In baseball, softball or rounders, when you are batting you get three attempts to strike a good, pitched ball. If you swing three times without contact, you strike out.
The UK faced its first pitch last night. If we had connected with the ball, we could have either smashed it out of the park and begun the slow process of disabling a damaging and pointless Brexit, or at least given it a knock into the middle of the park and run to first base, delaying Brexit and preventing No-Deal on the 29th of March.
Instead, we swung the bat with pinpoint accuracy into our own face.
(Anyone who had the privilege of watching me play softball will understand this analogy.)
The result of last night is not the end of the world. It doesn’t resign us to crashing out of the EU without a deal, which I am learning more and more is far more damaging than many realised (and the mere prospect of which is already causing a considerable amount of damage to our economy). It doesn’t mean that Brexiteers like the ERG have won, and it doesn’t mean that leaving the EU is completely assured.
However, our MPs had the clearest and best opportunity to apply some bi-partisan common sense since we agreed to leave the EU last night and comprehensively bottled it. Had the Cooper amendment, a cross-party effort that legally guaranteed to delay our departure date and buy us some much-needed breathing space, been passed, we would have had the opportunity to take some stock of the situation and think clearly.
Instead, on we hurtle towards the precipice of a No-Deal Brexit with absolutely sod-all change.
But I thought that the new amendment allows us to renegotiate the deal with the EU? I thought it meant that we might actually be able to get a deal we can pass through Parliament?
The Brady amendment that was voted through by Parliament last night (some of those Conservative rebels that might have voted for Cooper thoroughly losing their backbone in the process) does buy us some new negotiating space. Sort of. There is definitely some truth in what Theresa May says in that she can now go to the EU and say, “The backstop issue is what is preventing this deal from being passed in Parliament because Parliament told me so with this vote. Therefore the backstop fundamentally has to change.”
This is as strong a negotiating position as May has been in for quite some time.
I hear a but…
When the result of the vote came through last night, it took Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, seven minutes to state, clearly and unequivocally, that the backstop was part of the Withdrawal Agreement and is completely non-renegotiable.
Since then, President Macron has said the exact same thing. Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said the backstop was ‘necessary.’ The messages coming out of the EU are unified – the backstop will not be changed.
So, what could happen instead?
There is speculation that some extra legal wording could be added to the Withdrawal Agreement that clarifies what the backstop is, when it would come into effect, and that it is not indefinite. This legal jargon is probably what Theresa May will come back to Parliament with in two weeks’ time, given the lack of enthusiasm for fresh negotiations. When she returns with this new, shiny, exactly-the-same-but-with-some-bits-tacked-on deal, it will be put to a vote, just like her first deal.
Remember how that turned out?
Oh… yeah… Largest ever defeat. That’s a bit worrying.
But hang on. This time, there would be a spirit of unity, right? May has managed to get the Brexiteers on side, most of Parliament is resigned to Brexit happening and would surely vote in favour of a deal rather than No-Deal, right?
Well, despite Reeces-Pieces-Moggy-Man saying that he was in favour of this new approach, and the ERG voted in favour of it last night, the ERG also immediately warned that the backstop was “Only the worst problem with the deal.”
Oh. That doesn’t sound too collaborative.
When you consider the past behaviour of the ERG, who are vehemently, ardently in favour of a hard Brexit (even so far as a No-Deal more than a soft one), then it is not beyond the realms of possibility that when May comes back with her wonderful, brand-spanking, exact same deal, they will say that it doesn’t go far enough and vote it down. They simply would have played May to the tune of their fiddle, saying that they could get on board with it when they had no intention of doing so from the beginning.
The rest of Parliament also has no real obligation to vote for a deal that they don’t believe in, and the legal additions to the backstop issue will simply not be enough to convert many MPs.
The next two weeks of negotiations would have been for nothing. We would have delayed anything constructive, made things even more fraught and furthered the prospect of No-Deal.
So is there any good news?
Some. The fact that the Spelman amendment also passed means that Parliament has expressed a majority view that it doesn’t want to leave without a deal in place. While not legally-binding, the fact that there was a majority voice saying that No-Deal is bad is something that the government must listen to.
When the vote happens in two weeks’ time, if May’s deal fails again, the Spelman amendment means that alternative options to No-Deal should be given precedence, such as an extension of Article 50 or a second referendum.
But the whole thing is so just so utterly, completely avoidable. If the Cooper amendment had passed last night, we could have started thinking about these alternatives (or approached fresh negotiations) calmly and rationally. Instead, we gambled on the EU allowing changes to one part of a deal that has already been shot to pieces by the Parliamentary firing squad, which it said won’t do. We gambled on a second vote getting this deal passed, which is more unlikely than it is likely. We have prolonged uncertainty for businesses, EU nationals in the UK and UK expats living in the EU. We have pushed ourselves closer to the edge for no discernible reason.
Strike one. Straight into our own face.
Strike two comes after the vote in two weeks’ time. If we swing and miss the opportunity to delay Brexit again, we have smashed the bat straight into our own knackers.
Strike three comes at the eleventh hour, before we crash out of the EU with no deal in place. If we miss this time, we strike out.
We storm off, taking our bat with us, hitting every team mate in the face as we walk past them. We set the bat on fire and throw it through the window of an orphanage. We go home and draw a cross of St. George on our Vauxhall Corsa in Tesco own-brand ketchup, because Heinz sounds German or something. We throw out all of our IKEA furniture (“Stupid Swedish EU bastards”), and crack open a tinny of Stella Artois (“A proper English beer”). We sit on the floor, put on LBC and listen to Nigel Farage’s radio show, where he just openly laughs for the whole hour.
We decide we need a holiday. Spain sounds nice.
Swing, batter batter.