Morning Briefing: Extension blackmail - bad news for economy - 'party of business'?
After two years of negotiations, we must bid a solemn farewell to one of Theresa May’s favourite rhetorical tics. The question has been put to Parliament, and by a healthy margin MPs have decided that it is not the case that no deal is better than a bad deal.
In doing so, chaos reigned in the Tory party as divisions were laid bare. First a non-binding amendment ruling out “no deal” narrowly passed. Then several cabinet ministers - including Sajid Javid and Jeremy Hunt - used a free vote to back the Brexiters’ unsuccessful “Malthouse Compromise” plan. And finally, four cabinet ministers - Amber Rudd, David Gauke, Greg Clark and David Mundell - abstained on the main motion against no deal, alongside a further 12 junior ministers and government aides. There have as yet been no consequences, though an additional two junior members of government did resign to vote against no deal. And so the amended motion passed - in a resounding defeat for the government.
But, as May is well aware, unless Parliament actively chooses an alternative, a no-deal Brexit is the default if we haven’t got a deal or an extension in fifteen days’ time.
That means we could see the next “meaningful vote” on May’s deal very soon. There is something bleakly amusing in pro-Brexit MPs in favour of May’s deal insisting that she should be able to make MPs vote on it time and time again while simultaneously arguing that the people must definitely not get a new vote.
In theory John Bercow as Speaker could block another vote on the deal. Parliamentary convention is against repeatedly attempting to pass the same motions or legislation - and this one has already twice lost by hundreds of votes. While such a move is unlikely, it does demonstrate the state of all-consuming chaos in Parliament today.
The government is now deploying a new false threat - a lengthy extension of Article 50. The effort to turn a necessary and sensible extension to the Brexit deadline into a bogeyman that will scare MPs back into line is both irresponsible and unedifying. It deserves to be treated with the same contempt that greeted previous efforts to browbeat or blackmail MPs into supporting a Brexit deal that neither they nor the country want.
One Conservative MP, Simon Clarke, complained May is putting “a gun to my head at this point”, forcing him to choose between “effectively a bad Brexit deal or no Brexit at all, which is absolutely ghastly”.
In the days and weeks ahead, MPs will have to make more crucial decisions on Brexit. They should make sure that any extension of the Article 50 deadline is used to deliver the clarity about Brexit that has been missing from the last two-and-a-half years of debate. We will have to decide whether we want still to be bound to EU rules over which we will no longer have any influence to avoid deeper economic damage, or whether to pay a huge price to go it alone.
When these real costs and new facts are properly debated, MPs will also have the chance to consider whether it’s only fair to give the public a real say and a new vote - or it they want to force Brexit on the British people any way.
Video of the Day
OBR forecasts illustrate Brexit waste
Comparing the latest OBR forecasts to the final batch from before the 2016 referendum tells a bleak story. Investment by businesses is not only lower than expected, but has been locked in standstill since the vote. Wages are growing slower. The only indicator that’s exceeded expectations is inflation - which also happens to be the only one we’d prefer to be lower.
Forecasts are never perfect, but they do tend to capture the big picture, and it’s hard to avoid the impression here that Brexit is already making us poorer. It’s also hard to avoid the thought that so much of this is needless waste. It’s not simply the fact that the UK has underperformed to date, it’s the reminder that we have spent the last three years pouring resources and political capital into the Brexit project with no end in sight. Imagine what a tenth of that effort might have done for the NHS.
Graphic of the Day
Party of business?
Chancellor Philip Hammond took the opportunity in his spring statement to claim that the Conservatives “will always be the party of business, and small business especially”. Really? Business right now seems pretty miffed with the way Hammond’s party is handling Brexit.
From the prospect of a no-deal Brexit, to a mis-handled short extension leaving businesses having to redo no-deal preparations, to the announcement of a Northern Ireland contingency plan which would leave businesses in the region in a shambles, to a set of no-deal tariffs announced without much consultation - described by the director general of the CBI as “the biggest change in terms of trade this country has faced since the mid-19th century… with no consultation with business, no time to prepare” - business seems pretty unhappy. Perhaps Hammond should consider rebranding.
Quote of the Day
“Universally, the feeling is why the hell have they not consulted on this more widely. How can you roll out such a significant policy on trade and tariffs without talking to businesses that will be impacted by them?”
A business leader responds angrily to the government’s no-deal tariff plans on a call with business secretary Greg Clark, on the same day the chancellor claimed the Conservatives would “always be the party of business”.
Video of the Day 2
Brexiters: We can work with EU
Eurosceptics are at long last discovering the value of European cooperation. Hardline Brexiters are reportedly jetting across Europe pleading with fellow eurosceptic parties to veto any extension requested by the British government. The Guardian writes that it is “claimed” Arron Banks and Andy Wigmore paid a visit to the Italian governing party, while Conservative MPs - including former ministers Iain Duncan Smith and Owen Paterson - flew to Poland last week to “discuss the Brexit crisis”.
If the reports are true, it is unlikely that governments with their own national interests will be swayed by Leave.EU’s request to: “Defend the 17.4 million and veto!” But it is at least amusing to see eurosceptics patriotically demanding that the EU defy and veto the policy of the UK government. Isn’t that the sort of thing they used to claim was reserved for Quisling pro-Europeans?
What's your reason?
Top Brexit comment
Natalie Nougayrède: A chaotic Brexit is part of Trump’s grand plan for Europe (Guardian)
Torsten Bell: Hammond’s plans rest on a Brexit that may be undeliverable (Times £)
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Today, Thursday 14th March
|09.30||ONS: UK expenditure on research and development|
|09.30||Trade questions in Commons|
|PM||MPs expected to vote on extending Article 50 deadline|
Tomorrow, Friday 15th March
|09.30||ONS: UK trade in goods|