Sunday 20 October 2019

Where Next for Brexit?

We have come a long and weary way from the referendum of 2016, when I think both Leave and Remain voters were amazed at the result – Leavers full of unexpected exultation, Remainers full of gloom and doom and ‘how on earth did this happen?’ Unfortunately, three years later we have not actually arrived anywhere (yet). All but the most committed Remainers are, I think, heartily sick of the process and most of all want it to end as quickly as possible, but is this the best scenario for us as a country?

The options I can see are these (and there may be others I haven't thought of):

1. We leave on the 31st October, as Boris and the extreme Brexiteers want us to, whether or not Parliament have agreed to Boris’s new deal, and whether or not (even if they have) the legislation is in place to make a smooth transition from EU membership to fully managing our economic affairs. A bumpy ride, in this Brexiteer book, is better than no ride at all. Most commentators view this as courting disaster of extreme proportions and it is not clear that we would be properly prepared for it, as leaving the EU is a much more complex process than most people realise, even now.

2. We are granted by the EU the short extension for which Parliament has mandated the PM to ask (but which he seems to be trying to find clever but childish ways to avoid asking for). It should be noted that this has to be a unanimous decision: only one EU member has to veto this to have us willy-nilly back in the No. 1 scenario above. This extension would at least give us time to get legislation in place to smooth the way for an orderly Brexit by the end of the year (always assuming Parliament agrees to Boris’s deal tomorrow – which is not by any means a foregone conclusion).

3. The deal agreed by Boris is rejected by Parliament and any extension the EU allows us has to be a longer one, to allow for another referendum (the so-called People’s Vote) or a general election – the result of either of which is extremely uncertain. Pollsters are now saying that voting patterns are extraordinarily volatile and hard to predict. The Lib Dem leadership, for example, report that there are now hundreds of seats across the country that they could win if the Remain swing continues. If Boris does manage to get his Brexit deal through parliament a general election might of course involve a Boris Bounce that would increase the Conservative vote, particularly with respect to those voters who would otherwise have voted for the eponymous Brexit Party. Of course the EU could, as with my point No.2, simply refuse us an extension and we would be stuck with No.1 as before! But most commentators seem to think this unlikely, at least for the immediate future – though I think the European Commission is understandably becoming impatient with us for our continued vacillations.

4. The deal agreed by Boris is rejected by Parliament, and there is then a vote of no confidence leading to EITHER a) a caretaker government which will ask in much more sincere and possibly contrite terms for a suitable extension during which we might have a People’s Vote which includes the current Boris deal as well as the option to Remain; OR b) a general election in which Remain/Leave is the major issue. The Conservatives, Brexit Party, Scottish Nationalists, Greens and Lib Dems are by far the most likely to benefit from this because of their clear stance, while Labour continues to try to ride both the Leave and the Remain horses at the same time. This apparently suicidal Labour endeavour is in fact a natural outcome of their mix of supporters from both camps combined with Jeremy Corbyn’s liking for Brexit with a Customs Union – something which the general public finds difficult to comprehend as it lies somewhere between the clear Out or In options that Leave and Remain offer.

5. Boris’s deal is rejected by Parliament, and the EU refuse to grant us an extension. Parliament’s absolute refusal to allow any kind of No Deal Brexit could then only be implemented by an emergency revoking Article 50. This might have to come with the promise that if a new People’s Vote delivered a reiteration of the Leave majority of 2016 a better deal could then be negotiated for a final departure from the EU in 2022 (since a new invoking of Article 50 would carry a two-year negotiating period as before).

6. A new Parliament to which a general election had returned a Remain majority unequivocally revokes Article 50 without either starting the whole Leave process again or holding a new referendum, or both. The Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson has in fact undertaken to do just that if they were returned to power, which on the face of it seems a far-fetched possibility (but in these wild and unpredictable political days, who knows?). And goodness knows what fences there would be to mend with the EU, anyway, not to mention the fury of frustrated Brexiteers, who undoubtedly feel that the 52% gained in the original referendum (however flawed as a piece of democracy) entitles them to Leave as soon as possible. A general election or a People’s Vote would at least give us a clearer sense of what people actually now want – every politician interviewed in the media thinks they know, but do they actually?

So clearly there is a whole political multiverse out there, in which any of these scenarios could play out. Some seem more likely than others, but as the Brexit entertainment staggers from one unlikely and melodramatic scene to another, nothing can be ruled out. We the public watch open-mouthed and speechless or with head in hands as the outlandish events through which we are living unfold. What most of us want more than anything else is for it to be OVER. For many, even the prospect of a calamitous and financially disastrous No Deal has the secret attraction of certainty, and Boris’s deal, which at least does something to protect the Northern Ireland/Republic of Ireland open border status (even though his erstwhile allies the DUP do not like the solution), even more so. No one among the electorate really understands the detail of the Withdrawal Agreement, which apart from the Irish solution is to all intents and purposes the same as Theresa May’s ill-fated deal. We hope it will be all right, and many of us (even those who voted Remain) are willing to give it a go if it will mean that this protracted, acrimonious divorce will become a decree nisi on which we can base further negotiations, trade deals and the rest. We are tired of being neither Out nor In, tired of being stuck somewhere in No Man’s Land among the mud, the shellholes and the barbed wire.

More than that, we are all conscious that for more than three years we have been split by an issue that divides the nation from top to bottom, through constituencies, communities and even families (my own included). The continued failure to resolve it means that the divisions are as raw and sharp as ever, the two sides as polarised as they were when the referendum was voted on in June 2019, except for a kind of creeping Brexit fatigue that would fudge the issues, neglect the detail, surrender the principles … anything to bring the whole sorry business to an end. For, as one Remain leader recently put it in my hearing, the issue is ‘sucking the oxygen’ out of everything else that matters. The NHS is under severe pressure, austerity has reduced far too many people to dependence on food banks, homelessness and despair, corporate greed and personal debt are as serious now as they were before the financial crisis of the previous decade, and other pressing social and economic issues have been swept so far under the carpet that they are almost forgotten except by those directly affected.

So what should we do? Some take to the streets, but it is hard to see what good that will do in the present juncture, for politicians on all sides feel so strongly (though with little agreement between them) that there is precious little that public pressure can do to affect the outcome – especially as views on the street are just as divided as those in parliament. Until we are given the chance to vote, either in a general election or a new referendum, we ordinary folk can do nothing, and most of us are growing too confused, despondent and weary even to talk or think about it intelligently. We can only hope that tomorrow’s vote will move us on, in one direction or another, nearer to some kind of destination. Standing in a bog, sinking steadily, is a poor way to conduct the business of a nation.