With only six months left to the moment when the UK leaves the EU, the Brexit end game is upon us. If there is to be a Withdrawal Agreement at all, the Northern Ireland border problem must be solved within the next couple of weeks. But at present, both sides are well dug in and showing no inclination to budge. No-deal Brexit is looking increasingly likely.
Nonetheless, the game is still afoot. In Salzburg, the EU appeared to strike a mortal blow to Theresa May's Chequers proposal. After this, surely she had to compromise on her red lines?
Not a bit of it. Mrs. May is sticking to her Chequers proposal, apparently hoping that eventually the EU will blink. She remains, as ever, oblivious to the mortal damage that this would do to the EU as a political project.
But agreeing a deal with the EU is not Mrs. May's top priority anyway. With the Tory party conference approaching, continual rumours of a leadership challenge, and Boris trying to make himself look like Churchill-in-waiting, she is only really interested in disciplining the hardline Brexiteeers in her party, particularly the unruly ERG.
Sometimes I wonder if Theresa hexes her opponents. They certainly seem extraordinarily accident-prone. She came to power by saying nothing and waiting for the other leadership candidates to trip themselves up, which they duly did, one after another. And now she seems to be pulling the same trick again.
Right on cue, the ERG has shot itself in the foot, not once but three times. Recently, it released two alternative Brexit trade deal models. The first was curiously (and all but illegibly) written in faded blue 10-pitch Courier as if it were produced on an old typewriter with a worn-out ribbon. The second was written in tortuous econospeak which unfortunately failed to conceal some pretty basic errors. Both papers were promptly and hilariously skewered. Trade wonks had a field day, of course, but it didn't require specialist knowledge to see what an Eton mess the ERG had managed to make of its proposals. It was downright embarrassing.
To make matters worse, the ERG's "alternative proposal" for Brexit included recommendations to build a "Star Wars" space defence system and send an expeditionary force to the Falkland Islands. The ERG was shamefacedly exposed as stuck in an early 1980s time warp: the Star Wars system was a Ronald Reagan scheme that was never built, and we all know that the Falklands War was Maggie's finest hour. A photo of Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Peter Bone looking utterly despondent went viral. Caption competitions abounded.
The ERG's brilliant idea for solving the Irish border problem was an equivalence regime which the EU has already dismissed as unworkable. It would therefore be impossible while Ireland remained in the EU. Suddenly, a new "Irish freedom party" popped up, promoting Irish exit from the EU. What remarkable timing.
Of course, even if Ireland left the EU, it would still be a separate country, and no trade between separate countries is ever completely free, except in a single market. On Twitter, one lunatic Brexiter, exhibiting a breathtaking ignorance of Irish history, suggested that the solution to the Irish border problem was for Ireland to rejoin the United Kingdom. This is of course a complete non-starter, but our Brexiter was blithely convinced that all that was needed was a sticking plaster on the 1916 Rebellion. Whatever they teach them on the playing fields of Eton, it obviously doesn't include Henry VIII, Cromwell, King Billy, the Battle of the Boyne or the Famine.
Theresa didn't have to say or do anything to overturn this pile of imperialist horseshit. She just stayed silent and let the press do it for her, helped by the DUP, which summarily rejected the IEA's Canada Plus trade proposal. Even the DUP knows that Ireland is not going to leave the EU, and without that, the IEA's scheme is dead.
Of course, the ERG continues to bluster. This week, Boris Johnson has written 5000 words in the Telegraph proposing yet another wholly unrealistic Brexit deal. And Jacob Rees-Mogg, appearing yet again on the BBC's flagship Question Time comment programme, has issued barely-concealed threats of leadership challenges. But the truth is that neither really wants to unseat Theresa at the moment. Their best strategy is to let her take the country through Brexit (of any kind, though the harder the better), then promote themselves as the new team that will lead Britain to the sunlit uplands. I suspect Theresa knows this perfectly well and is going along with it, because let's face it, she needs their support. It is not quite checkmate for her yet, but it is increasingly hard to see how she can stay on as Prime Minister after Brexit.
Neither Theresa and her allies nor the ERG group are remotely interested in what is best for the country. All they care about is who governs it. Brexit is really nothing to do with the EU. It is, as it always has been, a war between two wings of the Tory party over the right to govern the UK.
Now, those of you who look down your noses at the parochial Tory party and say "of course the Labour party wouldn't behave like that" - you couldn't be more wrong. The Labour leadership is playing exactly the same game.
Jeremy Corbyn says that Labour MPs will vote down whatever withdrawal agreement Mrs. May agrees with the EU. Ostensibly, this is because any deal that is acceptable to both the EU and the UK government would fail to pass Keir Starmer's "six tests". But as the six tests were carefully designed to ensure that no Tory deal could possibly pass them, this claim is not exactly honest. Labour's real objective is to force the Government to call a general election. They think that voting down the withdrawal agreement would amount to defeating the Government on a confidence motion. The government would have no choice but to resign.
