It's possible Parliament just quietly started the process of a Brexit reversal

Andreas Whittam Smith

The notion that Brexit might not happen after all is beginning to gain support. Sir Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat leader, has claimed that the chances of Brexit falling through are now “maybe 20 per cent, possibly 25 per cent”.

At the weekend, he said: “The probabilities of having an exit from Brexit are rising because of the chronic weakness of the Government – the lack of ability to negotiate a satisfactory deal ... We will almost certainly be faced with a poor deal, maybe no deal at all, and I think under those circumstances, [with] large numbers of initially MPs and then the public, wanting to revisit the basic question will rise.”

Stein Ringen, visiting professor of political economy at King’s College London, made the same prediction in a blog published on 12 September: “Parliament is moving towards preventing Britain from exiting the European Union. It is not there yet, but in its lumbering, convoluted, step-by-step manner, that’s where it is heading.”

At first glance, this view received support from David Davis’s promise on Monday of enhanced scrutiny by members of Parliament. In a statement in the House of Commons, the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union promised that Parliament will be given time to debate, scrutinise and vote on the final agreement that is struck with the European Union, and that the agreement would hold only if Parliament approved it.

Obviously worried by the direction in which Davis seemed to be going, Owen Paterson MP, who is a keen Leaver, asked for confirmation that if the House of Commons votes down the new withdrawal bill, we would still leave the EU on 29 March 2019, but without an agreement. Davies gave a one word reply: “Yes.”

So it is now my turn to be concerned. Was Davis merely indulging in an elaborate charade in the House of Commons on Monday? Was he deliberately giving an impression of consultation but not meaning a word of it?

Quite a few MPs came to that conclusion. Antoinette Sandbach said Davis’s words were “not a concession” because they gave no indication of the timing of the vote. Indeed, if it took place at the last minute, it would not give MPs the opportunity to mandate the Government to go back to the negotiating table. Nicky Morgan, the chair of the Treasury Select Committee, said the concession was one “in name only”.

Now I don’t take a cynical view of David Davis’s proposals. I believe he would rather arrive at the exit door with parliamentary approval than not. That must be sensible. It may be that after Parliament has scrutinised, debated and voted on the final agreement, it would not be the settlement for which he would personally have wished. But he seems to be saying to himself “so be it”.

Meanwhile, Parliament began today on the enormous task of debating the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, which would copy across EU rules into domestic UK law to ensure a smooth transition the day after Brexit. Because the Government has only a slim majority in the House of Commons, this arduous exercise is bound to bring pressure on the Government to make more and more concessions to its critics.

This is why former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith warned on Monday that rebel MPs would put the future of the Government at risk if they inflicted defeats over the bill, which paves the way for Brexit. “If people keep voting against the Government on this they make the Government’s position more untenable,” he said.

Now the key concession to look for in these circumstances would be giving MPs the opportunity also to vote on the merits of the no-deal option.

That seems right, but try to imagine what would happen if the Government came to the House of Commons and said that no satisfactory Brexit deal had been struck and sought approval for crashing out, and the Commons refused. We should then have reached a state of total chaos that could only be resolved by an immediate general election or a second referendum. And that is the scenario in which Brexit might be taken off the table and we should then return to those peaceful days when the mad idea of holding a referendum hadn’t even been considered.