DOMINIC LAWSON: Of course they won't admit it, but European leaders want to see Brexit done - and fast
Yes, Brexit has divided the British people. But if there is one proposition for which there appears to be a comfortable majority, it is to get the thing done.
This is because there are millions who voted Remain in the 2016 referendum, but who accept that notwithstanding their disappointment it is long past time to move on and honour the result.
This could be seen in a ComRes poll over the weekend, which showed only 37 per cent of those asked in favour of a second ‘in or out of the EU’ referendum.
Boris Johnson is pictured with Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar during their Brexit talks in Birkenhead last week
This was actually smaller than the proportion — 39 per cent — who said they were prepared to support a ‘no-deal’ Brexit, despite ‘the economic hit that would bring’.
Yet, as of last Wednesday, the odds on a deal — satisfactory both to Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Irish opposite number Leo Varadkar —— shortened dramatically.
It involves, as one might have expected, concessions on all sides: a novel ‘customs partnership’ in which Northern Ireland would shadow the EU’s customs union, but still be able to participate in British free-trade deals struck outside the customs union with the rest of the world.
The EU dismissively rejected a similar idea when proposed by Theresa May in the so-called Chequers agreement. But that was to cover the whole of the UK: this version is much less problematic, designed specifically to address the demand of Brussels — ostensibly to avoid a revival of sectarian troubles — that there are no customs barriers between the North and South of Ireland.
Since Brussels has always said this demand was entirely designed to meet the concerns of the Irish, the fact that Dublin is happy with Johnson’s solution means the EU is under enormous moral and political pressure to go along with it, whatever its misgivings about giving Northern Ireland a uniquely advantageous arrangement.
This has come as a bitter blow to those politicians who have been trying every legislative trick in the book (and some that aren’t) to thwart Brexit.
Prime among them is the Beaconsfield MP Dominic Grieve, who despite telling his constituents in the 2017 General Election that ‘the decision of the electorate in the referendum must be respected’, has with extraordinary persistence (and the co-operation of the ‘B*****ks to Brexit’ Speaker Bercow) found a series of ways to do the opposite.
Dominic Grieve MP is pictured at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester
Grieve’s demeanour on BBC’s Newsnight last Wednesday was the exact opposite of Varadkar’s, after the Irish leader emerged from his meeting with Johnson wreathed in smiles.
The former Tory Attorney General looked as though his favourite pet had just been shot. Which, in a way, it had.
On the same programme a day later, the Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle was asked by the BBC’s Mark Urban whether he would support a deal based on what appeared to be harmony between Johnson and Varadkar, since the alternative would be ‘no-deal Brexit’ —which Labour declares will be almost as bad as the end of the world.
Michel Barnier is pictured after a meeting with Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay last week
No, Russell-Moyle replied, that’s not the choice: ‘We will ensure that we have an extension [of the UK’s membership of the EU] if need be.’
Really? The Benn Act — which Johnson calls ‘the surrender Act’ — was drawn up by Parliament to compel the PM to beg the EU for an extension if no deal is agreed between the Government and Brussels before time runs out.
But if such a deal were agreed, the stated reason for the Benn Act (to avoid a no-deal Brexit) no longer applies.
What we are now seeing, with still greater clarity, is that many of those MPs who voted for the Benn Act were not doing so just to avoid a ‘no-deal’ Brexit, as they claimed: they were doing it to stop Brexit, in any form.
But there is a difficulty for those (mostly Labour) MPs who say they can use the same device in order to reject a deal agreed between Johnson and the chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier.
Any further extension—beyond the two which have already deferred Brexit day to October 31 — would have to be agreed by all the EU nations, unanimously. And, though it might come as a shock to the likes of Grieve and Russell-Moyle, the EU’s leaders, like Boris Johnson, want to ‘get this thing done’.
In this, they are not just reflecting their own desire to move on and concentrate on the many other problems facing the EU, but their own electorates.
A recent survey of six EU countries by the Kantar polling company showed that the voters there were opposed to any further extension: in Germany no less than 66 per cent said October 31 should be it — not a day longer.
I would not be at all surprised if Barnier declares (if he can agree on terms with Johnson) that such a deal is ‘final’ — and conditional on no further extension being available beyond a short technical one of a few weeks at most, to tie up any loose ends.
If so, this would also rule out a second referendum before we leave the EU — the last remaining ploy of the recalcitrant anti-Brexit parliamentary forces. A second referendum, according to the Electoral Commission, would take at least six months to organise and complete. That is not just because of the logistics involved, which are immense.
Even more than with the original referendum, the Commission believes it will take time to settle, in a way that is fair to all, on the exact wording of the question to be asked: that itself will be a highly controversial matter, which alone brings with it all manner of potential legal interventions.
So, even if the EU were prepared to endure at least another six months of paralysing uncertainty, are the British people? On the Andrew Marr Show yesterday, Labour’s Shadow Business Secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey suggested we are, and said she had ‘been on a journey’ in now supporting a second referendum that she had previously opposed.
Yet only last month at the Labour Party conference in Brighton she declared that ‘people are so sick of Brexit, it’s making them ill . . . industry and business have no certainty and they are tearing their hair out’.
Rebcca Long-Bailey is pictured during her speech to the Labour Party conference in Brighton in September
So why in the name of sanity does the Shadow Business Secretary think that ‘certainty’ would be restored by a second referendum? Not only would this be to treat with contempt those 17.4 million who voted Leave three-and-a-half years ago, it would only intensify and exacerbate the bitter divisions (including within families) which have already riven the country.
Even a no-deal Brexit, as the only alternative to another lengthy period of political and economic irresolution over our relationship with the EU, would come as a relief to many of the business owners whose views Long-Bailey purports to represent.
Last month, after Parliament blocked Johnson’s plans to hold a General Election to clarify matters, a number of them told the Sunday Times that the continued indecision was bothering them much more than the prospect of leaving the EU on October 31 without an agreement.
Dave Purcell, who runs a Wolverhampton based printing group, which has received EU funding in the past, and who himself voted Remain in 2016, told the paper: ‘We could cope with a no-deal Brexit. But what is impossible to plan for is this endless, unnerving lack of clarity.’
And the chairman of an FTSE 250 company, who also voted Remain, said: ‘No deal is not the problem. The problem is we don’t know where we stand . . . if it will not be sorted out until next year, or even the year after. It’s an absolute joke.’
It’s a joke which has gone on for far too long. And despite all the efforts of Labour MPs — and some Conservatives — to keep this long-running Westminster farce going, I have a feeling that Parliament will on Saturday finally do what it had repeatedly promised, and honour the 2016 referendum. If not, it will pay a price it cannot afford.