. It maintains the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. It significantly delays Brexit.
However, I would be prepared to stomach all that, were it not for the notorious Irish backstop.
The backstop would keep us tied to the customs union and EU regulations indefinitely, unless the EU gave consent to our departure, which it could not be compelled to do.
Even if we obtained that consent, the UK would be obliged to leave Northern Ireland behind, effectively as an economic adjunct of the EU. No one who values the Union could in good conscience agree to that.
Therefore, if the WA is to be finalised, it requires movement on the part of the European Union. The Irish backstop must be excised or neutralised, and the Government must insist on that.
If that does not happen, the UK must be prepared to leave on 31 October on World Trade Organisation terms.
As I have previously commented, that is an outcome which, though suboptimal, should cause us no undue fears.