Deal or no deal… or no Brexit?
As the deadline for the UK to leave the EU approaches, here’s why I don’t think Brexit is actually going to happen
Almost three years on from the EU referendum, the UK is due to leave the European Union on 29 March 2019. In that time, there’s been much bombast from Brexiters, puffed up with the zeal from their hollow victory, who have claimed that a Brexit deal will see the UK ‘taking control of its destiny’ with a better deal than the status quo.
They’ve claimed new trade deals would be forthcoming as states and trading blocs would be desperate to secure trade with the UK. Utterances from Brexiter politicians and commentators have been embarrassingly akin to the sentiments offered by Donald Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’. According to Brexiters, life after the EU could be nothing but better. They couldn’t tell us how exactly, or what that would look like, but we’d be free of those Brussels bureaucrats. Just forget about the economic benefits, cultural and historic ties to Europe, freedom of movement, free movement of labour and EU laws that protect human rights, employment rights and quality of life, eh?
However, with less than six months to go, the UK is undoubtedly at an impasse. Theresa May has not only been unable to present a plan for Brexit that the EU is amenable to, but many within her own party have said they would vote against it. Quite the dilly of a pickle and time is ticking away to finalise a mutually agreeable deal. Meanwhile, in her supreme ignorance, May has said that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’, as she seemingly prepares to deliver Brexit by any means necessary.
Since the referendum, I’ve maintained that I didn’t think Brexit was going to happen. It’s unprecedented and has always seemed too gargantuan a task for a lacklustre government, with zero depth in talent, to achieve it. Yet any reservation I’ve had has always stemmed from May’s pursuit of a Pyrrhic victory of Brexit if you will. But as we near the day of scheduled departure from the EU, that reservation is increasingly eroded and my forecast of Brexit not actually happening seems increasingly likely.
It’s now apparent that Theresa May is a player in a tale that sees her politically finished by the end of the act that is Brexit. Whether we find ourselves with a deal, no deal or no Brexit, her premiership is, and in retrospect always was, a poisoned chalice. Indeed, part of the reason she’s survived so long is that she is the sacrificial lamb to cross the Rubicon that is Brexit. Oddly, when she leaves Number 10, I still expect us to be in the EU with Brexit not having been realised.
Achieving a Brexit deal was never going to be easy. The referendum result effectively put two fingers up at the EU and the other 27 member states. Why would they want to make negotiations, and an eventual deal, plain sailing? On the contrary, they’ve understandably sought to deter Brexit or foist a deal upon the UK that will highlight just how good we had it while we were in the EU. And who can blame them? We were never going to be allowed to leave, undermining the EU, while walking away with a better situation than the status quo.
The misplaced hubris of the UK government has led to a perspective that suggests we hold the cards in the negotiations. It’s a perspective that couldn’t be further from the truth but one that’s lost on many a Brexiter.
At no point throughout negotiations has it become apparent that the UK has the upper hand or will be able to force the EU’s hand with the prospect of withdrawing anything that the EU considers a dealbreaker worthy of relenting from their own seemingly rigid stance. Meanwhile, Brexit remains so divisive that the government has been unable to achieve any consensus whatsoever. In fact, the Chequers plan, the cabinet’s proposal for Brexit, has more detractors than it has supporters.
Brexiters say it doesn’t go far enough, with Tory rebels condemning it as worse than the status quo and openly saying they will vote against it. Remainers, even those who reluctantly accept the road to Brexit as a necessary route given the result of the referendum, essentially echo those sentiments. Only it’s from the perspective they’ve always held of ‘why would we leave the EU to be worse off in the first instance?’ And the EU, looking to mug off the UK government, aren’t having a bar of it either. The President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, even posted a zinger on Instagram at Theresa May’s expense; letting her know that if Brexit means Brexit, it can’t possibly mean the UK replicating the favourable features that come with EU membership.
