The past week has been yet another momentous one in British politics. Prime minister Theresa May has spent the past two years intoning March 29 as the immovable date of Brexit. But that was swept away by MPs’ insistence on an extension to the Article 50 divorce process and the European Council’s grudging decision to grant the UK two weeks’ extra time without conditions.
April 12 is now the day that destiny will come calling. The decisions MPs take next week will determine whether Britain crashes out without a deal or, at the last possible moment, averts disaster by embracing a compromise that most people can support.
It looks likely that Mrs May will bring her deal back to the House of Commons for a third meaningful vote, although there won’t be any substantive changes beyond the change in exit day. I will vote for it again, with even less enthusiasm than the last two times, but I assume that it will be defeated. The prime minister will attempt to frame the debate as a choice between her deal or no deal. But parliament has made it clear that it will not allow no-deal in any event so the threat is unlikely to prove persuasive.
If MPs reject Mrs May’s deal, they will need to be given time to debate and vote on alternatives.
I am one of the authors of an amendment, to be put to a vote on Monday, which will reserve time, on Wednesday, for parliament to debate and vote on alternative Brexit solutions. If this amendment passes, MPs of all parties and on all sides of the argument will be able to bring forward proposals for indicative votes.
This will allow parliament, for the first time, to play a proactive role in exploring the alternatives to the prime minister’s deal and then crafting a compromise that a majority can support. So far MPs have only been given the chance to vote on a deal that most of them do not like. The current impasse results directly from Mrs May’s total inability to build a consensus — and her refusal to allow her more collegiate and collaborative cabinet colleagues such as David Lidington to do so on her behalf. Next week, the House of Commons can turn a corner and get on with the important task of finding an compromise that will stick.
For my money, the best alternative is the so-called Common Market 2.0. It is a Brexit deal that can command a majority in parliament, that can be agreed with the EU, and that would start to heal the rift between supporters of Leave and Remain.
The crucial advantage of Common Market 2.0 is that it would keep us in the single market and a customs arrangement with a common external tariff, at least until alternative arrangements underpinning frictionless trade have been agreed with the EU. It would respond directly to this week’s impassioned joint plea by the head of the CBI employers group and the head of the TUC and offer both employers and employees the economic stability that they so desperately need.
While offering economic continuity, Common Market 2.0 would mean we leave the political institutions of the EU. We would leave the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and escape the EU’s common policies on agriculture, fishing, justice, home affairs, defence and foreign affairs.
We already know that such a model can work for the EU. What we call Common Market 2.0 Michel Barnier calls Norway Plus. He has described it as the only form of Brexit that guarantees truly frictionless trade. As a result it would mean that we would never need to activate the Irish backstop. Because it builds upon existing structures and institutions such as the European Free Trade Association court and the European Economic Area’s Joint Committee, leading lawyers, including Alan Dashwood and George Peretz, are optimistic that most of it could be agreed without lengthy negotiation. Certainly there would be no reason for the UK to have to participate in this year’s elections to the European Parliament.
Next week the British political system will face a defining test. Can MPs overcome their age-old addiction to adversarial partisan politics and work across party lines? Can the prime minister relax her grip on her parliamentary party and allow ministers and MPs to vote free of a party whip? Can the leaders of the Labour party and the Scottish National party break out of the habits of opposition and play an active role in shaping a policy that is in the interests of the whole nation? I am hopeful that after two and a half years of drift and division, MPs will rise to the occasion and show the people we represent how together we can start to move our country forward.
The writer is a Conservative MP