Making political predictions in the current environment seems foolhardy, not least because much could change come the party conference season in the early autumn: Theresa May could be replaced, and Labour could be forced to back Remain. I wouldn’t bet on either but in any case here I’m going to try to unpick reality from the tangled mass of current speculation.
The big deal
The government’s current position is absurd, even as a negotiating ploy. The so-called Chequers plan pleases no one, is practically unworkable, and has already been comprehensively rejected by the EU.
It might be that as reality continues to bite the government will compromise more, so catastrophic are the consequences of “no deal”. This compromise is likely to give us some form of customs union membership, or single market membership, or both (the so-called Norway+ option). The latter would probably meet Labour’s “six tests”, in that it would ensure minimum economic damage and an open border with Ireland, and although the hardcore Brexiteers would scream betrayal, it could plausibly command a parliamentary majority.
Or everyone might agree that we need more time to negotiate towards something like this kind of deal. It seems to me this is a likely interim outcome, and could be forced by whatever parliamentary vote is taken to approve the UK’s next step (Tory Remainers have already, sensibly declared they will block “no deal”, and they have the numbers with Labour support to do so).
The trouble with such a pragmatic deal is that there’s an inverse relationship between the amount of economic respite and the point of doing it at all. If we ended up with “Norway+”, that is, membership of the single market and the customs union, we’d have the least possible economic and cultural disruption. But then you’d have to ask what was the point of the exercise; we’d be as tied to the EU as before but with much diminished influence over the rules we had to follow.
Taking back control
Here’s a general truth, ignored like every other truth by the lunatic Brexiteers; if we left the EU fully we might regain complete control over immigration policy (actually we already have substantial control – EU law allows for the repatriation of anyone who fails to find the means to support themselves after three months). We’d no longer be directly answerable to the European Court of Justice. We’d be theoretically free to negotiate trade deals with other “third” countries.
But in practice we could not ignore the norms and the compliance demands of the political bloc that by geographic proximity alone would remain our most important trading partner. We’d just have less influence over those norms and rules than we do right now.
This is what it is to exist in a globalised economy. Brexiteers do not appear to understand this simple, fundamental truth. Ironically if we’re concerned to have control over our destiny as a nation, the best way to secure that control is to remain a part of the EU, because we’ll have far more influence as a major voting member than we will as a third country.
No deal? I don’t think so
The Brexiteers are apparently pushing for a no deal outcome, and it seems will vote against anything less. but this view is unlikely to command a majority or anything like it. They know this and seem to be hoping that the parliamentary stalemate will simply take us to March 29th and the EU will wave goodbye to us.
This also seems extremely unlikely. Apart from anything else it would create a hard border in Ireland (an issue to which many of the English still seem incapable of giving proper weight). It seems more likely that with the Irish border question in balance EU negotiators would be sympathetic to some extension of the deadline, albeit on the condition that the British got real about what would and would not be possible. And the UK parliament would force Theresa May to accept this.
All the blood and thunder we’re hearing about “no deal” at the moment is almost certainly irrelevant. It’s not going to happen.
The return of responsibility?
In truth the most sensible thing parliament could do as the deadline nears with no sign of an acceptable compromise (“acceptable” in this instance is defined by the bear fighting of the Tory party) is step back and agree that the whole exercise has been based on false promises and impossible aspirations; that as MPs the best exercise of their responsibility to defend the interests of their constituents would be to ditch the whole thing and withdraw the Article 50 application to leave: every other option will substantially damage the UK, for no good reason whatsoever.
Legally parliament has every right to do this (the referendum was advisory, even if our genius MPs didn’t seem to understand the significance of this at the time).
It seems an unlikely outcome, but it’s good to dream. It’s good to dream that as the lunacy of Brexit gets rejected the UK resumes its place in the EU, lobbying not over rebates or opt outs but leading the argument for a comprehensive reorientation of the common agricultural policy to support sustainable farming, and a conscious shift from the discredited pursuit of neoliberal economics, confronting the corruption of nationalistic populism head on.
These dreams are not fantastical in themselves; in fact they’d bring a new realism to the direction of Europe, and the time is right to make this shift. It would take some visionary leadership; remember what that was like?
Here we go again?
Sadly good sense has little place in the current UK debate, as MPs bluster incoherently about respect for “the will of the people”. So remaining by default is also unlikely to happen.
Given the stalemate in parliament a second referendum might offer a way forward, bypassing the in-fighting of both major English political parties.
I have some reservations. If like me you think the 2016 referendum should never have been called then having another only seems to compound the error. The question it could ask remains unclear. Most discussion suggests it could be a three-way choice between leaving without a deal, supporting Theresa May’s deal, or remaining.
But the Chequers Deal won’t be on the table, and an alternative is going to take time to develop. Whatever the question the result would not necessarily deliver resolution.
Still pragmatically, if it can be set in motion, it may be the most feasible route forward, as long as the powers that be can come up with a sensible question.
There are those who say a second referendum would be undemocratic. This is a strange argument, since if a second referendum does happen it would be asking a different question from the first. The idea that it would be asking people to change their minds in favour of the “correct” answer is simply false (not that the Brexit camp is any stranger to falsehood). In any case how can something that looks like more democracy be “undemocratic”?
The return of hope?
I’ve been arguing since the referendum that Brexit would founder on the rocks of reality. I still think that. It’s just not clear quite which rocks are going to penetrate the hull of the good ship Delusion, or to return to my title, will derail the train irreversibly.
Whatever the passage of events in the next six months it seems likely that the country will continue to be an unhappy and divided place. It would take real political leadership to heal these wounds, and there’s little sign of that either. Still we must live in hope, and push at every turn for the return of common sense in place of common nonsense.