Grand Old Duke of York marches down the hill again
Once the history of Brexit is written, the Grieve amendment will probably come to be seen as the only potentially serious threat to the process. It would have provided a technical mechanism for parliament to take matters into its own hands, for example to force a second referendum on Brexit, or to instruct the government to apply for a prolongation of the Article 50 period. We never thought it would have resulted in any of these outcomes for political reasons: there are simply no positive majorities for any alternative course. But the very fact of an existing mechanism for a Brexit reversal might have created its own dynamic in the coming months. The amendment was defeated yesterday by a vote of 303 to 319. One of the main forces behind the amendment, Dominic Grieve, a former attorney general, ended up voting against his own amendment. We like the Labour Party’s comparison of Grieve to the Grand Old Duke of York, who marched his troops up and down the hill without ever getting anywhere. That’s the thing with the Tories: they are just not very good at rebelling.
We could write a very long article outlining the complicated parliamentary procedures that will now apply in the future, but the bottom line is that the serious rebellion is over. While we don’t think the Grieve amendment would have achieved its goal for political reasons, it was at least a smart technical device, drawn up by two cunning legal minds and experts of parliamentary procedure.
There will be another less existential challenge to the government: an amendment to the trade bill, asking the government to negotiate a customs union with single market membership for goods only. The UK is heading in this broad direction in any case because this would solve the Northern Ireland issue and meet the needs of the British economy. The EU does not accept partial single market membership, but we think this objection is not cast in stone. A customs union with single market membership for goods, possibly time-limited, seems a sensible compromise to us because it includes an obvious delineation - goods, not services. So this is not some arbitrary cherry-picking, which the EU rightly rejects. But surely, any customs union agreement with a country like the UK will have to include UK acceptance of single market rules. The main political issue would be the EU’s invariable counter-demand of continued freedom of movement. We think this is going to be the real sticking point, not whether the ECJ is the adjudicator of conflicts. It will come as a shock to many in the UK when they hear that the EU will demand freedom of movement of people as a quid pro quo for the freedom of movement of goods.