By Oliver Gibson – KLTV Contributor
It has now been four and a half years since Britain voted to leave the European Union. In that time, the UK has been through three Prime Ministers, two general elections and 131 Acts of Parliament.
It took three and a half years to decide whether or not to proceed with Brexit or to revoke article 50 or move towards a second referendum. And then, it was not even until the beginning of 2020 that the UK formally left the EU.
Since then, a trade deal has been in the works though conflicting interests from both sides and the Covid-19 pandemic have posed problems for the negotiations. Despite multiple warnings from both the UK Government and EU officials of the likelihood of a no-deal scenario, with Boris Johnson labelling such an outcome as ‘very, very likely’ just two weeks ago, a deal was eventually brokered by Christmas Eve.
The deal was signed by EU officials Today – December 30 – before being flown by an RAF plane to London for Boris Johnson to sign. Following this, Parliament will be recalled for a special vote on the deal.
It is thought that the deal possesses unanimous support from the EU’s 27 member governments, meaning that the UK is set for a relaxed transition out of the single market on Thursday after many years of in-fighting and uncertainty.
As of December 30, 2020, the post-Brexit deal has been backed by the Commons with a vote of 521 to 73.
What’s in the deal?
Along with references to defunct software such as Mozilla Mail, the deal secures Britain and the European Union’s new trading partnership.
The deal itself is worth ‘£660 billion’ to the UK economy, a fact that will no doubt prove to be reassuring to businesspeople, investors and workers on both sides of the Channel.
Boris Johnson, on a post to Facebook, summed up the principles of the deal as follows:
- ‘A comprehensive Canada style free trade deal between the UK and the EU, a deal that will protect jobs around this country.’
- ‘A deal that will allow UK goods and components to be sold without tariffs and without quotas in the EU market.’
- ‘A deal which will if anything should allow our companies and our exporters to do even more business with our European friends.’
- Through the deal, ‘we have taken back control of our laws and destiny,’ restoring Parliamentary Sovereignty, a prominent aspect of the Brexit campaign.
- To this end, ‘British laws will be made solely by the British Parliament,’ and ‘interpreted by UK judges sitting in UK courts,’ bringing an end to the ‘jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.’
- ‘From Jan 1 we are outside the customs union, and outside the single market.’
As far as the economy is concerned, the deal allows Britain to:
- ‘Set our own standards, to innovate in the way that we want, to originate new frameworks for the sectors in which this country leads the world, from biosciences to financial services, artificial intelligence and beyond.’
- ‘We will be able to decide how and where we are going to stimulate new jobs and new hope […] with freeports and new green industrial zones.’
- ‘We will be able to cherish our landscape and our environment in the way we choose […] backing our farmers and backing British food and agricultural production.’
- And for the first time since 1973, we will be an independent coastal state with full control of our waters with the UK’s share of fish in our waters rising substantially from roughly half today to closer to 2/3 in five and a half years’ time after which there is no theoretical limit beyond those placed by science or conservation on the quantity of our own fish that we can fish in our waters.’
- ‘And above all, it means certainty for business from financial services to our world-leading manufacturers – our car industry – certainty for those working in high skilled jobs in firms and factories across the whole country.’
Perhaps most importantly:
- ‘There will be no non-tariff barriers to trade’ for both the UK and the EU.
- ‘There will be a giant free trade zone of which we will at once be a member.’
- ‘And at the same time be able to do our own free trade deals as one UK, whole and entire, England, NI, Scotland and Wales together.’
Are Conservative backbenchers convinced?
During the most volatile times of the Brexit period, the European Research Group established itself as perhaps the most influential faction in the Conservative Party.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, the ex-Chairman of the ERG who is now the Leader of the House of Commons, became a kingmaker of sorts within the Party, and was touted as a potential successor to Theresa May during the Conservatives’ vote of confidence in Theresa May, a process that the ERG was seen to cause.
With Brexit done, many of the ERG’s prominent members established themselves as sceptics of the Government’s Covid-19 policy on the backbenches. For example, Steve Baker, an ERG member, now serves as Deputy Chairman of the ‘COVID Recovery Group,’ a new Conservative Parliamentary body that opposed the second national lockdown in November.
However, these potentially rebellious backbenchers have pledged to back the Government in the vote on the deal in the Commons, a move no doubt eased the mind of the PM in the run-up to the scrutinising process in Parliament.
With the Government’s comfortable majority in the House of Commons and considering the fact that all Conservative MPs were elected under their 2019 general election manifesto, which promised to ‘Get Brexit Done’ 23 times in total, was a sign that most, if not all, of the Party’s MPs, will back the new trade deal.
Labour’s leader, Sir Keir Starmer, has pledged to whip his Party’s MPs to vote for the trade deal in the House of Commons. Starmer asserted that while the trade deal was ‘thin,’ it was better for the UK than a no-deal exit from the EU.