This isn’t a great look for May. In response, she’s attempted a tough talking rhetoric, telling the EU to respect the UK (while the EU laugh in our faces). It’s akin to the scene in Training Day when Alonzo realises he carries zero clout in the neighbourhood. Nevertheless, he continues to portray himself as Billy Big Balls as the crowd walks away ignoring him. And having downplayed the consequence of a no-deal scenario being a catastrophe, she’s effectively conceded that no-deal is increasingly likely.
A no deal scenario is uncharted waters so we don’t really know how it would pan out. Although I’m willing to say it’s more likely to be mayhem than anything else.
If we’re left with a no-deal scenario, that doesn’t mean the status quo. We would have lost the right to that with a departure from the EU. Instead, any framework and agreements that we currently benefit from via membership of the EU would disappear. Imagine the chaos that would ensue with trade and freedom of movement. What would happen with the Irish border question? Indeed, there would probably be more questions than we can even fathom at present. And who’s going to lead us out of that grand mess? A Tory government that is on the brink of a split and a vote of no confidence against their leader and Prime Minister? A government who based on Brexit negotiations thus far, couldn’t organise a semi-decent drink up in a brewery?
So with no-deal, we can expect economic and political chaos at a minimum and a general election would likely follow. Though before that, Parliament would need to vote on whatever deal, or no-deal, is put forward. Given that will be met with Parliament likely voting against it, a snap election could therefore be even sooner.
Theresa May’s government is propped up by Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MPs. Because when your back’s against the wall and you need to form a government, you align yourself with anti-abortion, openly homophobic, climate change deniers who are backed by terrorists in the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), right? Sadly for May, they’ve backed the plan of Tory rebels who’ve outlined a response to the Irish border question that they find more favourable. Womp womp.
So Theresa May can’t win and she’ll be the source of Conservative infighting, the party which she is already en route to becoming a political pariah within. It’s here that I think a snap election could happen and regardless of the result, I think it could lead us to the third option of no Brexit.
Politicians at the highest level are acutely aware of legacy. Indeed, most premiers are students of history and know that their names will eventually be written into the same books as those that went before them. They too will come to be revered or despised by subsequent generations. Brexiter or remainer, no politician wants to be associated with national chaos unless they’re that much of a headline chaser, blinkeredly ideologically driven or just stupid. Did someone call for Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg?
Parliament isn’t likely to be able to come to an agreement on a deal and that’s where calls for turning it to another referendum, or a people’s vote, may seem a more attractive option that ever. Jeremy Corbyn has already said that he would back the wishes of Labour Party members for a second referendum.
I would be in denial to suggest that despite the Brexit negotiations going so badly, that there still aren’t swathes of the country and the electorate that want Brexit. They don’t care that the Brexit campaign was full of lies, or that we’ll be worse off out of the EU. The Daily Mail and Nigel Farage have got them so riled up that they want Brexit by any means necessary. The economic outlook under Brexit is gloomy? Who cares? They just want their blue passports back. Though many moderate Brexiters have come to realise that ignorance caused them to vote for something they didn’t understand and now regret to have voted for. Another referendum might reflect different views than those in June 2016.
The result of a referendum suggesting that we remain in the EU would be far from a foregone conclusion and I expect it would be amongst the highest turnout we have ever seen in a UK election. It would also provide an opportunity for common sense to prevail and many would be keen to take that opportunity. That doesn’t mean we’d remain in the EU. It could simply mean a different version of Brexit or Brexit in name only.
I’ve always been in favour of a second referendum on the actual deal as no one knew what Brexit might look like. And it turns out it doesn’t look very good at all.
If we do end up with a second referendum, it won’t solve all the divisions that the first referendum uncovered. It may even deepen them, regardless of the result. If we have a new government, they’ll need understand what motivated Brexiters to vote that way and work hard to address their concerns. Otherwise the legacy of Brexit could remain over our heads irrespective of if we’re in or out of the EU. And it’s likely it will do for some time.