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Brexit: Send in the Clowns

Summary:
Just when you thought the UK’s approach couldn’t possibly become more shambolic than it has been, its leaders manage to outdo themselves. Even though Parliament delivered the expected outcome of voting against a no deal Brexit, the process got so utterly out of control that the Government whipped against its own motion. And it probably didn’t help that May had promised MPs a free vote….so why was whipping happening in the first place? Moreover, as we’ll describe below, the amendment that caused the train to go off the rails, which provided for a more comprehensive “no deal” position than May had put forward, won by 312 to 308 despite the Government’s opposition, yet another black eye for May. And the main motion passed by a 43 vote margin…despite the Government whipping against that too.

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Just when you thought the UK’s approach couldn’t possibly become more shambolic than it has been, its leaders manage to outdo themselves.

Even though Parliament delivered the expected outcome of voting against a no deal Brexit, the process got so utterly out of control that the Government whipped against its own motion. And it probably didn’t help that May had promised MPs a free vote….so why was whipping happening in the first place?

Moreover, as we’ll describe below, the amendment that caused the train to go off the rails, which provided for a more comprehensive “no deal” position than May had put forward, won by 312 to 308 despite the Government’s opposition, yet another black eye for May. And the main motion passed by a 43 vote margin…despite the Government whipping against that too. Even though the margin seems a bit thin relative to the supposed widespread antipathy for a crash out, it was still ample. Sterling went up to over 1.335 against the dollar.

May has managed the difficult task of reducing her weak authority even further. Ian Dunt (hat tip Richard Smith) walked through the train wreck of the day’s votes. Forgive me for quoting at length, but you’ll soon see why:

It was as if all the qualities of the Brexit debate came together in perfect unison…..It was a masterpiece of haplessness. Peak Brexit…

Once again, the prime minister tried to pull a fast one. Instead of simply ruling out no-deal, it [the motion] added a caveat. “That this House declines to approve leaving the European Union without a withdrawal agreement and a framework for the future relationship on 29 March 2019,” it read. So far, as expected. But then came the twist. “And notes that leaving without a deal remains the default in UK and EU law unless this House and the EU ratify an agreement.”

On point of law, this was simply a truism….But it was a pointless truism to state. This motion was about instructing the government…

The real meaning of the caveat was political, not legal. It sought to keep the possibility of no-deal open…

In response, Conservative MP Caroline Spelman put down an amendment. It scrapped the caveat altogether and replaced it with the following statement: “That this House rejects the United Kingdom leaving the European Union without a withdrawal agreement and a framework for the future relationship”. In other words: parliament would instruct the government to rule out no-deal in all circumstances. Firmer, tougher, more comprehensive….

The government hated it….it decided to whip MPs to defeat Spelman’s contribution…[Yvette] Cooper took the challenge and put the amendment forward for a vote….

Suddenly the moderate ministers you hear so much about were in trouble. They had briefed over and over again that they’d resign rather than accept no-deal. But now there was a motion stating exactly their view…They could either keep their job or vote with their conscience. But they could not do both.

It came in tight, but it passed. A total of 312 votes for the amendment versus 308 against.

In an instant, the government went into meltdown. The amendment was now attached to the original motion. That meant that when MPs voted on it, they would be voting for the version which ruled out no-deal in all circumstances, not in the heavily-caveated form proposed by May. Suddenly, in a matter of seconds, Downing Street had to do a 180 degree turn. In a frenzy of chaos lasting about half an hour, it suddenly started whipping its MPs to vote against its own motion…

Chaos reigned. Whips strong-armed ministers, desperately trying to hold the line. Labour MP Jess Phillips saw the prime minister enter the No lobby and told her she was a disgrace. Everything was falling apart.

In the end, moderate Cabinet ministers Amber Rudd, David Gauke, David Mundell, and Greg Clarke failed to go the whole way. But they did go half the way: They abstained. Sarah Newton, minister for disabled people, to her very great credit, resigned on the spot.

And then the result came in. Not only had the government whipping operation failed, it had lost the vote by an even greater margin than the first one. It was defeated by 321 to 278.

Once again, as regular as the tolling of the village bells, May was falling apart in plain sight.

Twitter lit up, poring over the evidence of the Government’s diminished state:

I hate to quote BrexitCentral, but to underscore the point:

The failure to discipline those abstaining ministers has caused consternation amongst much of the wider Conservative parliamentary party and signals a complete breakdown in collective responsibility and the Prime Minister’s ability to enforce it. Extraordinary times.

