“A week is a long time in politics” goes the saying. At the moment so is every hour and every minute. For two years ambiguity has kept politicians like me at bay but the clarity of the 585-page withdrawal agreement means that is no longer possible. This is the moment of truth for Brexit.
Personally, I think the leadership plots are a distraction – even if a no-confidence motion is triggered Mrs. May would probably win it. Besides, a new leader would not change the parliamentary arithmetic. And to her credit she has worked extremely hard in very difficult circumstances to get to this point. What matters now is the “meaningful vote”, expected next month, and with the DUP, Labour, the hard Brexiteers and some pro-European Conservatives united in opposition to the draft withdrawal agreement it is hard to see how it would get through Parliament. I would also vote against the deal in its current form and here is why: The withdrawal agreement puts key commitments made by the Prime Minister at risk. Under the proposed Northern Ireland backstop, Britain will enter into an indefinite customs union with the EU, from which we may have no unilateral right to leave (Withdrawal Agreement, Article 20, page 330). Our party fought and won the recent general election on a platform of ‘no longer being members of the single market or customs union’ as we exit the European Union.
As a former Northern Ireland Minister, I also appreciate the importance of preserving the union of the United Kingdom. I am concerned a different regulatory regime for Northern Ireland – where they would have to stay aligned to some rules of the EU single market – calls this precious union into question. I would certainly consider changing my position if the EU conceded on these points.
Nobody can predict what will follow if Mrs May’s deal is rejected. In reality there are four options. First, the PM could try and negotiate a different deal. Second, there could be a general election, Labour’s preferred option, but with the Fixed-term Parliaments Act two thirds of MPs would have to vote for a new poll, which is unlikely. Third is a no-deal managed Brexit with both sides taking steps to avoid disruption to businesses and citizens and fourth is another referendum, which in my opinion, would divide the country even further for years to come. The obstacles remain huge and the solutions no less complicated. This is a very difficult time for British politics.