He was the unlikely hero of the hour. In the Commons last night with his voice shaking, Tory MP Oliver Letwin, the backroom politician who was the chief policy coordinator of the Cameron coalition, made the most striking statement of the day.
“I’ve actually got to the point where I am past caring what the deal is we have. I will vote for it to get a smooth exit.”
On the face of it, a very irresponsible statement indeed from a politician who has spent much of his career as a policy wonk at the centre of power; but actually less surprising coming from a man who knows better than most how to bring politicians of different parties together and has been known to blurt out uncomfortable truths before. Letwin was blowing the gaffe. He was exposing the hitherto unspoken truth that MPs on all sides were still prisoners of their own pretensions. It would take more time for them to hit rock bottom and face reality.
His knew this aim was about to be frustrated by the defeat of the Cooper/Boles amendment he championed to postpone Article 50 in order to give time to build the new consensus which Brexiteers fear, but to which Cooper and co will surely return.
It was the rival Brady amendment which gave Theresa May her Commons victory, only to prime her for impending defeat at the hands of the EU. The amendment was based on the “Malthouse compromise” adopted by an unholy alliance between the hard line ERG and anti-No Dealers which in effect secured the defeat of Cooper.
Now I confess that in this case I’d relied on journalist summaries of the Malthouse proposals. Not so the ace Brexit analyst at Queen’s Katy Hayward. She has exposed the Brexiteer document called A Better Deal quoted in the amendment as an exumation of the corpse of “max fac” soft regulation and a crude cut and paste job culled from the Ireland /NI Protocol with the difficult bits left out. In other words a political con job.
There are no references in the ‘new Protocol’ to the movement of goods from Britain to Northern Ireland – the so-called ‘border in the Irish Sea’ – which is meant to be anathema to unionist critics of the Withdrawal Agreement.
What else is different? Well, perhaps surprisingly, it gives a less secure status to the Common Travel Area than in the existing protocol. The parties would use their “best endeavours” to ensure it continues to apply. How is this sufficient to reassure unionists?
And it makes no mention of Irish citizens, North-South cooperation (other than what has accidentally been copied and pasted) or VAT, to name but a few serious issues. To be fair, this is not exactly a weighty alternative, coming in at 7 pages compared to 28 (excluding annexes). The intention is, surely, to give an impression rather than provide a solid legal basis for an international treaty.
The other key differences relate to time. Whereas the existing protocol puts a time limit on the extension of the transition period, to the end of December 2022, there’s no such time limit in ‘A Better Deal’.
And this cuts to the heart of why nothing matches up to reality. MPs will play party games until they have to settle at the 59th minute. Brexit suspicions are rising that’s what May is up to – and finally not to their advantage. They’re asking for clarity. Dream on: she’s hardly going to start now. She will do her St Theresa bit and suffer the slings and arrow in order to achieve…. we shall see.
May’s case against the backstop is in theory not absurd; a country wishing to leave the EU should not be bound to it against its will or suffer a catastrophe. And the backstop risks bringing about the very outcome it’s designed to avoid – a crash out No Deal in fewer than 60 days. To run with Simon Coveney’s image, a person threatening to jump out the window ought not to be met with “go right ahead.” But it was the UK’s own compromise and it’s almost certainly too late to change now.
Fortune magazine reports the odds offered by bankers Goldman Sachs shifting towards No Deal. That’s the pessimistic reading. At 15% it’s dwarfed by a combined 85%, No Brexit odds are reduced from 40% to 35%, while A Deal stands at 50%.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London