“How on Earth are the European Union going to negotiate with something so nebulous?” The question posed by Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrats’ leader, said it all.
The House of Commons last night voted to send Theresa May back to Brussels to seek the replacement of the controversial Northern Ireland backstop with “alternative arrangements to avoid a hard border”. It is unclear what “alternative arrangements” actually means, but a majority of MPs didn’t seem to care.
Swept up in this outbreak of fuzzy thinking at Westminster was none other than the British Prime Minister, who was apparently won over by Tory MP Graham Brady’s amendment to her own Brexit statement, despite her previous forceful insistence that her Withdrawal Agreement was the only deal on offer.
In sharp contrast, Brussels’ position has been and last night remained crystal clear – the backstop will not be renegotiated.
There were several Conservative MPs who could see the obvious problem. Sarah Wollaston described the Brady amendment as a “pointless mirage” and a “ludicrous fantasy Brexit”, warning that it was simply wasting time as the UK heads towards the “catastrophe” of a no-deal; Phillip Lee lamented “we’re just going round in circles”; and Oliver Letwin, perhaps succumbing to despair, said he had “got to the point where I am past caring what the deal is” and would vote for one, whatever it is, simply to avoid the risks of a no-deal.
Keir Starmer, Labour’s Brexit Secretary, said all May had done was raise expectations that she “can never fulfil”. “The word crisis is over-used in this house, in our media and our national debate, but we should be in no doubt that this is one of the greatest national crises our country has faced in a generation,” he warned.
Amendments by backbench MPs designed to delay Brexit beyond 29 March if no deal could be reached were all defeated. An amendment stating the UK would not leave the EU without a deal did pass, but was not a binding vote.
May will now attempt to persuade the EU to turn a fantasy into reality, they will almost certainly refuse, and the UK will be on course for a no-deal Brexit unless current legislation is changed. Given this prospect, every one of us might be wise to start making “alternative arrangements” to ensure we are not one of the many victims of this looming act of economic self-harm.