The trouble is that by signalling it in advance, Labour has probably scuppered this Machiavellian scheme. Labour cannot by itself defeat the withdrawal agreement. It needs some Tories to vote against it as well. Leaving aside the unpalatable fact that this would mean Labour voting with hardline Brexiter Tories, the Tories might not defy the whip - especially if they knew that by doing so they would bring down the government. The only thing that can be guaranteed to unite the Tories is the prospect of a Labour government. If Johnson & Rees-Mogg thought that voting against the withdrawal agreement would result in a general election which Labour was likely to win, they would close ranks and back the withdrawal agreement, regardless of what they have previously said. Bringing down Theresa May's government before Brexit is not remotely in their interests.
Of course, the DUP might vote against a withdrawal agreement, if it didn't like the terms for Northern Ireland. But Theresa is wise to this, and so is the EU. Do you really think they would agree on a deal that they know the DUP would reject, when the only way Theresa can get it through Parliament is with DUP support?
But let's suppose for the moment that Labour does manage to garner enough votes to defeat the final withdrawal agreement. What happens next?
Voting down the final withdrawal agreement would leave no-deal Brexit as the only option. The Government would be obliged to inform Parliament what it intended to do next, and Parliament woudl have a vote on that - though it might not have the right to amend the Government's plans. The Government has suggested that it could simply inform Parliament that it would go ahead with no deal even if Parliament opposed it. But the Institute for Government thinks that the government would be under pressure to resign:
The Government would probably come under political pressure to resign, to subject itself to a vote of no confidence in the House of Commons, or to move a motion for an early general election under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. What happened next would depend not on the precise terms of the EU Withdrawal Act, but on the UK’s Brexit policy, as it then stood, and on how the EU27 responded to it.There are only six months until Brexit, and as yet no withdrawal agreement has been agreed. If a withdrawal agreement were defeated, there would be no time for a general election before Brexit. So an extension to Article 50 would be needed. The European Council has indicated that it would be likely to grant such an extension for a general election.
However, because there is so little time left, the Government could decide to hold the general election after Brexit, thereby eliminating any need for an extension. If it did so, then there would be a disorderly no-deal Brexit followed by an economic crash. And because Labour would have voted against the withdrawal agreement, the Tories could reasonably claim that the economic crash was Labour's fault. They would be certain to campaign on this. "Labour's car crash Brexit has wrecked the economy," they would say.
There is another possibility, of course, and that is that instead of calling for a general election which the Tories could delay until after Brexit, Labour could call for a second referendum. This would also require an extension to Article 50, as there is no time to organise a second referendum before Brexit. Would the European Council be likely to agree to an extension for such a purpose?
It would depend what was on the ballot paper. If the referendum simply gave the British people a choice between a deal which Parliament had already rejected and no deal, it is hard to see why the EU would agree. It would be a completely pointless ballot which they would inevitably see as a delaying tactic, and they have already said they will not agree to extensions which merely delay the inevitable. There would have to be some other option open to the British people. What might that be?
The most obvious option would be Remain, which is the status quo. But Labour is every bit as divided over Brexit as the Tories. Offering Remain as an option would blow this wide open. There would be howls of "Betrayal!" from core working-class voters, particularly older men in Northern constituencies. Already, the leader of one of the biggest trade unions has warned that "the referendum result must be respected". Labour can't afford to alienate its traditional vote. Remain must be off the menu.
Alternatively, Labour might offer to negotiate a new deal, as John McDonnell has suggested. The problem is that Labour is not in power, so this would require a general election - which it is unlikely that Government would call before Brexit. And Labour doesn't have a coherent proposal to put to the EU anyway. It only has a Black Forest Gateau, and as I have already explained, cake and cherries are lethal for the EU. Furthermore, why would the EU want to renegotiate a deal that it has already agreed? Getting the agreement of the entire EU27 is not easy. Unless Labour's proposal is both entirely credible and significantly different from the one the Tories agreed, the EU might not want to renegotiate.
As far as I can see, voting down the withdrawal agreement leads inexorably to no-deal Brexit, simply because Labour can't make the Tories do what they want. But Labour would inevitably be blamed for that no-deal Brexit. What price the next election then?
Not that things would be any better if Labour MPs voted for the withdrawal agreement. "But how could we possibly vote for a Tory deal?" cry Labour activists. It is something of a mystery to me how Labour MPs could vote with the ERG group but apparently not with Theresa, but then what do I know about politics? The activists do have a point. Voting with the government on a deal which violated their own six tests would be electoral suicide. In the general election that is bound to follow Brexit, Labour MPs would be blamed for selling out to the Tories. The voting public doesn't like politicians who break their promises. Just look what happened to the Lib Dems.
So perhaps Theresa has hexed the Labour leadership, too. Their present stance is certainly a gift to her, because it makes it more likely that dissident Tory MPs would vote for her withdrawal agreement. As it stands, Labour cannot reinvent Brexit in their own image. They cannot offer the British people a real choice in a second referendum. They cannot force a general election before Brexit. And because they are so completely stuck, they look unlikely to win an election after Brexit. They seem to have boxed themselves into a corner. It is checkmate.
Cake and cherries
An alternative Brexit polemic
Game theory in Brexitland
Image from Wikipedia via Reddit.