A Withdrawal Agreement remains the only practical path to Brexit on 29th March

A Withdrawal Agreement remains the only practical path to Brexit on 29th March

In the same way as a centre back, with his team 1-0 up at the dying seconds of a football match, concedes a corner to avoid the build-up of an attack, Theresa May agreed to a sequence of votes in mid-March that includes a vote on No Deal followed by a vote seeking to extend to Article 50 if the deal she brings back from Brussels is defeated.

On the other side of the House, Jeremy Corbyn had to concede some ground as well. He ’embraced’ a second popular vote with very scant details of what the options would be. No matter how this is spun by a fumbling People’s Vote campaign, his embrace is destined to suffocate not resuscitate. Even if Labour proposed such an amendment, and that’s highly unlikely, the chances of getting a majority of MPs supporting it is nil.

The threat of No Deal remains regardless of any vote to remove it; No Deal is the default condition of Article 50 and as the Prime Minister explained with impeccable logic, the only way that threat can be removed is to revoke Article 50, a route that only the likes of Chuka Umunna and Vince Cable would be prepared to entertain.

By setting up a panel of nine lawyers to examine what the Prime Minister comes back with is an indication that the ERG is willing to accept an addendum, a statement, a protocol rather than an actual change to the wording of Withdrawal Agreement. The insistence on legal guarantees that the backstop would be temporary or could be brought to an end is a posture that will have to be abandoned if Brexit is to become a reality. The prize of re-gaining sovereignty is far too precious to be held hostage for a few words in an agreement, an agreement that can be changed by mutual consent or unilaterally once we’ve left the EU. As to the question of why chain ourselves to something if we intend to break out of it soon after; it’s purely practical – this is the only path to Brexit.

In the next few days, Parliament will be faced with a stark choice: agree the deal the Prime Minister brings back or delay Brexit through an extension of Article 50, which is a euphemism for no Brexit. A no-deal outcome is not on the cards and Parliament will take whatever steps necessary to stop it. The idea that some legal niceties would prevent Parliament from doing so is fanciful. It will become clear to any Brexit-supporting MP – or MP with a Leave-backing constituency who does not wish to alienate their electorate – that the Withdrawal Agreement is the only mechanism by which the UK can leave the EU on 29th March.

Those who argue that the Withdrawal Agreement is ‘Brexit In Name Only’ should reflect on the fact that Brexit is a single binary act, much like a divorce; there is no such thing as divorce in name only, even if the divorcees keep a very close relationship afterwards. Neither is the Withdrawal Agreement a ‘Brexit deal’ as it is often portrayed. Rather, it is a post-Brexit deal; it lays out what our relationship with the EU may look like after we’ve left, a relationship that we are at liberty to shape the way we wish once we are out of the EU. Similarly, there is no such thing as a Tory Brexit or a Labour Brexit or for that matter a People’s Brexit. As important as the Withdrawal Agreement is, it’s secondary to the actual act of leaving, an act which immediately restores our sovereignty and changes our relationship with the EU from being a subservient member to an independent counterpart.

Regardless of how the ERG or the DUP decide to vote on the Withdrawal Agreement next week, Theresa May will need Labour support. With workers’ rights and environmental protection guaranteed by Theresa May as far as any Prime Minister can, bearing in mind that no Parliament can bind a future one, the difference between Labour’s current policy of a ‘customs union and close alliance with the single market’ and those of May’s ‘dynamic alignment’ and ‘level playing field’ is minuscule. For Labour, there is very little in the Withdrawal Agreement to object to unless your intention is to derail Brexit altogether. Indeed, if Labour’s customs union was to be road-tested through rigorous negotiations with the EU, it would fall apart as it collides head on with Labour’s policy of economic regeneration through state aid and public ownership and control of key utilities.

Whatever the official line is, enough Labour MPs will either vote for or abstain when the Withdrawal Agreement comes back to Parliament – enough to ensure its safe passage through Parliament, if not at the first time of asking, then certainly on the second. That has nothing to do with the Government’s £1.6bn Stronger Towns Fund meant to heal some of the wounds of those areas that felt left behind. The driving force has always been and remains that of workers who demand that their vote to leave the EU is respected and acted upon.

Hemmed in by vitriolic attacks from within and an orchestrated onslaught from without, Jeremy Corbyn has to tread carefully as we approach the end game. The Labour leadership knows of its responsibility to deliver Brexit on the specified date: theirs is not a late nor convenient conversion to a cause but a lifelong belief, a belief not motivated by a fear of a backlash from working class communities, but a genuine opposition to what the EU stands for.

A free vote for Labour MPs has been floated. For a national party to have no policy on the most important issue facing the country since the Second World War, for that’s what a free vote means, would be an abdication of responsibility that would reflect badly on it in the future. Better for Labour to whip MPs to abstain, explain that this is the only way to enact Brexit on the agreed date and vow to re-negotiate the Withdrawal Agreement when in power.