Richard North was in a minority, disputing the cheering in venues like the Guardian that Parliament was “taking back control”:

For Liam Fox, parliament yesterday was “engaged in is the most important democratic debate in this country’s history”. The British people had given our parliament a clear instruction. It was, he said, time for us to determine who is the boss.

And they blew it. A fractious House of Commons listening to Mrs May’s response to the vote sounded significantly less dignified than feeding time at the zoo. But, while they could compete on noise with the animals they were emulating, the would have struggled to match collective IQs, having just voted for the Spelman/Dromey amendment, seeking to rule out for all time a no-deal Brexit.

This had been disowned by its original sponsors but had been taken over by Labour’s Yvette Cooper, allowing the House their fantasy motion to resolve that: “That this House rejects the United Kingdom leaving the European Union without a Withdrawal Agreement and a Framework for the Future Relationship”.

The House managed to support this by 312 votes to 308, but then it came back as part of the government’s amended motion, whence 321 MPs then supported the “no-deal forever” fantasy, despite government whipping, with 278 against. That brought the final majority to 43.

The “no deal is dead” triumphalism is premature. UK journalists exhibit the same failing that the UK collectively has exhibited: acting as if it is free to decide what is happening with Brexit and the EU will of course fall in line.  As Politico’s morning European newsletter put it:

Riiiiight: Note the remarkable confidence British MPs have in their political decisions and parliament’s sovereignty. They may as well have adopted a motion to abolish all evil in this world.

Brussels unimpressed: The Commission “takes note” of the vote, a spokeswoman said. But the fact is, “There are only two ways to leave the EU: with or without a deal,” and “to take no deal off the table, it is not enough to vote against no deal — you have to agree to a deal. We have agreed a deal with the prime minister and the EU is ready to sign it

The motion was only a motion. The only way to put “no deal” to bed for good is to revoke Article 50 or complete a Withdrawal Agreement and get it approved by a qualified majority in the EU. Even to prevent a crash out on March 29, the UK has to amend all legislation that hard-codes the Brexit date (at a minimum the Withdrawal Act, but Keir Starmer claimed 50 bills were in play) and get the EU 27 to approve an extension.

Moreover, the Government had set up that if Parliament passed a “no deal” motion on Wednesday, it would vote Thursday on whether to authorize May to seek an extension. So that still has to get done.

Even though some ERG MPs think they’ve arrived at “game over” stage, it’s not clear how widely that view is shared. Rees-Mogg was still putting on a brave face:

Of course, this point of view obtusely pretends that the law can’t be amended, but even though Rees-Mogg is dense, he isn’t wrong. Steering out of a crash out has a lot of moving parts. Remember the dangers of any process with a lot of hurdles. Seven steps of 90% odds of each one being completed still results in a cumulative probability of under 50%.

May still has resources. Despite being bloodied yet again, May has not given up. She still seems to think she can get Parliament to approve her deal if she cuts off their exits. Her new gimmick is that she has shifted from proposing a short extension, which is acceptable to most voters in the UK, to a long one, which polls show is not. From the Financial Times:

Theresa May issued a final ultimatum to Eurosceptic MPs on Wednesday night, telling them to back her EU divorce deal with Brussels next week or face a months-long Brexit delay that would force Britain to hold elections to the European Parliament.

The prime minister’s challenge came after she suffered another humiliating defeat in parliament, with a majority of MPs defying her wishes by voting to take a no-deal exit off the table permanently. Mrs May had backed a more equivocal stance towards leaving the EU without an agreement.

Mrs May’s decision to hold a third vote on her Brexit plan next week, just days before she is due to attend an EU summit in Brussels, is a calculated gamble that she can finally bring the escalating Brexit drama to a head before formally seeking to delay Britain’s departure date from March 29 to June 30.

The prime minister said that if a deal was not agreed by MPs before the March 21 EU summit, she would be forced to seek “a much longer extension” of the exit process, requiring Britain to take part in May’s European Parliament elections.

This “punish the Ultras” reading is curious, to put it politely,since if you listen to or read what May actually said, she made a very commonsensical argument on where things stood, as in the UK’s position versus the EU’s position:

The Prime Minister: This is about the choices that this House faces. The legal default in UK and EU law remains that the UK will leave the EU without a deal unless something else is agreed. The onus is now on every one of us in this House to find out what that is. The options before us are the same as they always have been: we could leave with the deal that this Government have negotiated over the past two years; we could leave with the deal that we have negotiated but subject to a second referendum, but that would risk no Brexit at all—[Interruption]—damaging the fragile trust between the British public and the Members of this House; we could seek to negotiate a different deal, but the EU has been clear that the deal on the table is indeed the only deal available. [Interruption.]….

