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Brexit: Parliament takes control

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Theresa May is limping towards Parliament’s summer recess with her own position intact, but with the white paper setting out the government’s Brexit negotiating position under fire from all sides. The compromises in the document won some support from business but have enraged hardline Brexiters in the Tory party. Pro-European Tories have dug in against further concessions to the Brexiters and the previously divided Labour party has united against the white paper. The possibility of parliamentary deadlock in the autumn – and a delayed Brexit – no longer looks remote.

When a prime minister scrambles to bring forward the date of the summer parliamentary recess – and then feels obliged to retreat – you know the government is in trouble. Such was Theresa May’s plight as the Conservative party at Westminster fell to civil war about the government’s white paper on the shape of Brexit. MPs will now wait until next week before they head for the beaches. Mrs May hopes nonetheless to evade a challenge to her leadership. Whether the careful compromises in the white paper, which are calculated to balance economic realism with political imperatives, will survive the summer is a much more open question.

After the drama of two cabinet resignations – David Davis as Brexit secretary and Boris Johnson at the foreign office – it had looked for a brief few days that the prime minister would weather an inevitable storm over her Brexit negotiating stance. Negotiations with the EU will soon enter their final lap. Contradictions hitherto pushed to one side by the government have to be confronted, and bargains struck. In that spirit, pro-European Tory MPs at first greeted the latest plan with grudging acceptance. The hope in No. 10 was that a Brexiter revolt in the wake of the cabinet resignations could also be contained. There was always going to be a moment, the prime minister’s aides told journalists, when everyone would have to admit they could not achieve all they wanted. This was it.

The central accommodations in the white paper – a still-to-be-tested, insider-outside customs association with the EU27 and a regulatory convergence framework that would amount to continued membership of the single market in goods – received a cautiously positive response from business. Yes, service industries would have to fend for themselves, but manufacturing supply chains would be protected and a hard border in Ireland avoided. Michel Barnier in Brussels signalled that Mrs May had found at least a basis for negotiation.

Brexiters were assured by the prime minister that the European Court of Justice would not have direct jurisdiction, that the UK would stand outside free movement and the government would be able to negotiate third country trade deals. The case for continued regulatory alignment with the EU in goods was pragmatic; as often as not, third countries subscribe to EU standards.

Mrs May underestimated the anger of the fundamentalists in her party’s European Research Group (ERG), led by would-be Tory leader (and Boris Johnson rival) Jacob Rees-Mogg. The ERG shouted betrayal, half a dozen junior members of the government resigned and Mrs May felt obliged to give ground by accepting several Brexiter amendments to the Customs Bill (the Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Bill 2017/19). Cue a second revolt, this time led by the remainers Anna Soubry and Dominic Grieve and the resignation of a minister sympathetic to the pro-European cause. The government suffered a smallish defeat at the hands of the pro-Europeans on an amendment to a separate Trade Bill and avoided a second, more substantial setback by only a handful of votes.

The four ERG amendments to the Customs Bill are not enough in themselves to scupper an accord with the EU27. It is a question of letter and spirit, one senior minister observed. The ERG’s aim is to tie the government’s hands in negotiations with Brussels and to leave a question mark on the EU side as to whether Mrs May would be able to ratify any deal made in Brussels. This is what attracted the wrath of the likes of Ms Soubry. If the fundamentalists succeed in tying the government’s hands, the pro-Europeans say they are ready to withdraw their support for the white paper.

The raw anger on both sides is palpable. The Brexiters sense they are losing control of a project that in many cases has been their life’s work in politics; the pro-Europeans fear that ideology will cost the Conservatives their support among business and the country a sizeable chunk of economic growth. Nicholas Soames, grandson to Winston Churchill and an old-fashioned shire Tory, pointed out the atmosphere on the Conservative benches had never been so rancorous during his 35 years in the Commons. To make matters more complicated, the white paper united a previously divided Labour party against the prime minister.

Dependent during the best of times on the votes of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionists, Mrs May has been left without an assured majority. There is much in the white paper that the EU27 will want to negotiate away in any circumstances. They are deeply sceptical about the proposal for a half-in, half-out customs arrangement and reluctant to separate goods from services in the single market. The deeper question the EU negotiators are also asking themselves is whether the prime minister has the authority to deliver any agreement.

For its part, the ERG faces the hard fact that it cannot win. The fundamentalists can wreck Mrs May’s plans but they cannot impose their own vision of a complete rupture with Brussels. And it is here that the prime minister may have a last card. The choice, she will insist in the autumn, is not between her plan and the hard, cliff-edge Brexit many in the ERG would favour. Instead, in the absence of a majority for any of the alternatives, it would be between the white paper and, for a time at least, staying in the EU – a suspension to the article 50 process, a general election and, quite probably, a second referendum.

Only a few months ago, the idea that Brexit could be stopped in its tracks by a parliamentary deadlock seemed fanciful. No longer. The former prime minister John Major has now joined those calling for a second referendum. The Brexiters can scarcely complain. What was it they called for during the 2016 referendum campaign? The restoration of parliamentary sovereignty. Well, if Brexit does founder, it will be the work of a sovereign parliament.