Mr Blobby and the game of Brexit deal or no deal

Written by Jenni Davidson on 16 November 2018 in Inside Politics

It’s a risky business to provide any sort of prediction of what will happen next in the twists and turns of Brexit

Mr Blobby and Theresa May - Image credit: PA Images

“To be quite honest, looking at things right now, I haven’t got the foggiest idea what is going to happen in the coming weeks.

“Is the Prime Minister going to get a deal with the EU? Dunno.

“Is she going to be able to get it through the Commons? Pfft, I dunno about that either.

“I think you might as well get Mr Blobby back on to offer his analysis, because frankly, I suspect, his is as good as mine,” so admitted the BBC’s Chris Mason on BBC Breakfast last week.

This turned out to be perhaps some of the most accurate analysis of the week.

Within a day, rumours began to emerge via Irish broadcaster RTÉ that a withdrawal deal had been agreed between the EU and UK negotiators.

But it was a resolution that was very far from settling anything and raised as many new questions as it has provided answers.

Although if there was one thing that could be said for the deal, it did manage to unite Brexiteers and Remainers like nothing else has in the two years since the EU referendum.

But only in their immediate and outright dismissal of it – even before they had read the 585-page document.

Despite seemingly resolving the NI border issue, concerns were raised about the lack of an end date for the backstop – in fact, the document lists it as ‘20XX’ – that the UK cannot withdraw without EU permission and that it leaves the whole of the UK in the customs union and Northern Ireland alone in something more like the single market.

The DUP’s Arlene Foster warned that “there will be consequences, of course there will be consequences, and we could not as unionists support a deal that broke up the United Kingdom”.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said: “The withdrawal agreement and the outline political declaration represent a huge and damaging failure”, while Nicola Sturgeon called it the “worst of all possible worlds”.

The SNP began to raise, exactly as had been feared by Scottish Conservatives, the question of why, if Northern Ireland could have a differentiated deal, Scotland could not.

And the EU perhaps didn’t help matters. On the day rumours surfaced about a deal, the European Commission published its ‘Contingency Action Plan’, which has a particular focus on helping EU member states and institutions prepare for a no-deal scenario, while leaks from a briefing by the EC’s lead negotiator, Sabine Weyand, suggested that the EU saw this withdrawal deal as not just a ‘backstop’ but as a basis for the permanent relationship with the UK.

It felt in some ways like the beginning of the end, but far from bringing about a solution that people could unite behind, rather it brought all the differences more clearly to the fore.

While no actual deal was agreed with the EU, everyone on all sides could perhaps keep up the fantasy that they were going to get, at least to some degree, what they had wanted.

Once it was there in black and white, there was no more pretending. And at least, it brought things to a head.

As well as the opposition from the DUP, SNP, Labour and various members of the Tory party, and despite the Cabinet apparently “collectively” backing it on Wednesday, the publication of the deal triggered a spate of resignations, led by Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab and Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey.

You’ve got to hand it to the Leavers, they have been consistent in their commitment to leaving, and not just the EU.

Raab said he “could not support the deal for two reasons”. Firstly, that the regulatory regime poses “a very real threat to the integrity of the United Kingdom” and secondly, that he could not support an “indefinite backstop arrangement” where the EU would hold a veto over the UK’s ability to leave.

This was echoed by Esther McVey, who raised the same issues about democratic control, about delivering on promises and “it also threatens the integrity of the United Kingdom, which as a Unionist is a risk I cannot be party to.”

Then followed an ostentatious show of handing in votes of no confidence in Theresa May, led by arch-Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg. But one person noticeably absent among those protesting the deal was David Mundell.

There was a strange silence on this from the Scottish Secretary, who, along with Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, just last month threatened to resign if there was a differentiated deal for Northern Ireland that could threaten the future of the UK.

In that letter they said: “Any deal that delivers a differentiated settlement for Northern Ireland beyond the differences that already exist… would undermine the integrity of our UK internal market and this United Kingdom.

“We could not support any deal that… leads to Northern Ireland having a different relationship with the EU than the rest of the UK, beyond what currently exists.”

Yet, despite Rabb and McVey both citing the differentiated deal for Northern Ireland among their reasons for resigning, there was no resignation from Mundell. Indeed, he accused Raab of being a “carpetbagger”.

His statement did not acknowledge the problem at all, saying he was “content to move to the next stage of the process on the basis that Brexit will deliver for our fishing industry – as I and colleagues set out in our letter – and on the basis that arrangements for Northern Ireland will not undermine the economic or constitutional integrity of the UK”.

Where, then, does his primary loyalty lie: in representing the UK Government to Scotland or Scotland to the UK Government? Davidson was probably glad to be on maternity leave.

But what happens next? There are a number of possible scenarios. The least likely one at this stage seems to be the deal being passed by parliament, so no deal remains a real possibility.

But curious as well was the way the publication of the draft deal opened up possibilities that were hitherto ruled out, at least within the Tory ranks.

Theresa May herself threatened that there were only three possibilities left: that the deal is accepted, that there is a no-deal Brexit or that there is no Brexit at all.

Which made everyone prick up their ears. No Brexit had not been an option before. Far from being a threat, the possibility of no Brexit at all would certainly be positive for many.

And then the BBC’s Norman Smith said a Tory minister had told him that if Brexiteers vote down the deal, that minister and others would openly campaign for a second referendum and to stay in EU.

At the moment, it seems everything is possible.

Theresa May herself seems intent on keeping us guessing. A press statement on Thursday looked at first like it was going to be a resignation, but turned into a defiant promise to stand and fight.

Who knows what will happen next. Will the UK Government even still be in place by Monday?

And if not Theresa May, then who? In this game of political pass the parcel, who wants to be the one left holding the Brexit deal package when the music stops?

Now where is Mr Blobby when you need him?

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