Brexit is due to happen on March 29, and the UK is sprinting to that finish line with absolutely no idea of what will happen.
On Wednesday night, lawmakers in the House of Commons made it clear that leaving the EU without a deal is not something they wish for the government to adopt as official policy.
In a painfully worded motion, Theresa May did her best to placate all sides of the Brexit divide both in her own party, the House of Commons and in Europe. But as so often happens with this Prime Minister on the matter of this national emergency, she has engineered a situation tailor-made to rub pretty much everyone up the wrong way.
The motion was deliberately vague, essentially saying that the government does not wish to actively pursue no-deal Brexit as official policy, yet acknowledged that no deal is the default option, should nothing be agreed before March 29.
The point of her word fog was to give the huge number of pro-Europe lawmakers who want her to take no deal off the table the chance to make it clear in an amendable government motion, while not winding up the hardline Brexiteers who she will need at a later date.
It didn’t work. MPs tabled amendments that sought to make the motion clearer. Two were selected: one which ruled out no deal under any circumstances; one which delayed Brexit and set out a path to preparation for no deal.
The motion passed after the Commons accepted the first amendment, ruling out no deal in any circumstances.
But no one should be happy with the outcome of Wednesday’s vote: Remainers, Brexiteers, the government, the EU, or citizens of the UK.
Let’s start with the government and May. The only reason this vote had to take place is because her Brexit deal was crushed for a second time on Tuesday night. Having her deal approved is still her absolute plan A. Anything else is a failure to implement the only real bit of policy that anyone will remember her for. And with little over two weeks left until Brexit day, she is still miles away from seeing her dreams become reality.
Next, Remainers who want a second referendum. Sure, they may have succeeded in making clear that a majority of parliament doesn’t want a no-deal Brexit. But it doesn’t change the fact that it’s the default option in two weeks’ time. The only way that the UK can ensure no deal doesn’t happen is by revoking Article 50. And while the European Court of Justice has said this is legally possible, that ruling came with caveats that make doing so virtually impossible before March 29.
Pro-Europeans who want a softer Brexit are similarly nowhere closer to seeing their dreams realized. Though they might believe that extending Article 50 would allow the UK to come up with some other kind of softer deal with the EU, there is currently little solid evidence that the Commons could support this. And without this, the EU is unlikely to waste any more political capital on failure.
Then there’s the harder-line Brexiteers. Some of this group want to strike another, looser deal with the EU; others are quite happy to see no deal happen. The first group face the same problem as the softer-Brexit gang. It’s a slightly different story for the no-dealers.
While no deal is still the default and officially on the table, this group has had it made clear to them, not for the first time, that their clean Brexit is not favored by the Commons. If they want to agitate for no deal, blame for anything goes wrong as a result will be placed neatly at their door.
Worse for the no-dealers, Wednesday’s vote means that Thursday’s will see the Commons have the chance to request delaying Brexit. While the specifics of what might actually happen in this eventuality are not obvious at the moment, delaying Brexit is seen by many as the first step to stopping Brexit.
Finally, the EU. The EU has bigger problems than Brexit at the moment, not least its parliamentary elections later this year. Officials in Brussels wanted Brexit out of the way months ago.
Brexit has been an exhausting slog for everyone who has had to engage with it over the past three years. Perhaps the most frustrating element of this process has been the UK’s dogged determination to have conversations exclusively with itself.
Sixteen days and counting…