The Withdrawal Agreement and Westminster


Now that we have a stabilised draft Withdrawal Agreement (WA), agreed by the EU 27 and the UK, there is effectively zero probability of altering the text significantly. It must be remembered of course that whilst the WA is just the terms of the divorce settlement, it is nonetheless a legally binding treaty.  The  future relationship is signalled in the Political Deceleration (PD),which is non-binding, but gives the general direction of travel. The actual future relationship is still quite fluid (still being fleshed out) and will take years to negotiate. How many is difficult to say, but five seems to be a reasonable estimate.

There are realistically only three options remaining for withdrawal: the WA as it currently stands, No-Deal or no Brexit. These will be explored in detail a later article, but No-Deal, will be catastrophic, the WA simply dreadful and both categorically far worse than remaining in the EU.

The final destination of travel is difficult to predict, but as previously stated in my last PP article, if May is still at the helm then a Turkey like solution may well be the destination, given that she seems to prioritise ending Freedom of Movement, above  all else, and knows for the UK’s economic health  staying close to the EU is essential. Other future destinations include Canada+++ (otherwise known as EU – – – – – – ), or more probably entering the US orbit via USMCA (the replacement for NAFTA).  These will of course need a solution to the Irish border issue, but that will solve itself within a few years.

Solving the Irish Border Issue in the Case of a Hard Brexit

On the Irish border issue, Brexiters are hopeful technological solutions may provide the answer. The technology is not there yet. My belief, as Sir Ivan Rogers has said, is that this will not be feasible in 101 years, never-mind 10 years.

What many UK commentators seem to miss however, is how rapidly opinion is changing in Northern Ireland.  The diehard Unionists (represented by the DUP) and Nationalists (represented by SF) are of course totally polarised (and increasingly evenly matched), but a Border Poll will be won or lost on the middle ground.  The GFA stipulates a Border Poll should be called if there appears to be a majority for a United Ireland (UI). This is technically the decision of the Secretary of Stare for NI, currently Karen Bradley, but there is zero chance of a Border Poll happening while the DUP are supporting the Government. This could however change in the near future, particularly as the DUP have abstained on the government Finance Bill indicating that the confidence and supply agreement may no longer be in place.

Brexit has had a dramatic effect on NI opinion, with moderate Nationalists now almost universally supporting a UI. In the past many would have voted to retain the Union with GB for entirely pragmatic reasons. More significant is the position of middle ground voters typified by the Alliance Party. These previously have leaned towards the Union but increasingly also favour a UI.  In the recent Delta Poll, given the option of Brexit with a hard border, 56% of voters opted for a UI, 40% for the Union, with 4% don’t know/abstain (±3% error). Fig. 1 shows the breakdown by  age, with only the 65+ cohort showing significant support for the Union, but the under 45s overwhelmingly in favour of a UI.

Fig. 1 Voting intentions in the case of Brexit with a Hard Border.


It is perfectly possible that if a border poll were called today the result would be pro UI. Given the demographics a UI seems inevitable within the next decade unless Brexit is reversed, and within the next two decades in all foreseeable circumstances.

The Factions

PM May will try very hard to get the unloved WA through parliament but will have an uphill struggle. There is opposition to the deal from both  hard Leavers and Remainers. The current numbers and layout of the HoC is shown in Fig. 2. It is worth going through each faction to see how they might vote.

Fig.2 How the seats stack up in the House of Commons.


The DUP (10 Seats)

Many years ago I used to teach Shannon Information Theory at Leeds Metropolitan University, which states that information content is very closely related to the thermodynamic concept of entropy. Information content is greatest when the signal is totally unpredictable and resembles white noise. Conversely a pure sine wave for example contains almost no information. The DUP are in the latter category and will say NO! NO! NO! – which is one bit of information, not three. They will support No-Deal in preference to the WA.

Hardcore Brexiters (40-80 seats)

The ERG and related factions claim to have around 80 seats. Given however they are unable to get the 48 letters into the 1922 committee to unseat May, the true number may well be closer to 40. These will also not support the WA and would prefer No-Deal. Many are true believers in Brexit, more as a religious cult than anything rational. Others are extremely wealthy Libertarians, who may do well out of the chaos capitalism of  No-Deal, shorting the pound and other stocks and and will benefit from avoidance of EU tax evasion measures. At worst they can easily live with the economic chaos as they are wealthy enough to do so.

Tory Loyalists and Moderates (230-270 seats)

These will very likely support the WA as they are very loyal by nature. Indeed if the Tories are famous for anything it is for the ability to hold together. Brexit however may stress the Tories beyond breaking point. May is extremely determined and will carry the bulk of the party. Brexit is very popular with the grass root Tories, many who seem to equally detest FoM.

