With apologies for the length of this message, I thought it would perhaps be most useful and possibly helpful to you if I detail exactly where we are and what are my thoughts. Feel free to delete or skip-read! As ever, it is difficult to pin down an extremely moveable feast, but I hope you will allow me to try.
You’ll have noticed something of a pattern emerging from the protracted negotiations between the UK and EU over the past few years.
First: rightly or wrongly, the UK (usually in the form of a Prime Ministerial statement or speech) sets out, either explicitly or in general terms, what it seeks to achieve.
Second: the EU (usually in the form of the chief negotiator or EU president issuing various statements and briefings) sets out clearly and rigidly why those ambitions are unattainable and will never be agreed.
Third: then (as inevitably as the outpouring of voices at home calling the PM’s aspirations ludicrous and unworkable, and her negotiation team inept and incapable) at the eleventh hour these precise objectives in one form or another are agreed.
This procedure is the blueprint for behaviour at every stage, so even today I’d suggest you put the kettle on and settle down as this familiar pageant crawls past one more time.
We’ve just voted on seven amendments to the Withdrawal Agreement, each put forward by a group of MPs keen to move things in their direction. We’ve had amendments seeking to extend Article 50 (and thereby postpone our leaving the EU on March 29th for a later date up to nine months later when a deal may be more likely to have been agreed). These were unsuccessful. We’ve had amendments which would have committed the UK to another, second, referendum. These were withdrawn before any vote due to lack of support. We’ve had a non-binding amendment expressing the Common’s majority view that we shouldn’t leave the EU without a deal in place. And Parliament passed an amendment which demonstrated that the PM’s current deal would indeed have the support of the House if the backstop arrangements could be altered favourably.
We can be forgiven for feeling rather bogged down in all of this. Like the world’s worst satnav, the whole Brexit business has trundled on its circuitous route for so many months - having taken every conceivable byway, diversion, detour and alternative route - that all the travel sweets have run out, along with our patience in reading the map.
Along the way, Parliament has spent hundreds of hours debating broadly the same thing again and again from every possible perspective and vantage point. And Parliament has not only debated how it should debate what it should be debating in terms of Brexit, but it has indulged itself by debating whether or not it ought to be spending time debating how it ought best to debate the subject for debate…
People in the real world are naturally both confused and exhausted. Do forgive me therefore if I try to explain a little more. When I voted with the minority in Parliament a few weeks ago for the Withdrawal Agreement to be accepted, I did so because I - apparently now in common with the majority of the House - believed it to be flawed but not fatally so. And, specifically, I believe that Parliament has misunderstood the exceptionally comprehensive advice of the Attorney General on the backstop which, like him, I do not believe to be a tangible risk to the integrity of the UK.
I also believed that the outcome of us not passing the Withdrawal Agreement would be neither to the advantage of the Brexiteers nor the Remainers within the party or the country.
There is never going to be a majority in Parliament for leaving the EU with no deal. That is not a mathematical possibility and there is an overwhelming majority for accepting any other solution. This means that, should the PM not be able to get a deal through Westminster, it is most likely that Article 50 will have to be extended or revoked.
So why did I not vote for the amendments which specifically prevent no deal, either overtly or by now extending Article 50?
First, taking no deal off the table is possibly the most unpromising approach to negotiation that it is possible to conceive. One obviously cannot negotiate for the best possible outcome while having already legally committed to accept any terms which the other side might be willing to offer. And it’s in any event impossible to take no deal off the table. No deal is the table.
Second, if we wished to extend Article 50, that requires the agreement of all 27 EU member states, and they have indicated that this is not possible (as they tend to do – see above) unless there is a clear, deliverable plan and pathway to a deal. Supporting the amendments to extend Article 50 would therefore have been, I believe, purely an exercise in delaying Brexit. We’re not at that stage in the process yet, though of course we may soon be. There’s a significant difference between doing so for practical procedural reasons - when there’s a deal on the table which in itself would allow the EU to extend for a specific period only - and doing so just because we hope that something good might turn up in the future (which in any case as we know, the EU would not allow).
Where does that leave us then? Having rejected the initial Withdrawal deal, and given that Parliament will arithmetically not accept a no deal Brexit, and extending Article 50 will require a clear pathway to a new deal, it would seem that revoking Article 50 might be our nuclear option.
Looking at the thousands of emails and letters in my postbag, I suspect that civil unrest would be the order of the day should the main political parties revoke Article 50 and thereby cancel Brexit. Leaving aside the pros and cons of the fact that this would mean that the UK does not leave the European Union, it would also certainly prefigure a complete redrawing of politics and political parties, which of course you may feel might be advantageous, but I feel would be catastrophic for the country.
So, having rejected the PM’s deal and facing ever increased uncertainty, we now really have little option but that Parliament comes together around some form of agreement, and we then get the EU to accept and ratify it before March 29th.
Let’s face it, there’s no getting around the fact that there has to be some kind of Parliamentary consensus. No matter what your view or mine might be, Parliament is divided. And perhaps that is exactly the way it should be. Should Westminster not exist to reflect the attitude of the country as a whole, itself divided? Unquestionably, the only way forward is to find a consensual step. A pragmatic solution: acceptable, if not optimal, for the majority.
Thus began the discussions in Westminster following the PM’s defeat over the deal. I must say I’ve very much welcomed her belated attempts to bring together the different factions both from within our party and from the other parties in Westminster, in order to come to some new consensus, though I fear that it will be extremely difficult to reconcile such wildly differing perspectives.
It was therefore with great relief that the Parliamentary party came together before the amendment votes, having conceived a plan forward which had been thrashed out over many days, instigated by housing minister and all-round decent chap Kit Malthouse, which has won the support of both Remain supporting MPs (led by Nicky Morgan and Damian Green) and Leave supporting MPs (led by Steve Baker and Jacob Rees-Mogg).
In essence, and after a great deal of debate and conversation in the tea room and corridors of Westminster, alongside the Chamber itself, it was agreed that should the backstop be amended appropriately, Parliament would agree to the PM’s Withdrawal Agreement and we would be finally out of this hole.
Therefore, I put my own name to the 1922 Committee chairman Graham Brady’s amendment which offers exactly that, and I was delighted that it passed. At last we begin to see the clouds part. We have some consensus and a way forward.
Indeed, for the first time in this whole process the Prime Minister is approaching the EU with the ability to tell them what exactly the UK is willing to accept. Rather than indicating what it doesn’t want, Parliament has finally indicated what it does want. She’s been equipped with a very different set of tools.
So now, as predictably as the Somerset winter snow, we’re at the second stage of any EU negotiation: whereby the European Union issues a flurry of statements and briefings in which they set out clearly and rigidly why the UK’s ambitions are unattainable and will never be agreed.
The next stage is stage three. And that’s now the target for the PM’s negotiating team. As ever, the next few weeks will be vitally important and much is dependent on the outcomes of talks with European leaders and those pulling the strings in Brussels, but perhaps we are finally inching towards the finish line. Or at least able to discern it, on the far horizon.