Why I couldn’t be bothered to read the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, but back it anyway

By the editor, Nov 21 2018 04:34PM

At 585 pages, of what presumably must be dense legal text, I’m not convinced it’s worth the time of any non-expert actually to read the Withdrawal Agreement. I’ve certainly not convinced myself. I read dense legal texts for a living, and I like to do other things in my spare time. In order to make sense of something like this I’d probably have to devote a week’s leave to it – sacrifice a holiday, and arrange for someone else to look after my children. It’s not appealing. How many people have actually read it? Many politicians clearly didn’t consider it was worth reading before passing judgement. Already there are polls out on whether people back it or not. Most people of course aren’t interested in it at all, let alone have any interest in reading the thing. Not that they – or I – are likely to understand it properly even we did try to read it.

But it feels like the sort of thing one ought to take a view on. It could be momentous. Proceeding with the deal may set a course that will have huge implications for the country for decades to come. Rejection of the deal could lead to a second referendum or a no deal exit. What would I do if I was an MP?

Fortunately, there are plenty of people with the relevant expertise who have read and summarised the WA, and provide sufficient ammunition for amateur armchair pundits like me to give it their best shot. On that basis, what is the average Remainer to make of it? There seem to me two issues to face up to. Firstly, there are matters of principle. Secondly, there are the practical considerations. I think there's a tension between the two.

The principled response.

A simple Remainer response is, of course, to reject the WA because it takes us out of the EU. A more nuanced approach is to acknowledge that the result of the 2016 referendum and Parliament's subsequent decisions obliged the Government to seek some sort of deal to exit the EU, and consider whether the WA does this in a way that is, on balance, less damaging to the UK than other realistic options. For example, does the WA make a soft or hard Brexit more likely? Does the WA rule out either of these, or rule out rejoining at a later date?

The tenor of the agreement appears to indicate a direction of travel: towards something similar to the Customs Union, but outside the Single Market, albeit seeking to maintain close regulatory alignment in certain areas. So on the face of it, a hard-ish Brexit (though I say that as a Remainer – many Brexiteers think of it as soft). But what the WA purports to aspire to, and what actually results, are not necessarily the same. There is provision to extend the transition period, which surely would in fact happen. There seems no reason why further extensions wouldn’t happen, and the transition period may in fact turn out to be more or less permanent. If a trade deal is ever made, it could look very different than these current aspirations suggest - in the many years hence it will take to negotiate. There is a majority in Parliament now, and likely in the future, for a soft Brexit over a hard Brexit. Polling indicates a similar view among the electorate. Businesses and markets exert pressure in the same direction. Eventually there is a good chance that such forces, and the realities of actually having left the EU, would overcome the party political pressure within the Conservative Party to journey any further towards the mirage of Singapore-on-Thames.

So there are reasons of principle to support it. But there also appear to be difficulties. The main one being, as Roland Smith has pointed out, that the WA appears designed to end free movement. There seems to be broad political consensus on that (despite the preference for soft Brexit). So it’s quite feasible that such an aspiration becomes a genuine red line in any future relationship with the EU. That makes an EFTA-style soft Brexit difficult if not impossible. It also seems to me highly objectionable in itself, in economic terms, in human terms, and in wider political terms. I doubt in fact that the electorate are that bothered about free movement, even if they are bothered about immigration, and it doesn’t seem to me that there’s any democratic imperative that needs to be met.

So there could quite clearly have been a significantly better WA – one more open to a soft Brexit, which would have had the benefit of being more respectful of the narrow result of the 2016 referendum, and more likely to start healing the wounds it’s left behind. So as a matter of principle, I’d be inclined to reject the WA on offer.

The practical response.

The options appear to be: 1) agree the WA, 2) renegotiate the WA, 3) leave without a deal, 4) delay the Article 50 exit date and have a general election or second referendum to decide the matter afresh.

Option 2) isn’t really an option because there isn’t time.

Option 3) will happen by default if nothing else happens, and so stands quite a good chance of happening.

Option 4) depends on Parliament (and, probably, on the EU agreeing).

A general election looks unlikely because the Conservative Party and DUP are unlikely to vote in favour of allowing conditions in which Jeremy Corbyn could become Prime Minister. As matters stand, a new Government, led by either Jeremy Corbyn or a new Conservative leader, would still seek to push through Brexit, and it’s uncertain what type of Brexit that would be.

Neither the Conservative nor Labour front benches want a second referendum, but it’s possible there would be enough cross-party support for it in order to avoid a no deal exit. But even if there was a second referendum, it’s impossible to say at the moment whether Remain would even be likely to win (the polls may be tending slightly that way – but they did before of course, and don’t tell the whole story). Plus, I’m one of those Remainers who opposed a referendum on principle before. I’d find it difficult to support another one now, just because I don’t like the result of the first one.

In any event, the chances of option 4) resulting in remaining or a soft Brexit look difficult to call, but probably slim. The chances of option 4) resulting in some form of disorderly Brexit or another variation of chaos look fairly high.

Principle or pragmatism?

I don’t like the feeling of being bullied by the threat of chaos into backing an agreement that looks worse for the country than it could and should have been. I could be persuaded by those with more expertise than I have that it’s worth sticking up for that principle and seeking alternatives. But the prospect of a no deal exit is terrifying. It’s not just the 8% reduction in GDP that’s been predicted. It’s not even the delays at Dover and the shortages. The country would be on its knees in both senses, begging for favours from the EU to secure a sequence of emergency mini-deals, and desperate to seek trade deals on whatever unfavourable terms are offered by anyone else. I recall the fuel price protests in 2000, and the panic that resulted – and think of that multiplied many times over. It’s the real prospect of chaos, of the multiple unforeseen consequences of something the country is completely unprepared for, led by clueless politicians, possibly at some point including Jeremy Corbyn, with his dreams of Venezuela-on-Thames, while the far right gains traction on the streets.

If the choice really is this bad deal or a no deal, I’d take the deal.

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