I confirmed last night that if the House declined to approve leaving without a deal on 29 March 2019, the Government would bring forward a motion on whether the House supports seeking to agree an extension to article 50 with the EU, which is the logical consequence of the votes over the past two days in this House. The Leader of the House will shortly make an emergency business statement confirming the change to tomorrow’s business. The motion we will table will set out the fundamental choice facing this House. If the House finds a way in the coming days to support a deal, it would allow the Government to seek a short, limited technical extension to article 50 to provide time to pass the necessary legislation and to ratify the agreement we have reached with the EU.

Let me be clear: such a short technical extension is likely to be on offer only if we have a deal in place. Therefore, the House must understand and accept that if it is not willing to support a deal in the coming days and as it is not willing to support leaving without a deal on 29 March, it is suggesting that there will need to be a much longer extension to article 50. Such an extension would undoubtedly require the United Kingdom to hold European Parliament elections in May 2019. I do not think that that would be the right outcome, but the House needs to face up to the consequences of the decisions that it has taken.

In other words, actually taking the EU’s position on an extension into an account is a threat, according to the Financial Times. May may be tired and visibly irritable, but she does have a point.

Nevertheless, this what my Jewish lawyer called a “Come to Jesus” moment has the potential to backfire. It may be too late to table amendments, but if not, it’s not hard to anticipate that someone will seek to to attach an amendment to today’s motion to call for May to seek only a short extension, given the public’s mood.

Moreover, it’s not at all clear that May can hold a third vote. Recall that the second vote on May’s deal came after Parliament had instructed her to seek changes and she did get some not consequential ones. But a third vote would amount to a repeat of her second one. Speaker John Bercow could nix it:

This Government no longer can do much about how MPs vote, but it still controls Parliamentary time. May could fail to introduce secondary legislation to implement the “no deal” motion and force MPs to submit private bills. Either way, the Government sets if and when they are up for debate and a vote. What if she schedules them for March 28? Its’ a given that she doesn’t plan to let Parliament get to them before attempting to get a third vote on her Withdrawal Agreement.

If May’s “long extension” motion is not amended and fails (I see the odds as reasonable that she’s using the ERG as an cover for a different gambit), May could present MPs with the choices only of voting through her deal or pleading with her to revoke Article 50. Or she benevolently could still seek a short extension (recall the EU said they’d give only one), since the basic dilemma still remains.

And May has yet another tool at her disposal: she could elect to blow the formulation of her request for an extension. Of course, given how inept this Government has been in dealing with the EU, she could wind up reverting to her well established form of alienating the EU leaders when that was not her intent.

The EU has made clear May needs to give a reason for any extension, and by implication, they need to see a plausible reason to think that things will have changed by the end of the extension. Merely saying, “We need sixteen months to sort ourselves out” won’t do. Even if Bercow were to rule against yet another vote on her deal before the March 21-22 EU summit, if May were to come home with no extension, he’d be under great political pressure to come up with a “things have changed” reversal.

The Ultras have not given up either. From the Guardian:

Leading Eurosceptics are lobbying right-of-centre governments in Europe to see if they would veto a British extension of article 50 and so ensure the UK drops out of the EU at the end of the month without a deal.

In theory, only one country is required to wield its veto for any British request to be rejected.

It is highly unlikely this lobbying will succeed as the governments in countries such as Hungary, Italy and Poland have other more important battles to fight with the EU. But the lobbying underlines the precariousness of the British position.

On the one hand, the odds of these entreaties succeeding on their own merits is low, but I’d still put them as higher that Theresa May getting her Withdrawal Agreement passed. On the other hand, we said early on that it was possible that Italy could threaten to block an extension, intending to trade its vote for getting relief on its budget or government assistance to banks. The budget fight is over but the Italian banking implosion continues.

Or the EU may be so deeply ambivalent about giving an extension, particularly in light of today’s fiasco, which makes the notion that the UK might sober up seem even more remote, that they might not mind one of their supposed bad actors playing the heavy.

It isn’t clear that the EU will agree to an extension regardless. We pointed out that a natural ally of the UK, the Netherlands, was tasked to and accepted delivering a tough message on an extension. Readers reported that another UK ally, Denmark, has given up on the UK. May trying to get yet another vote on her Withdrawal Agreement next week means the odds are high that the Government will deliver its extension request right before the EU summit, which is yet another display of UK disregard for protocol and competent decision-making. If you want to let pique play a role, this is just the way do it, and too many EU leaders have been having to work too hard to maintain a veneer of politeness as it is.

More generally, too many people are not thinking straight, particularly those who believe the no deal bomb has been disarmed. And I would not trust the self-appointed sappers in Parliament.

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