So, the text of a Brexit deal has been nailed down, as it were, between Brussels and Britain — which is a bit like saying that the patient is no longer awake while the surgeons were trying to perform open-heart surgery.
And even if there’s a “stable test”, as the European Union officials have termed it with such a turn of phrase that typifies the approach of Eurocrats, we’re still a long way off from the deal ever passing the House of Commons. Or the House of Lords for that matter.
No, the way things are balanced right now, Prime Minister Theresa May will be hearing it from all quarters, and there remains every probability that her days are numbered, the Conservative government will not so much collapse as implode, and there could very well be a second referendum, a general election and indeed a suspension of the March 29 Brexit deadline.
No one knows — and if that’s not a full-blown constitutional crisis in the United Kingdom, then whatever indeed could be?
The dense legal text runs to 400 pages, and every comma, phrase, sentence and paragraph will be parsed, prised and appraised for anything that any side will look for as a compromise, a step too far, a leap too blind.
And that’s even before parliament has its say on this sometime in the coming days.
Yes, the government can move quickly to organise this crucial Commons vote — but there’s every chance that’s going to fail.
Since Tuesday evening, May’s Cabinet is divided on what exactly the text means, and can’t reach unity on its long-term effects. What’s more, it might not meet the legal criteria necessary to approve the Brexit deal. And May’s opponents within her own party — and Cabinet — who could be as strong as 80 in number, want to use the debate to make the case that she has given too much away. And there are even more who say that there should be a second referendum on the deal itself.
Regardless of whether this text is voted on in either as a series of procedural votes or as one omnibus take-it-or-leave it vote, losing should be a matter of confidence, precipitating the fall of the government and the end of May’s premiership. The House of Lords, the Upper House, which is strongly ‘Remain’ in number and outlook, will only have a vote to “take note” of the deal, rather that votes on “approve” or “reject” the deal.
Voting on two separate elements
Essentially, the members of parliament will be voting on two separate elements, one of which will be the withdrawal agreement setting out citizens’ rights, the financial settlement, the terms of a transition period, and the backstop agreement on the Irish border. The second element will be the future framework agreement, which will set out how the UK and the EU will work on issues such as trade and security.
But it is the backstop and transition wording that is so critical — and so fraught with political danger for May and her government.
A misplaced comma, a belief that too much has been given away, a special treatment for Northern Ireland, a common customs zone, the length and nature of that backstop — and how to end it — any and all mean the loss of the backing of the 10 Democratic Unionist party (DUP) MPs on which May relies for her majority. And any and all mean too the loss of support of the European Reform Group MPs who are led by Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson, and want to see an end to what they say is May’s capitulation to Europe.
And then there’s Labour.
It remains deeply divided too, and the Brexit debate within their ranks is akin to their party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, holding a sack of cats.
The 35 Scottish Nationalist MPs too are opposed to Brexit, and will be voting down the deal. The dozen Liberal-Democrats will likely support it.
No matter which way the maths on the voting is done, May is coming up short.
There are 650 MPs. When you take the non-voting Speaker and the abstentionist Sinn Fein MPs out of the mix, May needs 320 for a majority.
On paper, May has 315 Conservative MPs. But with 80 so strongly pro-Brexit, they will oppose this deal. The DUP 10 too.
Corbyn controls 257 MPs — and the prime minister has been trying to court some of these moderates to win support for the Brexit deal.
Ask the question whether any Labour MP would support a Conservative prime minister at the expense of an opportunity to see her gone, the government defeated, and a general election on the cards that would offer Labour a chance to govern, and the answer is pretty obvious how they will vote.
Buckle up, the ride has only just begun.