Brexit Bulletin: Commons crisis averted

James Rothwell
Dominic Grieve, right, and Theresa May

Good afternoon.

Tory Brexit rebel Dominic Grieve caved in to the government this afternoon, following a protracted battle to secure what many Brexiteers suspect was a covert plot to reverse the referendum result.

Mr Grieve, who has one of the most formidable legal minds in parliament, spent the past few months pushing for a “meaningful vote” amendment in the House of Commons on the Brexit deal due to be secured by Theresa May.

The Brexiteer camp say this vote is actually a bid to reverse our departure from the EU, as it could give parliament the power to force the government to revoke Article 50, pulling the plug on the entire Brexit project.

It would also effectively take ‘no deal’ off the table, as there does not appear to be a majority in parliament for walking away from the talks.

In a lengthy speech this afternoon, Mr Grieve said: "Having finally obtained, I have to say with a little bit more difficulty than I would have wished, the obvious acknowledgement of the sovereignty of this place over the executive in black and white language I am prepared to accept the Government's difficulty and support it.”

An anti-Brexit demonstrator holds an EU flag 

"I am prepared to accept the Government's difficulty and in the circumstances to accept the form of amendment it wants."

Which, in layman’s terms means, means he decided to withdraw support for his own amendment.

Where next for the Westminster debate on Brexit? Well, it might be useful if more MPs spent a bit of time looking at how the UK can reconcile its desire to leave the single market with the terms of the Irish backstop, which would keep Northern Ireland (and theoretically the rest of the UK, though the EU denies this) under single market rules and regulations.

Some interesting ideas have been thrown out there - Open Europe’s Henry Newman, for example, thinks Britain might be able to retain relatively smooth trade if it sticks to single market rules on goods, but diverges elsewhere, such as on services.

Again, the EU is skeptical of this approach as there is a whiff of carving up the single market's four freedoms to it, but it is at least a starting point.

And as the clock inexorably runs down to March 2019, some progress on the more granular details of the Withdrawal Agreement would be welcomed by both sides.

Hoffing and puffing

More Brexit high drama from Guy Verhofstadt, who today gave evidence to the British parliament’s Exiting the European Committee.

The European parliament’s Brexit point man had a few pearls of wisdom for MPs, and some of them did not go down terribly well.

Firstly, Mr Verhofstadt warned that the UK’s interpretation of the Irish backstop clause - designed to prevent a hard border with Northern Ireland - fell far short of expectations as it only handled customs procedures.

And, in fairness to “the Hof,” as they call him in Brussels, the paper put forward earlier this month by Mrs May only forms one part of the border puzzle.

Guy Verhofstadt, the European Union's chief Brexit negotiator, and Britain's Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union David Davis 

It doesn’t, for example, address product standards, which make up a larger proportion of border checks.

But his other pearls were a little more contentious. He suggested the UK could accept free movement after Brexit if it imposed a tough Belgian-style immigration system with ID cards.

It’s true that Belgium has one of the tougher approaches to EU migration, with newcomers watched closely by the government and those without jobs ejected fairly swiftly. In 2008, for example, Belgium expelled 10,000 migrants. But accepting free movement breaches one of the key principles of Brexit, which is regaining full control over national borders.

Finally, Mr Verhofstadt endorsed the UK and EU choosing an Association Agreement as a future trade model. In principle such models work well, with Ukraine a prime example.

But these “AA’s” are nearly always handed to third countries wishing to slide closer towards the European Union, rather than leave it altogether - hardly the direction the UK wants to travel in.