Tory Remain Rebels (10-40 seats)

Prominent among these are Heidi Allen, Ken Clarke, Jo Johnson, Justine Greening, Dominic Grieve, Philip Lee, Sara Wollerston and Anna Soubry. These are likely to vote against the WA in the hope of forcing a People’s Vote, but may be pulled into line by the horrendous prospect of No-Deal.

Labour Corbyn Loyalists (c 237 seats)

Labour currently have 257 seats but around 20 or so will likely vote for the WA (see below).  Labour loyalists will vote against the WA in the hope of bringing down the government and triggering a General Election (GE). Should this not be possible Labour Party policy is to support a People’s Vote (PV). Some of the hard line Lexiteers such as Len McCluskey may try to force a binary choice between the WA and No-Deal.

Labour Rebels (c 20 seats)

Some Labour MPs from Northern constituencies may support the WA as their constituents strongly supported Brexit in 2016. Prominent among these is Caroline Flint. Many of those seats have now flipped to remain, which may limit the number of Labour rebels.

The SNP(35 seats)

The SNP are particularly annoyed about the deal and will support a People’s Vote. They feel they have not been kept in the loop unlike Gibraltar. They see the excellent deal NI has got and want the same. They rightly think that the choice between the WA and No-Deal is a false one.

The Smaller Parties(12 Lib Dems, 7 SF, 4 Plaid Cymru, 1 Green, 8 Independents)

The Smaller Parties and independents will very likely vote against the WA most (LD, Plaid, Green) in the hope of triggering a People’s vote, but some like Kate Hoey in the hope of a No-Deal Brexit. Sinn Féin are very unlikely to vote at Westminster.


Given the numbers, it is seems well-nigh impossible that the WA can get through parliament. May will try to frame the choice between the WA or No-Deal. As the consequences of No-Deal are horrendous, almost any deal is better than No-Deal. As deals go, the WA is close to the best that could be expected given May’s red lines. Parliament must not fall into that trap but insist on a comparison between No-Deal and the status quo – remaining in the EU. May is already trying to get business on board by appealing to the CBI, presenting this false choice, and is likely to try to appeal to more and more strands of society in future. May will also try to bypass parliament if possible by forcing through the WA without a meaningful vote. One would hope this is unlikely to succeed, but so much that had seemed impossible in early 2016 has already happened.

Predicting the future is well nigh impossible, but its fun to try anyway.

A Tuneable Sankey Diagram and an Optimistic Prediction

A few weeks ago I published a Sankey Diagram. This has now been modified to have tuneable parameters: branching probabilities that can be simply plugged in. It uses the LaTeX/Tikz package and is not stand alone, but I will happily produce different versions on request. The four possible outcomes are the WA, No-Deal a GE and a PV. Clicking on the figure will open up a pdf document with more details as to the branching probabilities.

Fig. 3 shows an optimistic scenario. In order for a People’s Vote to happen the EU would have to extend the March 29th deadline as there would be insufficient time otherwise. This is only likely to happen if the PV were to have a binary question, either the WA or to Remain. If No-Deal were on the ballot paper the consensus is that the EU would never agree to an extension.

The first assumption is that there is a probability of 2/3 that cabinet will hold together long enough for the WA to go before parliament. The Famous Five: Liam Fox, Michael Gove, Chris Grayling, Andrea Leadsom and Penny Mordaunt have agreed to stay in the cabinet for now, ludicrously redrafting the WA and seem blissfully unaware that the chances of the EU agreeing are vanishingly small. Should these resign it is likely the government will fall, but will they?

Of  course even if there is a PV, the result might still be to Leave the EU. Provided it is an honest and fair referendum, I will live with that. Even if the PV goes Remain, there is no going back to 2016. The deep seated problems in the UK which led to the Leave result in 2016 need to  be faced.

Fig.3 Brexit outcomes in an optimistic scenario. Click on figure for more information.



  1. Bill Hughes -

    A very fair analysis. What could upset the WFA apple cart is if the Tory far right do get their “48 letters” to the 1922 cttee – they may just be biding their time to make their move at the most opportunist moment

    1. Adele Jameson -

      Yes, that thought has passed through my mind too…

    2. Sean Danaher -

      Thanks Bill. You may well be right. Another bit of news is is that Ken Clarke seems ready to back the WA. He has always been against referendums.

  2. Geoff -

    Always enjoy your analysis of Brexit Sean, especially the developments in Ireland. Very educational and interesting.

