My Times column on the parliamentary battle over Brexit:
Dominic Grieve, MP, and Viscount Hailsham are clever barristers both, and agreeable company. I was at Oxford with one, sit in the Lords with the other, and count them as friends. But what they are up to infuriates me. Their amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill — for it is a joint effort — is a masterpiece of ingenuity and subterfuge, and it has nearly succeeded in wrecking Brexit altogether, which was undoubtedly its purpose all along. Tonight in the Lords comes the latest and probably not the last battle.
Before the 2017 election Mr Grieve said he did not want to “fetter the government’s hands in negotiations, or indeed the government’s right to walk away from the negotiations”. Like many at that time he wanted to get the best possible deal in the softest possible Brexit. What changed?
After the election, a new opportunity arose. Somewhere, maybe in Brussels, maybe in London, a group of determined Remainers must have met and decided upon a plan, not to soften or improve Brexit but to kill it, by the device of ensuring that such a bad deal was on the table that the British people might change their minds. Who met where and when we may never know, but let’s picture a scene: a pack of Blairite spin doctors, a shoal of well-watered Eurocrats, a posse of Tory rebels, a pomposity of QCs, an incantation of retired mandarins, and, off stage, an affluence of money men.
Their best weapon would be to amend a vital bill that ostensibly had nothing to do with the negotiations, but was designed to make the statute book fit for purpose after withdrawal. But how? Lots of ideas came forward, such as removing the date of exit from the bill, but it was the demand for a so-called meaningful vote in parliament on the negotiations that came to be the key weapon, because it was the subtlest. And now, the Commons having disposed of all the rest, it is the only one left.
That wily old veteran of Euroscepticism Sir Bill Cash MP, chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee, saw quite clearly some months ago what was afoot. I recall him saying then that the Hailsham amendment in the Lords was a dangerous improvement on the Grieve amendment in the Commons and was by far the cleverest threat to any Brexit at all, let alone a clean one.
By giving parliament control of the negotiations should no deal be reached by a certain date, it looked innocuous and democratic but effectively removed all threat of Britain leaving without a deal: for there would be no parliamentary majority for any particular tactic, let alone playing chicken with Brussels. That would give Michel Barnier and the European Commission the certainty that they could stonewall till parliament stepped in and then concede nothing and demand everything without fear of Britain walking away.
This in turn would ensure that we faced a worse outcome even than continuing membership of the EU — and than no deal. Namely a vassal state, a Napoleonic province. No veto, no rebate, no council membership, no parliamentary representation, but all the rules, all the external tariffs, all the anti-innovation, crony-capitalist regulation, and an immigration policy that would continue to discriminate in favour of Europeans claiming benefits and against Indian entrepreneurs wishing to invest.
This was an option that the British people would surely reject, either in a second referendum or in a general election. Lord Malloch-Brown, head of Best for Britain (an organisation apparently devoted to achieving the worst deal for Britain), has made this clear: “We must win the meaningful vote . . . That is likely to trigger a new referendum, or election.”
This explains why various versions of softer Brexit have attracted so little interest from the Tory rebels and their allies. (The floundering and disintegrating Labour front bench mostly misses this point.) Customs arrangements, EEA membership and all other suggestions of compromise are no longer acceptable to the Grievites. Any deal is worse than a bad deal.
I repeat: the Grievites are no longer interested in getting us a better deal; they are determined to get us such a bad deal that we change our minds. That’s been their strategy ever since the election, and it was obvious it was being carefully co-ordinated with Mr Barnier’s team long before a cross-party group of Remainers was caught slipping disloyally into the European Commission’s London headquarters last week.
Last week, to get his way and keep the game alive, Mr Grieve had to play clever. He dared not force a vote on his amendment in the Commons, seeing it was safer to wring some vague concession from the prime minister with last-minute threats of rebellion. He could then cry treachery when the promised concession was turned into the words of a Lords amendment. Given his visit to the commission, how he had ambushed the prime minister at the last minute and how his and Lord Hailsham’s amendment is designed to get the worst deal for Britain, the cry of treachery is a bit rich.
But it is, as Hugh Bennett of Brexit Central pointed out, revealing because Theresa May’s amendment “is already an uncomfortably large concession from the government. It gives the rebels everything they have asked for except the ability to block Brexit altogether. There are no honest grounds for opposing it unless that is your true motivation.” It is disingenuous and discreditable of Mr Grieve and Lord Hailsham to keep pretending against all evidence that they are only trying to improve the government’s negotiating position.
The negotiating stance of Mr Barnier has all along been intended to discourage others from leaving the EU rather than to find an outcome that benefits ordinary people, even in France, let alone Britain. Hence his demand for a generous exit payment from Britain before agreeing to anything else, his playing with fire over Ireland and his taking a self-defeating and probably illegal position over the Galileo satellite project just to spite us. Even Hilary Benn MP called the commission’s Galileo stance counterproductive and “frankly, insulting”.
But there is method in its madness. Why, in hundreds of hours of debate in the Lords have I yet to hear a Remainer criticise Mr Barnier for these knavish tricks? Because they see his purpose is to get us such a bad deal that we change our minds, and they share that goal.