In the next few days the negotiations between the UK and the EU will come to a conclusion. There may or may not be a deal. If there is no deal, expect political mayhem. But if there is a deal pull up your chair for what is also certain to be an historic Parliamentary occasion.
When our MPs convene in the Westminster cockpit be assured our jaws will drop first at Boris Johnson’s predictable over-the-top selling of the deal, despite its manifest limitations and the chasm between its substance and the claims made before, during and after the 2016 referendum.
This he will, of course, be obliged to do. Even the most anorexic deal will have to be portrayed as living up to those promises, not merely ‘Getting Brexit Done’.
It will be sold as releasing our buccaneering spirit, even as our businesses and lorry drivers, freed from the bogeyman of EU bureaucracy, begin to grapple with an unprecedented increase in border controls and form filling.
It will be sold as a release from a form of bondage which, unlike most bondage, actually made us all better off. It will be sold as rescuing British sovereignty – that was only ever pooled with others to make us more effective – freeing our tousled-hair David to take on the Goliaths of the globe, whether on our doorstep or half a world away.
Such is the suspension of disbelief that the master of ceremonies will demand of us all. Reality will be for another day. The jubilant waving of order papers on the benches behind him will cow all but a handful of the most extreme Brexiteers pining for the adrenalin rush of a jump off the cliff.
But what of those on the other side of the House? Where will they place their crosses? Will they bow to a force majeure and vote for the deal? Will they seek to vote it down? Or will they abstain?
Those of us not beholden to electors, or even to a party card, may think it an easy decision, but for MPs life is usually a little more complicated. Believe it or not, politicians take account of political considerations. More often than not the local trumps the national, and today is usually more important than tomorrow, let alone the long-term that, they say to themselves, can look after itself.
Nervous statements from MPs of all parties, make it clear that that they will not vote against a deal. That way lies risk. The real dilemma for opposition MPs is whether to vote for the deal, even while holding their noses, or to abstain.
So, will Northern Ireland’s DUP back the deal regardless of the consequences for north-south relations on their troubled island? Probably. Ending up with no deal would harden the Irish border. And should the DUP still harbour reservations, the Ulster palm is always available to be tickled with money.
The SNP must surely be tempted to vote against any deal, if only to underline its Scottish independence and continuing European aspirations? But first it will have to calculate that the deal will get through even without its votes. It will not want to be held responsible for the collapse of a deal.
The same can be said of Plaid Cymru, except that, its numbers being far fewer – only 3 against the SNP’s 47 – it is unlikely to make a difference either way. It may choose to make a principled stand against the deal, but more likely that it will want to be seen to support it, guaranteeing freedom from tariffs for farmers.
The 11 Liberal Democrats – from the most European of all parties – will once again want to be seen to go down fighting. It is inconceivable that they would do other than vote against.
But what of Labour? What will be going through the minds of Labour MPs? Moreover, what should go through their minds?
Once line of thought that must weigh heavily with the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, is what would be the effect of any vote on public perceptions of his party, not today or tomorrow, but in the run up to a general election in 2024? His primary concern, understandably, will be to end what will have been a 14-year period in opposition for his party.
He might also spare a thought for his party, and its leader Mark Drakeford, as they face elections for the Welsh Senedd next May.
It is rumoured that, with 2024 in mind, Mr Starmer is inclined to impose a three-line whip on his party to support the deal. If that is his inclination – he himself currently claims not yet to have made up his mind – what might his reasoning be? Would he be right?
I think not. If he thinks it essential that the deal should go through, regardless of its limitations – if only to avoid the catastrophe of ‘no deal’ – he can surely be reassured by the opinion of most commentators that that the chances of arriving at ‘no deal’ by means of Parliamentary accident are exceptionally slim.
In last Tuesday’s vote on the Covid regulations in England, in which Labour abstained, the Government had a majority of 213, despite being abandoned by 55 Tory rebels. Even a vote against the deal by the SNP would not imperil a comparable majority.
If that is the case, it must be the longer-term considerations that are at the forefront of Keir Starmer’s mind in weighing his party’s options.
If he is to fulfil the hopes of those who voted for him in Labour’s leadership election, he surely needs to be seen as a man of principle, rather than as a mere tactician. If that is the case he needs to return to the six tests that he himself set for any Brexit deal back in March 2017.
Does it ensure a strong and collaborative future relationship with the EU? Hardly. Does it deliver the exact same benefits as we currently have as members of the Single Market and Customs Union? No. Does it ensure the fair management of migration in the interests of the economy and communities? Not if Priti Patel has anything to do with it?
Does it defend rights and protections and prevent a race to the bottom? Doubtful. Does it protect national security and our capacity to tackle cross-border crime? Not as far as we know. Does it deliver for all regions and nations of the UK? Emphatically not. The effects of Brexit will not be evenly spread in this country. Wales will suffer particularly. And, four years on, we still have no detail about the promised Shared Prosperity Fund.
The verdict isn’t even close. The only reason for supporting this deal rather than abstaining in any vote, is an aversion to abstaining.
But an abstention is not a matter of sitting on the fence. Abstaining is a positive statement when faced with two unpalatable outcomes. Abstention is not a sign that you do not have a view. An abstainer is not the same as an agnostic.
Neither would it be a betrayal of the wishes of the majority in the referendum, or of those who deserted Labour in the so-called ‘Red Wall’ seats in last year’s general election. Nor would it express a wish to obstruct the decision. But it would say to the people of this country that they deserve better, and could have had better had not out-dated jingoistic ideology been our guide.
It is such a statement that will win an election in 2024.