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Time to remain?

The EU has agreed to an extension of article 50, in principle to the 31 January.   This gives time for proper scrutiny of the withdrawal agreement and Bill.  It also provides time for a general election and/or a referendum, although a referendum would require more time.

Both Labour and the Tories are uncertain about the way forward on Brexit.  While Labour is shifting from its desire for a general election, so too are many Tories.  Nor is it clear that a general election would produce a better outcome.

Putting aside party politics, the best way forward for the government is to allow time for proper scrutiny of the EU withdrawal bill.   There is now a chance that it could get it passed.  But the government has held the withdrawal bill back to avoid such scrutiny.

The problem for the government is that parliamentary scrutiny is expected to see the Bill amended.  It is a fundamentally flawed Bill.

It is still unclear precisely how the provisions for the Irish Border will work.  Furthermore, the withdrawal agreement is profoundly bad in many areas, and not least because environmental protection has been ditched.

Those whose ambition is to remain in the EU will not like the prospect of Brexit, deal or no-deal.  But it should be of concern to leavers that we leave on the right terms and with protective legislation in place.

The problem now for both Leave and Remain sides is the mandate this parliament was elected to fulfil.

If this parliament has any kind of mandate, it is two-fold for finding a way forward to leave the EU.

This mandate comes, not solely from the result of the EU referendum, but also from the 2017 general election when all the main parties campaigned promising to deliver a soft Brexit.

All the three main UK parties had a manifesto that accepted the 2016 referendum result.  This has always been at the heart of the parliamentary arithmetic, and at the core of the legislative impasse.

The two main parties were always too far apart on how to deliver Brexit.  A compromise that would have seen a soft and staged Brexit was impossible.   Parliament was and is stuck.

It is worth considering that had either Labour or the Tories won a reasonable majority in 2017, we would most likely be heading out of the EU with a deal.    That does not mean the journey would have been comfortable, but at least the government would have argued that it had a mandate to do so.

Had Mrs May won a clear majority, then she would have delivered Brexit.  But it is also sobering to consider that had Mr Corbyn won, he too would have delivered Brexit, and he would have claimed a mandate to do so with an agreement of a customs union with the EU.

Corbyn's position was an honest one, and he stuck to in large part.  He wanted a negotiated customs union.  It would have fulfilled Labour's pledge to honour the 2016 referendum.

Instead, the Tories lost their majority and both the remain and leave camps seized the opportunity the election result provided.  Brexit could be blocked - and it was blocked by both Brexiteers and by hardened Remainers.

It was right to block Brexit on terms that would not have given sufficient protection to the peace process in Northern Ireland.   That became the sticking point.   The backstop was unacceptable to both Remainers and Leavers in parliament.

Brexit, we were told, was so vital that it couldn't be subject to a reasonable compromise.   Add a dose of political opportunism into the mix, and it was a recipe for the chaos that has ensued.

In the absence of any compromise, the positions of Labour and the Tories on delivering a deal for Brexit were and remain too far apart.

Many MPs on the remain side shifted away from the platform on which they were elected in 2017.   They dug in to prevent Brexit in any shape or form.   Equally, many Leavers entrenched deeper with an ambition to leave at any cost, and leaving without a deal has become an objective, a statement, a totem around which they dance.

Boris Johnson, in populist fashion, tried to ride that bus.  He promised a no-deal Brexit on the 31st of October.  He is now unable - and one suspects unwilling - to fulfil that pledge.  Somewhere there is a ditch waiting for him.

What was once regarded as a negotiation tactic to get a better Brexit deal from the EU has now for the ardent Leavers become a test of resolve.  It is a litmus test so powerful that even Boris Johnson's agreement is regarded as a weakness in the "leave means leave" mentality.   It is little wonder, then, that Nigel Farage rejects the deal on the table, and going into a general election without delivering Brexit as promised is a significant risk for the Tories.

Labour's position has been an honourable one. It has also cost them dearly in the polls.  The potential to reopen negotiations with the EU are now limited.   Boris Johnson has probably exhausted EU patience.

The EU now just wants to get Brexit done and would be unlikely to want to start from scratch.   This means that Labour's original strategy to negotiate a customs union is effectively dead.  It would have little traction with voters who are also tired of Brexit.

Explaining the merits of a customs union would be difficult if not impossible in an election campaign, particularly given that remain would be the better option.  It would also distract from other relevant issues.   Labour needs a simple message, not a difficult one.

In a general election, Labour must now campaign to remain in the EU.  All other options have closed.  The Tories have failed to deliver.   The party could offer another referendum as a way forward but with the default position being to remain.  While not impossible, this would be difficult without a withdrawal agreement to put to voters.  Without on, it would be a simple repeat of the last - in or out.

Boris Johnson's deal is fundamentally flawed and would risk the integrity of the United Kingdom.  It is stripped of the provisions to protect the environment.  If an agreement is to be put, then it must be a credible option.  Such an option would now be difficult to arrange and agree.

The lessons of Brexit must be learned. Politicians should not ignore the concerns of voters about the EU.  The case for staying in the EU is a pragmatic one, as much if not more than a principled one.  Voters are wary of the 'ever closer union'.  That is what David Cameron tried to get Britain opted out of.  His worthless piece of paper, the agreement he reached, was rejected by voters.  There is little evidence of an appetite in the UK for a United States of Europe or a European Federation.

The next parliament and government must set about healing the wounds of Brexit.  It cannot do that without listening and acting on the concerns of people across the UK.   We may now need a new contract with the peoples of Scotland and Wales.  Perhaps a constitutional commission to consider the way forward to a federal system.   Devolution should be completed with a proper parliament for England and with further powers devolved to the assemblies.    We need a fresh start - a new and more devolved union.  Else the union will break.

The British people must be consulted on any further EU Treaties, as is the case in Ireland.  That must also be a commitment given legislative effect.  The UK must not be dragged by default into the further political union in Europe without the consent of the people.

Voters must have a clear set of options in any general election.  Labour must make the case to stay in the EU, but Labour must also give people a say.


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