Brian Wilson: Have we all fallen into a Brexiter trap?

The UK is due to leave the European Union by October 31
The UK is due to leave the European Union by October 31
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Keep voting down treaty, get rid of May, install one of their own, force through Brexit – seems to be going well so far, writes Brian Wilson.

I have the nasty feeling that we have been conned again over ­Brexit - this time by those who ­insisted ­no-deal was “off the table”, thereby ­negating the responsibility to avoid it at all costs.

Back in November, when the EU-UK withdrawal treaty was agreed, I asked a simple question: “What if Theresa May and Jean-Claude Juncker are, more or less, telling the truth? What if it really is this deal or no deal?” That question, I observed, tended to be “overlooked by those who have a vested interest in overlooking it”.

This continued to be the case because the logic of facing it was to admit that the only sure way of avoiding no-deal was to back the agreement, or something close to it.

Instead, noisy rhetoric became confused with actually opposing no-deal. Every windbag in politics could denounce that outcome as “catastrophic” and worse.

But by dismissing the one sure way of stopping it, they were always its potential facilitators rather than, as they pretended, its arch-enemies. In mid-February, I had that conversation with a responsible, ­pro-Remain Labour MP.

What happens next, I asked.

He replied: “We keep opposing the deal until the end of March and then everyone votes for it” – because the alternative was still seen as no-deal.

I felt reassured. Pragmatism would ­prevail and account be taken of the jobs, businesses, individuals that no-deal would devastate. By late March, however, pragmatism had gone out the window, replaced by the mantra that Parliament would prevent no-deal, so other outcomes could be pursued with impunity.

That never seemed convincing to me and the evidence was not difficult to spot.

Even the least astute opposition MP must at some point have wondered why he or she was voting in the same lobby as the ERG pro-Brexit fanatics whose objective was the diametric opposite of their own.

The absolute certainty was that pro-Brexiteers were not voting down the deal in order to achieve some fascinating ­Parliamentary stalemate or a second ­referendum.

They had a plan – defeat the deal, get rid of Theresa May, install one of their own, force through Brexit with or without a deal… it seems to be going pretty well.

What, in contrast, of the clever proceduralists and high-minded oppositionists who were holding forth a few short weeks ago on the impossibility of a no-deal Brexit?

I woke on Thursday to the forlorn tones of Sir Oliver Letwin, one of the Tory ­opponents of no-deal.

The previous day, the opposition achieved another own goal with a motion to set aside a Parliamentary day in which legislation blocking a no-deal exit could be put through. They lost, which was ­predictable. But it was the responses which exposed the extent to which “no-deal off the table” has been such a ­delusion.

Letwin said sadly: “We have run out of all the options that any of us can at the moment think of”. His colleague Dominic Grieve was crisper. “I think that’s it,” he said. “I can’t think of when another ­opportunity might come up”.

As the Tory Brexiteers jeered, Jeremy Corbyn reportedly responded: “You won’t be laughing in September”. Why not? Share the secret, Jezza. What’s happening in September that is going to lead us out of the colossal mess you have wandered into?

What would have been different if my pro-Remain MP friend had stuck to the plan? The treaty would have been approved. There would be a Northern ­Ireland backstop. Life would be going on as usual and the vast majority of business worries – and threats to jobs – would have been lifted.

There would have been years to ­fully define the relationship. There would have been no blundering into European ­elections which served the principal ­purpose of demonstrating a pro-Brexit voting block which struck fear into the Tories and pushed them into Johnson’s arms.

Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe the second referendum brigade, the ­bollocks to Brexit purists, the thundering denouncers of no-deal… maybe they too have a plan. If so, it would be encouraging to hear it.

Licences for over-75s? BBC is not the DWP

Free television licences for over-75s is the kind of decent thing that decent governments do. It was introduced by Labour in 1999, became hugely appreciated and survived intact for 16 years.

Then George Osborne pulled the stunt of transferring responsibility to the BBC as part of the licence fee settlement. A universal benefit had become an optional payment by a third party.

That was never going to be sustainable. If Government wants to end or limit a benefit, they should have the political courage to do so. The BBC is not the DWP and the prospect of spending a fifth of its budget by 2020 on this concession was absurd.

The Tory manifesto in 2017 promised to maintain the universal benefit for the lifetime of the Parliament. They say that was a “mistake” but must surely honour it as a commitment of Government – not of the BBC.

Now the BBC’s offer is to maintain free licences for those claiming Pension Credit which opens up its own issues. Are the DWP to information-share with the BBC over eligibility? Who will be responsible for enforcement?

At present, 40 per cent of those eligible for Pension Credit do not claim it. Low uptake of benefits is an age-old problem and often it is those whose needs and burdens are greatest who are least well-placed to claim what they are entitled to.

One positive response to this piece of uncaring parsimony would be for an effective campaign to be mounted around Pension Credit uptake – with the certainty of free TV licences as part of the incentive.

Better still to go back to the original principles of a respectful, valued benefit for older people which the country can well afford.