16 Nov 2018

Can Britain still slam the brakes on Brexit?

As the Brexit storm buffets Britain, here’s one more bit of a building being blown down the street.

Could Article 50 be revoked unilaterally by the UK government without having to ask for the EU’s permission? The Supreme Court just posted on its website its intention to look at this matter.

The government has asked the Supreme Court to knock down the idea before it goes to the European Court of Justice for consideration on 27th November.

It could mean that a government that had run out of options could, in theory, slam on the brakes and pause or halt the whole business.

Theresa May has, of course, said countless times that the March date for Brexit stands. But then there are a few things, casting your mind back, which Theresa May used to say but that don’t look watertight now and, of course, it might not be her in the hot seat.

When you look at all the options (summarised here by Charles Grant of the Centre for European Reform… there’s also some gaming of the scenarios here by Stefanie Bolzen and Philip Crowley) you could see how options once thought impossible could look plausible given the blocked-off paths everywhere else.

Even some of those supporting the move to clarify any power to revoke Article 50 acknowledge that they are, somewhat desperately, reaching into the toolbox for a sledgehammer. The howls of outrage, they admit, would be immense and perhaps make the whole idea unthinkable.

Meanwhile, around the corner from the Supreme Court, Michael Gove is back at his ministerial desk and is staying in the Cabinet to work with other ministers to try to push back on some of the language in the negotiated deal.

All the signals are that the text of the Withdrawal Agreement isn’t going to change much, so that would suggest that this caucus wants to work on the language in the Future Relationship document.

Presumably one big part of their efforts would be directed at what Dominic Raab found to be amongst the most offending material, the second bullet point in the Economic Partnership section of the Outline Political Declaration promising “ambitious customs arrangements that build on the single customs territory”.

In plain(ish) language, that’s a plan to build out from the bare-bones UK-wide customs agreement to a much more full-fat Customs Union.

As I mentioned yesterday, that’s a central part of the way Theresa May’s senior allies brief the deal. They feel it keeps alive the dream of the Chequers approach and could get frictionless trade via a sliding-scale Customs agreement – the more rules the UK accepts, the better the frictionless trade.

Knocking out that language would be a bit humiliating to Team May but they’ve learnt to roll with the punches. The EU27 would be exasperated but might go along with some change to the language here though they would wonder, looking at the fragility of the May Project, what exactly it was buying anyone.

Would Brexiteer ministers be able to claim they’d really changed much that was fundamental? There would be other changes they might hope to make but it’s hard to see how they could influence the Tory backbench Brexiteers determined to vote the deal down.

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