"You're joking - not another one!" we all groan, channelling Brenda after yet another week of agonisingly obtuse amendments to the E.U. Withdrawal Bill. Here’s a guide to the unending Tory / old people dickery for people who don't have time to sit around all day watching BBC Parliament.
Currently shambling its way through parliament, and fighting an uphill battle amid Theresa May’s lack of a majority, the E.U. (Withdrawal) Bill is a never-ending shitshow. Backed by a group of around 100 Tory loyalists, a handful of pro-Brexit Labour MPs and the wobbly-at-best support of Northern Irish political party the DUP – nowhere near enough to carry through the Chequers Plan May put forward on July 6 – the prime minister is facing ambushes from every side of parliament. On one side, the hard Brexiteers and eurosceptics are voting down amendments that strengthen the likelihood of a close relationship with the European Union, in a move that sticks a middle finger up to Theresa May’s plans. And on the other, pro-European MPs are pushing back, rebelling against any amendments that look to be conceding ground.
In other words, we’re stuck in a rut, with squabbling politicians and technical nit-pickery at every turn. The pint-fuelled elation of the World Cup is quickly diminishing and wearing thin, giving way to a more familiar sense of impending political dread. It was nice, wasn’t it, when we had a brief distraction?
As amendment after amendment trundles its way through the houses of parliament, as minister after minister jumps ship in a blame-shifting panic (10 members of parliament have quit since the beginning of July) you can’t help but channel the weary despair of the iconic Brenda from Bristol, who became a meme last April when the snap election (which famously lost Theresa May her majority) was declared.
“You’re joking,” we all wail, as MPs sit down to debate imported good tariffs as a cover for debating – yet again – what kind of Brexit we actually want. “Not another one!”
At the moment, the entire nation feels a bit like Brenda from Bristol; each new rift has a tendency to merge into the last like a drone of white noise. But still, it’s important to take notice of the biggest developments, and the knock-on effects…
So what on earth is this Chequers Plan, and why is everyone kicking off about it?
Back at the beginning of the month, Theresa May announced the imaginatively named Chequers Plan at her Chequers country residence. Her cabinet agreed to move forward together with the new agreement; however, a series of MPs have now quit over the proposal. Skimming through the three page document, which outlines a future UK relationship with the EU, there are several key reasons for this.
Firstly, the Chequers Plan proposes several points that align more closely with the idea of a soft Brexit. As well as making vague allusions towards retaining free movement of EU nationals to the UK (and vice versa) it also proposes having a “common rulebook for all goods” with the European Union. This means that, unless parliament votes otherwise in individual cases, agricultural products and all other goods in the UK will comply with EU regulations. The plan also puts forward the idea of a treaty committing to “continued harmonisation” with the European Union’s rules. The main purpose of this is to avoid potential issues at the UK’s borders with the EU; particularly the contentious border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
Why is the Irish Border such an important issue?
According to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement – an integral moment in the Northern Ireland peace process – there are currently no physical borders or security checkpoints separating Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. There are 275 seamless crossing points between the countries, and an estimated 30,000 people travel between the two for work each day. A departure from European Union regulations and tariffs would present various issues, and at least some customs checkpoints may need to be introduced at the Northern Irish borders. For obvious reasons, this presents huge diplomatic ramifications.
Most politicians agree that reintroducing an Irish border presents huge issues. However, despite bandying around various ideas – a trusted trader scheme, a bureaucratic-sounding plan to charge different UK or EU tariffs on goods depending on their final destination – nobody really has a workable solution that pleases everybody. It’s an issue further complicated by the fact that the Conservatives struck a deal with Northern Irish unionists the DUP after they lost their majority in the 2017 snap election. They now rely on the party for constant support in parliamentary votes. A bit of an issue when the DUP staunchly support the idea of a hard Irish border.
What’s all this soft and hard Brexit stuff about, anyway?
Set aside the MPs who think that Brexit is a shit-scheme that should be abandoned immediately, you can divide those who support the vague idea (see also: the #willofthepeople) of Brexit into two separate camps. On one side, there are those that support a complete split from the European Union. Known as hard Brexiteers, these politicians believe that when the UK voted to Leave in the referendum, they voted to leave the EU’s single market, and to end free movement across borders.
On the other side, there are also politicians across all parties who want to implement a soft Brexit deal. This means that they generally support the idea of remaining in the EU’s single market; a territory without internal borders or separate regulations. In order to remain part of this single market, the UK would need to continue allowing free movement of EU nationals, and would also be required to stick to the market’s regulations. The UK would also contribute financially to the European Union under a soft Brexit arrangement. Other soft Brexit supporters are in favour of joining the European Economic Area instead (as Norway has done), or they back the idea of remaining in the European Customs Union.
Obviously, it’s very difficult to reach any kind of compromise between these two stances, and that’s why we’re seeing so many contradictory amendments being voted on in parliament.
Ok, who’s still left in the government, then?
Over the last couple of weeks, Theresa May has suffered a series of enormous blows. In brief, loads of members of parliament have resigned because they support a hard split from the European Union – the Brexit means Brexit school of thought – and disagree with the Chequers Plan. One key resignation comes from David Davis – the man effectively at the helm of negotiating Brexit. The very same day, the former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson followed suite. True to form, Johnson skipped the emergency meeting called after a woman was murdered by deadly military-grade nerve agent in Salisbury . Why? He was too busy posing for his resignation photoshoot.
A significant number of other MPs have also resigned over the Chequers plan: Steve Baker, Chris Green, Conor Burns, Maria Caulfield, Ben Bradley, Robert Courts, and Scott Mann.
What does this all mean?
Spoiler: more of the same. Even when proceedings eventually grind into the most tedious final stages – at this point, who would even question a parliamentary debate on a Pastel De Nata Levy or a Trans-Channel Baguette Transportation Tax Relief Bill – one thing is certain. Politicians will still be just as divided when it comes to what exact deal to strike, let alone the bigger question of whether they should even be doing this in the first place. But Keep Calm and Carry On Lads, Keep Calm and Carry On. Hold that stiff upper lip steady, and keep adding amendments until the March 2019 deadline crashes the economy once and for all, because, as we all know, Brexit is [very Jacob Rees-Mogg voice] “the will of the people”.
By the time Brexit actually rolls around, it will be even more unbearable. Not another one, we’ll wail, as yet another minister quits to save their career, the spectre of Brenda from Bristol casting a gloomy shadow across Westminster. Not another one, we’ll howl, as yet another fishing town which voted predominantly in favour of Brexit starts complaining because – who knew – the EU funded half of their local industry. Nec aliud est (not another one) our shitty new blue passports will read, etched in shitty typeface underneath an equally shitty new emblem. “You must be joking!” Brenda will yell, her gentle West Country burr rising to a blood-curdling scream, and waking Bristol with a jolt. And then, on 29th March 2019, we will leave the European Union. Currently, nobody has the foggiest clue what the new relationship will look like.