While the Government has a comfortable majority, Starmer’s move was undoubtedly reassuring for Boris Johnson in both the short and long term.
What is perhaps a more important consequence of this move is found in the symbolism of the gesture. Significant support from Labour MPs would mean that the trade deal, and the Government’s Brexit policy, possess support from ex-Remainers and those who are not especially pro-Brexit.
Symbolically, this indicates to those in and outside of the UK that a ‘via media,’ or compromise, has been found between the opposing camps of the 2016 referendum, finally putting an end to an issue that has deeply divided not only the British political world but also communities around this country.
Such a move would go a far way towards re-establishing consensus in British politics and putting an end to an era of ‘rage’ and mistrust that has plagued our democracy for too long. It would then be more possible for those outside of the pre-existing political sphere to get engaged in politics, thus enabling serious debates to once again be had on topics that are of great importance to many around the UK, such as on devolution, housing and healthcare.
However, many figures within Labour have announced that they will break from the Party line and vote against the deal, with the media warning of a ‘revolt’ on the horizon for the Labour leadership.
John McDonnell, Labour’s ex-Shadow Chancellor, has called the deal a ‘rotten’ one and has urged his Party to oppose the deal.
With only 73 MPs in the Commons voting against the deal, it will be interesting if there will be any future inner-party friction.
SNP, the Lib Dems and others
It is known that the SNP will vote against the trade deal in Parliament. This means that all 47 of its MPs can be placed into the ‘nay’ category before the vote occurs, plus perhaps their suspended member, Margaret Ferrier who is still ideologically aligned with her old Party. Nicola Sturgeon, who does not sit in the House of Commons, has pledged to oppose the deal, claiming that it sells out the Scottish fishing industry ‘all over again.’ Rhetoric aside, the deal reduces the level of EU fishing in British waters by 25%. If Scotland was to join the EU as an independent country, fishing fleets from the EU’s 27 other member states could fish in Scotland’s waters under pre-existing rules.
Her viceroy of sorts, Ian Blackford, who leads the Party’s group of 47 MPs, has labelled the deal as a ‘disaster for Scotland’ and an ‘unforgivable act of economic vandalism and gross stupidity’. The SNP then had to deny claims that they were, by merit of voting against a deal, in fact backing a no-deal Brexit. In the unlikely event of the deal being rejected by the Commons, the consequence of such an action would, of course, be a no-deal exit from the European Union.
The Lib Dems, who have 11 MPs in the House of Commons, but 88 members in the House of Lords have also pledged to vote against the deal, bringing the projected ‘nays’ to a total of 59. Their new leader, Sir Ed Davey, has described the deal as being ‘threadbare’ and ‘bad for jobs, business, security and our environment.’ Like the SNP, the Lib Dem leader then had to refute claims that his move against the deal was a de-facto push towards a no-deal exit, stating that ‘no-deal is always avoidable’.
All Northern Irish parties currently represented in the House of Commons have pledged to oppose the deal. This means that 18 MPs can be added to the ‘nay’ tally, bringing it to a total of 77. This unlikely alliance of Northern Irish parties brings together both sides of the traditional divide in Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein, an abstentionist party that doesn’t take its seats, will neither vote for nor against the deal.
The Green Party’s MP and ex-leader, Caroline Lucas, has also pledged to vote against the deal, bringing the ‘nay’ tally to 78.
In total, this means that seven parties represented in the Commons will completely oppose the trade deal, along with an unknown number of Labour rebels.
The Brexit Party, which currently isn’t represented in the House of Commons but is nevertheless the most influential Eurosceptic Party following on from the Conservatives, seems to begrudgingly support the trade deal. Nigel Farage, a proponent of a no-deal Brexit, avoided a question from Nick Ferrari of LBC on the subject of whether or not it was a ‘good deal’ but asserted that ‘a good deal helps the UK’ and that a ‘bad deal’ would only help ‘our European competitors’. He also aired his concerns that there would be ‘no scrutiny’ on the deal in Parliament, stating that it would be ‘rammed through […] before anyone has read it’.
Reflection: Will Parliament approve?
It was clear that the trade deal was going to make it through the House of Commons, as the Government possesses a majority on its own and can also count on the support of a half or more of Labour MPs.
The opposition from a number of different parties was, on balance, to be expected in most cases given their opposition to Brexit in general and their support for remaining in the European Union.
However, while the nays will be unsuccessful, they nevertheless will show the continued will of many in the remain camp, a move that will lower the legitimacy of Britain’s exit from the EU.
Britain will leave the European Union, and this will be something of a compromise between both sides of the Brexit divide, given that a no-deal outcome will definitely be avoided. What happens next, both economically and politically, remains to be seen, but it is certain that Britain’s most infamous post-war political issue will now come, finally, to an end.
The House of Lords are set to vote on the deal. It is expected that they will give their assent shortly before midnight.