But is this true?
Let’s just clear away some undergrowth so we can focus on the question.
Let’s assume that leaving without a deal would be hugely damaging. It would be harmful in trade terms, it would be harmful in broader regulatory terms and it would harmful for UK citizens living in the other member States who would, for example, lose the right to free healthcare.
Leaving without a deal is, then, not really an option.
What ‘having a meaningful vote’ then means (in effect) is Parliament having the ability to reject whatever deal Number 10 strikes with Brussels without us having to leave without a deal. It has that ability if it can revoke – or ask the electorate whether it wants to revoke – the Article 50 notification so that we remain in the EU.
And let’s just assume this is possible.
So what’s Number 10’s position on having a meaningful vote?
But is this right?
No, or so it seems to me at least. For four overlapping reasons.
First, it assumes that the other 27 are desperate to keep us.
If you were to ask them today, the 27 other member states would probably say they’d rather we remained. Probably – I’m not aware of any evidence. But it defies reality to assert that they are so desperate for us to Remain that they would deliberately set out to offer us an ugly deal even where the consequence of doing so might well be that we left the EU with no deal at all, hurting their citizens and businesses and ours too.
It’s even more bold to think that in two years time, after two years of exposure to our ‘have your cake and eat it’ negotiating strategy, and after two years of exposure to our rather vigorous tabloids, the other 27 remain so desperate for our continued membership that they take this risk.
This feels to me like exceptionalism on steroids.
Second, it assumes that it is better for us to Leave whatever the consequence.
We do not know what the future holds.
The vote to Leave occurred in a very different, and much more stable, world than we now live in. It was before the election of Trump who in a few short weeks has undermined NATO, undermined the WTO, threatened to renegotiate the trade deal of any state running a trade surplus with the US, threatened a border tax to discriminate against imports, threatened war against Iran and China and so on.
And – although supporters of Brexit are still running hard with the’having our cake and eating it’ line – the fact remains that we do not know what Brexit will look like. We do not know what the final deal will be. And we do not know what the consequences are.
No one making a decision of this magnitude in a climate this uncertain rationally chooses to make that decision earlier than she could. Even if she believes she is set on the right course she retains her optionality to the very last moment.
And by seeking to deny Parliament a meaningful vote what, in effect, Theresa May is choosing is irrationality. Forget the evidence, she is saying, we will leave whatever changes around us.
Third, it’s an unexplored assumption that a meaningful vote weakens our position.
The situation (without Parliament having a meaningful vote) is that we have to strike a deal within two years or suffer the consequences of leaving without one. If you want an analogy, you might compare this with having made a decision to emigrate and having booked your flight and needing to sell your car before you go. The would be purchaser wants the car but because you are up against the clock – and he knows it – your ability to hold out for the best price is limited.
That’s not a great bargaining position.
The alternative – having a meaningful vote – would give us the opportunity to decide ‘this deal is not good enough’ (or to use my analogy cancel our decision to emigrate). In that situation we are not held hostage against the clock in the same way. But, of course, there is a price attached to improving our bargaining position – we have to be prepared not to leave.
And, if you want to leave, that’s not a great bargaining position either.
You can weigh and spin these alternatives endlessly. But ultimately it seems to me that there is an air of unreality to the contention that Parliament having a meaningful vote weakens our position. We have decided to leave: the Government’s position is that the Article 50 notification won’t be revoked. And the EU knows we have decided to leave. A good deal is in our mutual interests – but there is no certainty we will be able to achieve one. No deal is in our mutual disinterest – but there is no certainty we will be able to avoid one.
And in the circumstances you get on with it and do the best you can and leave the weighing and spinning for the birds.
Fourth. Actually? This isn’t a fight about our bargaining position.
And this is the killer point.
Parliament is supreme. It can decide that it wants to remain. And even if Theresa May wants it not to be so it would still be so. It doesn’t need an amendment to the Article 50 Bill to confirm it is so. It is a fundamental tenet of our constitution.
And the EU knows this. So if the opportunity for Parliament to have a meaningful vote weakens our bargaining position then that weakening doesn’t follow from an amendment to the Article 50 Bill. It is hard-wired into our constitution. And it can’t be changed.
And all this talk from her spokesperson about “giving strength to other parties” is a mere smokescreen for that basic, undeniable truth.
So what’s all this really about?
It’s about control. Who gets to control these profoundly important decisions about whether we crash out without a deal? Or about whether we might look at the sum total of the evidence and choose to Remain? Does Theresa May, who has never been offered to the electorate as a Prime Minister, get to make them? Or does Parliament, whose MPs have a roving mandate from the electorate, get to make them?
And all the rest is smoke and mirrors.Follow @jolyonmaugham