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Nigel Hastilow: Are we crashing towards a constitutional crisis?

By Nigel Hastilow | Nigel Hastilow | Published:

As Theresa May risks crashing out of the EU with no deal at all, will Britain be forced into a dangerously anti-democratic second referendum?

Theresa May may be forced to rely on the support of the Labour Party to push her deal through Parliament

What are we supposed to believe? That Brexit is going swimmingly and we could have a deal with the EU by the end of November?

Or that the talks have been handled so incompetently by Theresa May’s Government it could provoke the worst constitutional crisis for 100 years?

Or that Mrs May has tied a suicide vest around the country which is primed to explode in our faces? Or are the headlines just a lot of fuss about nothing?

The problem is some or all of the above may be true but none of them is necessarily a guide to what will happen over the next few months.

Lord Mervyn King is definitely correct in his assessment that the way the Government has gone about Brexit has been incompetent.

This may not be Mrs May’s fault; the finger of blame could just as easily point at the ‘three Brexiteers’ David Davis, Boris Johnson and Liam Fox.

They didn’t get a grip of the discussions at the start, it has never been clear who was really in charge of the talks and Mr Davis devoted precious little time to talking to the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier.

Now Boris is busily plotting and negotiating his impending divorce and Mr Davis has also left the Cabinet, it seems the new Brexit secretary Dominic Raab is belatedly making some progress.

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Deal or no deal?

Mr Barnier says we could have a deal by the end of November.

That would be a start but, alas, it wouldn’t be the end of the matter. For any deal acceptable to Mr Barnier is unlikely to be acceptable to vast swathes of the Conservative Party.

That’s why Lord William Hague is so alarmed he’s talking about an impending constitutional crisis, the worst for 100, if not 200, years.

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He’s referring to Lloyd George’s Budget of 1909 which eventually put an end to the power of the House of Lords or maybe the Reform Act of 1832, which started introducing democracy into British politics.

The crisis he fears is if a sizable chunk of Tory MPs reject a deal with the EU based on Mrs May’s plans sort-of agreed at Chequers by most of the Cabinet (except Mr Johnson and Mr Davis, who both resigned).

It’s estimated about 80 Conservative MPs could vote against it and Mrs May would be forced to rely on the support of the Labour Party to push the deal through Parliament.

Given the flakiness of the Labour Party under its bizarre leadership, there’s no guarantee Jeremy Corbyn would come riding to Mrs May’s rescue.

Much ado about nothing

Meanwhile a friend of mine, who is very close to various Government Ministers and meets top civil servants regularly, claims all the froth and fury in the headlines is irrelevant.

She says our ministers and civil servants are beavering away quietly behind the scenes with their usual unflappable efficiency and that we shall see everything come right in the end, the pieces will miraculously slot into place and we will marvel at the ease with which it was all achieved.

There are plenty of businessmen who think the same thing. I have heard many of them express their confidence in the ability of the Government to secure a successful departure from the EU which gives us business as usual with very few alarms and excursions.

I wish I shared their confidence. It is certainly not based on any evidence other than, perhaps, the private utterances of a few of those-in-the-know.

Even if this were true, it doesn’t take into account the politics of Brexit. Even if Mr Barnier were to give Mrs May everything she wants in the Chequers agreement – which he initially rejected – it still needs the support of MPs and Peers.

Ironically, given that Brexit is all about restoring Parliamentary sovereignty, it looks quite likely Parliament will not agree to any deal Mrs May presents to it.

Many Brexiteers think it will leave us too subservient to Brussels and will vote against just about anything. Others think we should not leave at all and will also vote down any deal.

There is room for compromise, but not much, and it depends almost entirely on the attitude of the Labour Party.

The campaign for a second referendum does seem to be making progress. Various trade unions now support it. If they can persuade Labour officially to take that position, then Parliament will shuffle off its responsibility and pass the decision back to the people.

This is where the constitutional crisis comes in. The people have spoken already but our MPs and the EU didn’t like what they said so we will be told to speak again (and get it right next time).

This is dangerously anti-democratic and risks either overturning the biggest vote in British democratic history or taking us crashing out of the EU with no deal at all.

My money is on a second referendum but it’s a bet I would be happy to lose.

Nigel Hastilow

By Nigel Hastilow

Express & Star columnist

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