Brian Monteith: We need to shut down the Withdrawal Agreement and reboot Brexit

There is a scene of intended subtle irony at the high point of tension in the blockbuster movie Skyscraper when Dwayne Johnson pleads with his wife to reset her tablet so the building’s sprinkler systems will switch on again and save it from collapsing in flames.

Theresa May. Pic: Mark Duffy/AFP/Getty Images
Theresa May. Pic: Mark Duffy/AFP/Getty Images

We have all probably been in similar if less tense situations ourselves when we have had to restart our own phones, laptops, routers and televisions to get the infuriating things to work properly. No amount of fiddling about works, switch them off and on and often the problem is solved.

This is where we are now with Brexit. If it is ever to be delivered at all the process needs to be rebooted.

This week there is likely to be a third opportunity for MPs to pass the Prime Minister’s Withdrawal Agreement so she can claim we are leaving the EU after all, if only at the end of June rather than the end of March as she personally “guaranteed”. Those MPs that believe Brexit is desirable and wish to achieve it should vote it down again – and they should vote it down at each and every opportunity it is presented for endorsement.

I know there are a growing number of MPs that have voted against the Withdrawal Agreement in the past who are now changing their minds and reluctantly (with a heavy heart, etc.) supporting it in the hope they can deal with its problems afterwards. They just want to get over the line and “leave” on 29th March, intending to claim they have met their promises on Brexit. I believe they are well meaning but through desperation are naively being taken in or are fooling themselves.

Theresa May’s agreement is so bad it is actually worse than remaining an EU member under current membership terms. We will not be able to leave the agreement without EU approval; Northern Ireland will be treated differently from the rest of the UK; the jurisdiction of European Courts shall remain superior; regulations and restrictions of the EU’s single market and customs union will continue; our fishing grounds will be included in negotiations again – and we’ll continue to pay billions into the EU on top of the £39bn no court of arbitration would recommend we pay.

If the Withdrawal Agreement is passed it shall then be presented as an example of brilliant leadership by the prime minister against all odds. We shall never stop hearing of her resilience, fortitude, dedication and perseverance in praise of her premiership. She will believe she should carry on and, believe me, there will be figures that will push for her to stay, as it shall be advantageous to them.

Fortunately the truth will out. If she is allowed to stay and run the next negotiations they shall be just as disastrous. Nor will it take long for the agreement to unravel. I suspect most of the public is unaware that the Withdrawal Agreement is not a final “deal” but provides only a transition period for leaving. Its twenty-one month trade talks will be worse than the past two years since Article 50 was invoked. Having paid over our billions and accepted the unnecessary Irish backstop we shall have little negotiating leverage to protect our industries and our interests. The bullying and scare stories shall heighten economic uncertainty and eat into business confidence.

Old and new kites shall be flown to wrong foot our negotiators about access to our fisheries unless another trade-off is given; Gibraltar will be raised with malevolent intent to keep us in our place, while the threat of taxes on our financial services (over which we shall have no veto) can become a reality. The backstop will not be solved for it is ​insoluble without EU agreement.

The point is there is no repairing the Withdrawal Agreement. The only way to break the cycle, to clear the frozen screen before us is to refuse to agree to any deal.

The legal position is that if an exit agreement acceptable to the EU cannot be signed-off by parliament the UK must leave the EU on Friday 29 March without one. We shall then have to use the many mini deals already in place for aviation, visa-free travel, nuclear power, haulage licences and all the rest.

It is unlikely the EU will grant a short extension of Article 50 until the end of June because it is not intent on negotiating any more, it has no incentive to do so because the UK leaving without an agreement has been taken off the table. It will undoubtedly offer a long extension of around two years, possibly in return for us providing a referendum, and certainly at great financial cost. It will mean fighting the European Parliament elections, which shall undoubtedly deliver carnage upon the Tory party and revive the career of Nigel Farage.

Only voting the Withdrawal Agreement down can reset the negotiations. What is there to lose by rejecting it again and waiting to see what extension is offered and what the EUs price is? Agreeing to “the Deal” will not deliver Brexit, but rejecting it can.

Some MPs might find the price of extension too high and can conclude it is better to leave on the 29th, ending the uncertainty and resetting the negotiations from outside the EU but in a much more favourable position.

Alternatively if a long delay in leaving is forced upon pro-Brexit MPs (obviously with the intent of halting and reversing departure altogether) then what was once worth fighting for before must surely be worth fighting for again too? That the challenge has become a longer game should not put people off from achieving the best result.