    I’d like to hear your thoughts about the WA being deliberately structured to unite everyone in Parliament against it. If Theresa May is genuine in being a remainer and the EU don’t want us to leave, then it seems not to far fetched to think they would come up with a plan to force Parliament to do its job and stop Brexit. There’s no doubt that very few MP’s want a no deal Brexit so if faced with a situation where the WA fails, as seems likely, and hard Brexit is all that’s left they will stop it for the sake of the country. Just maybe, and I struggle to type these words, PM May has done the only thing possible under impossible circumstances.

    1. Samuel Johnson -

      The only thing possible under the circumstances? Circumstances entirely of her own making! She CHOSE the red lines that put her and the country in its current predicament.

      1. Geoff -

        She did, I agree. But that is in the past and reality seems to be setting in as the cliff edge rapidly approaches,a good deal was never going to happen. If you want to appear to be following the referendum result by getting a deal but the ultimate aim is to stop Brexit, as any remainer would want to do, then by uniting absolutely everyone against it might well be the best way to achieve that end. I can’t imagine she came up with the idea but Barniers might well have done.

    2. Sean Danaher -

      Geoff, I’m not convinced. She has made too many errors to be a great strategist. The worst two were triggering A50 before an agreed UK position was in place and calling the GE which made her so reliant on the DUP.

      Her driving passion seems to be to end FoM which I discussed in my previous post. The WA was shaped the way it is because of her own red lines and the EU’s determination to protect Ireland’s interests.

      1. Neil Robertson -

        Whilst I have at times entertained the “grand remain conspiracy theory” I tend to agree with Sean on this.

        My take is that the simplest answer is the right one – May is just not very good at nuance and compromise and is completely out of her depth as PM. She can be seen (from her time at the HO) to have a very negative view of immigration and is stubborn in the extreme. The fates seem to have given us a PM with exactly the wrong set of attributes to successfully this situation.

  3. Samuel Johnson -

    Incredible to read of Dominic Raab writing in the Telegraph about the “threat to the union” posed by the EU offering a way of avoiding a hard border, which the UK is committed to avoiding. Even more so when one reads of NI business community support for the withdrawal agreement terms for NI. And more still in the context set out here and which the Tories remain in complete denial of: demographic change.

    There are times when one knows for sure that one is seeing the end of an old order. Names like Honecker, Jaruzelski, Ceausescu came to mind when I saw the ludicrous panel of rich, elderly, white men in dark suits at their “global Britain” meeting (yet another dark money bunch sharing an address at 55 Tufton Street). A Dickensian tableau even without the mutton chops, though one scrofulous old retainer’s vanity apparently extended to seeking mimic the “Hair by Lego” look, as Marina Hyde called it, popularized by Gerard Batten.

    What a tragedy that the worst and most incompetent govt in living memory is faced with Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition. One doesn’t need to know how the old order will fracture and collapse to know that it’s unsustainable, and nowhere more so than in NI. But when actual cabinet members are ignorant of basic facts about it (Bradley having no idea about nationalists and unionists, Raab never having set foot in the place, May making sure to avoid any interaction with nationalist politicians on her visits to the border area, or avoiding it entirely etc etc) one can only conclude that that the iceberg now fills the field of view so completely that it can no longer be perceived.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      I haven’t read Raab’s effort, but have seen a lot of reaction on Twitter. I used to read the Telegraph quite often. It was always right-wing but not a bad paper otherwise. I used to do the cryptic crossword with my wife over Saturday morning breakfast.

      Recently the Torygraph has totally lost it and I refuse to go anywhere near it. Raab’s piece from the reaction seems a dangerous mix of near total ignorance on Ireland and unmerited superiority. Pure Dunning-Kuger stuff. It is almost worst than that – almost an incitement to violence – pure DUP propaganda.

      The total denial of the demographics in NI is weird also, but I guess it makes the “precious Union” card less useful if they admit NI is no longer likely to exist in a few years time.

      Its been a weird and very depressing week. The ignorance of the Brexit timetable and structure by both DD and Corbyn is frighting.

      Corbyn also seems to be buying into the DUP analysis – bizarre as he should have a good knowledge of NI.

      The anti FoM rhetoric – Queue jumping etc from May is cynical xenophobic dog-whistle stuff and Corbyn spouting nonsense about immigrants depressing wages – when there have been tons of studies showing that there is absolutely no evidence is from the same playbook.

      I like your iceberg analogy. Its a tragedy that the UK has such dire politicians in charge. The best ones like Caroline Lucas and David Lammy are far from the leavers of power. There are stale white men running things on both sides.

      1. Ian Stevenson -

        I agree about the Telegraph. Even an article on the new Dr. Who attracted almost unanimous negative comments -about PC characters and being ‘too preachy.’

  4. Andrew (Andy) Crow -

    “….if May is still at the helm then a Turkey like solution may well be the destination, ….”

    Three and a half hours at gas mark 7 ??? Go for it !

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