A draft withdrawal agreement (for Brexit) has been produced that seems to satisfy no one. I appear to be the only one pleasantly surprised. It is much more coherent than I had expected. More important, it is a decisive step. This may not seem obvious given the opposition to it, the threat of no confidence votes, and of parliament rejecting the draft. The key lies in the title of this piece. The PM mentioned the possibility of no Brexit at all. I have not heard her concede this possibility before. It is her trump card.
The withdrawal agreement has passed through the cabinet. It must now pass through the EU council of ministers, the UK parliament and finally the European parliament. The biggest obstacle is the UK parliament. If parliament rejects the agreement then we go back to square one. This may be why it will not in the end reject it. Rejection of this agreement opens up two possibilities. Either we leave without an agreement or we do not leave at all.
The withdrawal agreement satisfies the terms of the 2016 referendum. The question was do we stay or do we go. The result was that we should leave and that parliament and the government of the day should proceed to negotiate our departure. It did not stipulate the terms of our departure. This was left up to the government and parliament. The government has produced a workable withdrawal agreement. The cabinet has approved. The terms of the 2016 referendum have been fulfilled.
Parliament must also approve but if it fails to do so there is a practical dilemma. It cannot simply ask the government to continue negotiations. This requires the EU to agree to do so and they are under no obligation to do so. The risk is that March 2019 comes and goes and there is no withdrawal agreement. This would be much more problematic for the UK and no one can claim it is what people voted for in 2016. It is unlikely anyone would want to force such a hard Brexit, given that a workable withdrawal agreement is available, without a clear mandate. This demands another referendum of sorts.
The question could be this agreement or leave with no agreement. Now even the least informed, gullible, and xenophobic, has by now grasped that leaving without an agreement is going to be painful, and unnecessarily so. Hence if it is a binary choice one can safely predict approval for this draft withdrawal agreement. However, if it is another referendum why would it be a binary choice? The PM has implied it will also include the possibility of remaining in the EU. Indeed I suspect the EU would insist as a condition for waiting for a referendum to be held. They are after all under no obligation to wait.
The threat of another referendum is the PMs trump card. She could only play it once a workable draft was in place. If Brexit supporters are unhappy with her deal that is unfortunate but irrelevant. They must support her or risk another vote. They may lose the vote this time. The Remain camp on the other hand has every incentive to reject the deal. They would welcome another vote.
Notwithstanding my compelling logic, stupidity (there is a lot of it about these days) might see the PM challenged within the Tory party as leader or Brexit supporters joining forces with Remain supporters to reject the draft deal in parliament. We may yet fall out of the EU with no deal. We may get another referendum. The odds however favour a grudging approval of this draft deal as the basis for negotiating a withdrawal. The negotiations for withdrawal will of course drag on for years. There is likely to be a change of party in power before they are complete. No one knows how that might affect the negotiations. This will not be ‘over’ for a long time. But the next step has probably been defined and the framework has been laid out.