Brexit might actually get interesting. After two years of screaming into the wind, the UK’s elected lawmakers finally get to do something useful.
On Tuesday, they get to have their say on Prime Minister Theresa May’s deal with the European Union, as the long-awaited “meaningful vote” hits Parliament.
Brexit is a uniquely peculiar bit of politics that has made the UK a uniquely peculiar place.
It’s no secret that the country is bitterly divided over more than whether it should be in or out of the EU. For an issue that was once binary (Leave; Remain), there are now innumerable desired outcomes, none of which, we’re told, command that all-important parliamentary majority.
The simplest outcome would be for May to win on Tuesday. That would mean the UK officially leaving the EU on March 29, before starting work on what comes next. But that “if” is so gargantuan it warrants its own moon. Even members of May’s inner circle privately admit that they expect her to lose.
If that happens, it becomes a numbers game. A modest loss could give May the confidence to try again. A heavy defeat, however, could kill both her deal and her leadership. And that’s where those innumerable desired outcomes come back into play.
Possible scenarios include: an attempted (probably doomed) renegotiation with the EU; extending the article 50 process (the mechanism by which a member state leaves the EU); a collapse of government and general election; a change of prime minister; a second EU referendum; a scrapping of Brexit altogether; and crashing out with a no-deal.
It’s these other outcomes – and their proponents – that are worth placing under a microscope.
The various tribes have consistently hidden behind principles to avoid endorsing an option that is *actually* on the table – or building a consensus behind their preference. Worse, they have decided to ignore the real-world problems that accompany their solutions.
Call it lying, call it willful misunderstanding, whatever: in the two-and-a-halfish years since 51.9% voted Leave, few in the UK’s political class have distinguished themselves.
Let’s start with the most common breed: those who think May (or someone else) should try to get a better deal.
We know that the Withdrawal Agreement – the divorce and transition to full independence – is locked. A European diplomatic source told me recently that this isn’t a hardball negotiating position from the EU. It has taken 28 countries the best part of two years to reach this agreement. The idea something much better can be rushed through before the Brexit deadline is somewhat optimistic.
And what that “better deal” might be is contentious, too. Some MPs want to emulate a softer Norway-style arrangement, granting the UK access to the single market; others want a looser trade agreement, not dissimilar to the one Canada enjoys with the EU. But both options are deemed unacceptable to the opposing camp and, crucially, neither addresses the Northern Ireland question.
Next, the extenders. The opposition Labour Party’s Brexit spokesperson, Keir Starmer, said that he thinks extending article 50 is now “inevitable.” Classic rival move. Decoded: you’ve done such a bad job that Brexit is now impossible.
The logic here is that by extending, there is wiggle room to improve the deal. Well, we already know that according to the EU, this isn’t currently an option. Besides, to extend article 50 would require going cap-in-hand to the other 27 member states, any of whom could veto. Risky doesn’t come close. And who does Starmer think is going to lead these negotiations?
Ah yes, the government-collapsing-and-general-election strategy. While it’s possible that May’s government could fall, a snap election could be held and a new government – led either by Labour or a new Conservative PM – could be formed, it might be too little too late.
The man best placed to force a vote of confidence in the government is Starmer’s boss, Jeremy Corbyn. So far, he has declined to call such a vote, and it’s now perilously close to the Brexit deadline.
And even in this election scenario, it’s not clear Theresa May or her replacement would request extending article 50. So again: risky business for a nation running out of road and ideas.
A growing number of voices now support a second referendum. The problems with this are countless, but foremost is that it might be the biggest political risk of all.
Back-of-a-beer-mat wargaming suggests that since Brexit has evolved, there would now need to be more than the two options that were on the original ballot.
For any result to be considered valid, it would almost certainly have to pull more votes than the 17.4 million that voted to leave in 2016. A multiple-choice ballot would not produce such a result. And if you thought the campaign in 2016 was ugly, try this one for size: political elites are trying to steal your Brexit from you.
Finally, we have the two most extreme ends of this whole mucky business: the stop Brexit gang and the no-dealers.
Starting with the stop Brexiters, they have been largely ignored because their argument seemed absurd in the face of reality. The UK said leave; Parliament voted to trigger article 50. Done.
Then, the European Court of Justice ruled that the UK could unilaterally revoke article 50. The scrappers were cock-a-hoop, but chose to conveniently ignore a vital caveat: if the UK were to do so, then it must also commit to remaining a member state.
And as for the no-dealers, well, where to start? “No deal? Big deal!”
In their eyes, shifting to World Trade Organization terms with the UK’s largest trading partner would be fine; it can simply strike trade deals around the world which would more than make up for its losses.
Many words have already been dedicated to why this is both economically illiterate and downright dangerous (the UK’s Health Secretary believes that a no-deal would in fact put the lives of the sick at risk for a myriad of reasons). So while trade deals might make up a shortfall and planes might not fall out of the sky, hell might freeze over and pigs might fly. Most people wouldn’t bet their life savings on it.
But – and this is crucial – a no-deal is now the default option. The final piece of selective honesty to address is the all-too-familiar trope that there simply isn’t a majority in Parliament for a no-deal.
There is. It was recorded on February 1, 2017, when Parliament voted by 498 to 114 to trigger article 50. Without a deal, that means no-deal.
Post-truth politics is alive and well in the UK.
But here’s the thing: in reality, all May’s deal does is get the UK into a holding pattern while everyone takes a breath and works out what comes next. Those wanting to give her a bloody nose and hide behind their principles choose to ignore the fact that once the UK is in transition, many of their preferred outcomes are back on the table.
And, by the way, May herself is not exempt from this. From the day she took over as PM, she has been peddling all sorts of nonsense (remember “no deal is better than a bad deal”?).
Only this week, she was claiming that Parliament would be allowed to vote on a crucial element of the withdrawal agreement coming into force: the backstop on Northern Ireland. But the backstop is part of an international treaty, not a bill that the UK’s Parliament has the authority to change.
The time has come for Britain’s elected representatives to make a choice on the single most important issue that the nation has faced since the end of World War II.
Begrudge May’s deal as they might, it’s at least an option on the table that she and her government have battled hard to put before the oldest surviving Parliament. If the majority of that house chooses – and it is a choice – to hide behind principle and ignore the truth, then history may judge them cruelly. And, truthfully, it would be no less than they deserve.