Everyone can see the jam we are in on Brexit. At the moment, there appears to be no way ahead on which Parliament can agree. There is no majority for the Withdrawal Agreement but also no consensus on what should replace it. The default position on 31 October 2019 is that we leave with no deal, but MPs have voted against this being an acceptable outcome. How are we going to break out of this bind?
One way that could radically change the situation would be for Labour to reconsider its position on no-deal. The reason why this option has been voted down in the past is because Labour MPs have voted almost solidly against it. At the time, when opinions were forming, this was understandable. It looked as though there would be endless hold-ups at Dover and Calais, we would be running short of food and medicines, and planes would not fly.
The situation, however, has now changed. As a result of agreements which have been reached and preparations which have been made, the prospective disruption from no-deal looks like being a lot less than was originally feared. This is not to say that no-deal has become the ideal outcome. It would still surely be much better to reach a deal with the EU to provide us with a more orderly departure. This does not mean, however, that we should take no-deal off the table.
The reason is simple. As long as no-deal is an option which the House of Commons is not prepared to accept, the EU has no incentive to change its negotiating stance on any of the outstanding issues. In particular, the EU negotiators have no reason to change either their position on the Irish backstop or on the £39billion upfront payment which is part of the Withdrawal Agreement. Without these two elements of the Agreement being reconsidered, particularly the first, the Agreement won’t go through Parliament.
If, on the other hand, Parliament comes to the view that no-deal, although not the ideal outcome, is better than the Withdrawal Agreement, and an option which should be kept in play, the negotiating situation changes dramatically. The UK can now credibly tell the EU that we would much prefer a deal but that, if one that is acceptable is not forthcoming, then we would be willing to go ahead with no-deal, taking advantage of all the mini-deals which have been negotiated to ease the impact of this kind of exit. It would then be up to the EU to compromise on the Irish backstop and perhaps the £39bn too to avoid no-deal.
That is why Labour Leave today published a new research document, It Makes No Sense To Throw Away Your Strongest Card, which urges Labour MPs to reconsider their opposition to no-deal. As the new research says, unless Labour MPs are willing to countenance the possibility of no-deal, we risk drifting from one extension of Article 50 to the next, while nothing gets decided and the country becomes more and more polarised and divided. This will also, undoubtedly, hurt Labour’s electoral prospects if we end up being shouldered with the blame for blocking Brexit.
Would the EU move? Perhaps not, in which case we would have to leave with no deal. But there is a good chance that the EU would change its stance. On the Irish backstop, in particular, when it looked as though we might leave with no deal at the end of March 2019, the EU made it clear that they would not impose a physical border in Ireland. If this was possible then, it is completely illogical to claim that it cannot be done in future.
The issue now, therefore, is this: are Labour MPs prepared to look at no-deal again with fresh eyes, as the only realistic way of getting the EU to agree to a fairer and more acceptable deal that will get through Parliament? If not, how soon is it going to be before Labour starts getting blamed for refusing to contemplate what looks like the only realistic way out of the current impasse?