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Unpacking the Brexit conundrum now

The new leadership of the EU institutions have now been selected and require only the European Union Parliament to ratify them. These are the people with whom our new Prime Minister will have to negotiate to obtain a better deal than the one negotiated by Theresa May and rejected three times by the House of Commons. However the message coming from Brussels is that the new team there are no more likely to agree a different deal than their predecessors.

If that is so, the most likely outcome on 31st October is that the UK will leave the EU with no deal at all. Both contenders for the leadership of the Conservative party and our next Prime Minister have indicated that they would accept this, though both seem to think they can persuade the EU leaders to accept a new, as yet unspecified, deal.  Meanwhile our existing Ministers responsible for the economy and business warn that a ‘no-deal Brexit would be bad for the economy and mean lots of people losing their jobs and business leaders are echoing these warnings.

Nor is that the only obstacle confronting the incoming Prime Minister. The Government only has a majority of three and are dependent on the ten DUP votes at Westminster to carry anything.  That support cannot now be relied upon for two reasons. First, a no-deal Brexit would inevitably mean a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. The DUP are strongly against that.

 They are already angry about legislation passed last week that would legalise same-sex marriage and liberalise abortion law in the Province unless the devolved Northern Ireland Assembly is recalled and the power-sharing agreement between the DUP and Sinn Fein renewed. The DUP is hostile to the liberalisation of abortion and same sex marriage but Sinn Fein is not. Disagreement about these issues was one of the reasons for the breakdown of the power-sharing agreement in 2017 and the Westminster legislation gives them what they want without having to work with the DUP.

Nor is the fragility of the Government’s majority the only problem facing whoever moves into No 10 on 24th July. The House of Commons has already rejected a ‘no-deal’ Brexit twice and opposition to it has grown since those votes. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, who loyally backed Theresa May in those earlier votes, now says he will vote against a ‘no-deal’ Brexit and he is not the only member of May’s Cabinet who will do that. Of course those Ministers are unlikely to be in a Government led by Boris Johnson anyway but it denies him any hope of getting a ‘no-deal’ Brexit through Parliament.

Johnson’s response has been to not rule out the option of proroguing Parliament so it could not block a ‘no-deal’ Brexit. Aware of this, Dominic Grieve succeeded in amending a Northern Ireland Bill last week to require Ministers to report to Parliament every two weeks on progress made in restoring the power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland in September and October. The aim is to make it impossible for the Prime Minister to prorogue Parliament.  Ken Clark and up to 30 Conservative MPs have also indicated they will vote against the Government in a vote of no confidence if the Government pursues a ‘no-deal’ Brexit. They are likely to be supported by the Opposition and other parties too.

The former Prime Minister, John Major, has said he would take the Government to Court to prevent a prorogation because it would be a brazenly undemocratic thing to do. Parliament has a central role in our system of representative democracy. The last time it was dissolved so the government could get its own way was by Charles 1st between 1625 and 1629 and it led to a civil war and his execution. Divided though the nation is on the Brexit agenda, we are nowhere near that outcome but it is time for us all to consider why membership of the EU is such a disruptive issue. It is sad that this didn’t happen in 2016. Whatever form of democracy we have and want, we all need to recognise the need for maturity and wise judgement both in whom we choose to lead us and how we play our part in that democracy.

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