London | Brexit day – March 29 next year – is just 133 sleeps from now. When just over half of Britons voted to leave the European Union in the summer of 2016, they couldn’t have imagined that two and a half years later, with mere months to go, the country and its government would still have no idea what kind of Brexit they are in for.
Brexit is a challenge of seismic, historical significance, an economic and cultural turning point for Britain. Even for a country largely governed by politicians schooled in Oxford University’s last-minute essay-crisis mode of making public policy, how could it come to this?
The problem, in a nutshell, is that parliament has awarded itself the right to a binding vote on any government proposal for Brexit, a vote that Prime Minister Theresa May’s government is constitutionally unable to ignore. But having done so, they’re now finding there is actually no parliamentary majority for any form of Brexit whatsoever.
As things stand, when parliament grapples with this in mid-December, it won’t vote for the deal May brought back from Brussels this week. And it won’t vote for a second referendum to revisit the whole idea of leaving. And there aren’t the numbers to force a new election. But it will vote against lapsing into a no-deal Brexit.
If parliament doesn’t like anything that’s currently on the table, then the message to May and her team has to be: go back to Brussels and find a better deal from the EU.
But parliament also can’t agree on what a better deal might be. Some say it’s a closer integration with the EU single market, some say it’s a looser free-trade agreement. The opposition Labour party won’t really say at all.
And even if parliament could agree, the EU has no incentive to indulge Britain in another fruitless round of negotiation, with the clock ticking towards March 29, given the talks would inevitably reach, and founder upon, the same hugely adhesive sticking points that led negotiators to May’s current deal.
Some people say Britain is like a political circus. But it’s more of a carousel: the same arguments, the same political calculus, going round and round and round.
What’s needed now is a circuit-breaker, to make the carousel stop turning. But nobody knows what it is.
The Brexiteer outriders in the Tories think it’s a change of leader, and are busily penning letters to the chair of the backbench committee, Graham Brady. If he ends up with 48 letters in his drawer, a no-confidence vote of the party’s 315 MPs is triggered automatically.
But although a spill looks increasingly likely, there probably aren’t 158 Tory MPs with the appetite for a Conservative Party leadership election, which involves a grassroots ballot lasting at least six weeks.
To avoid that, there would have to be a single, unity candidate, with May not recontesting. But there’s no obvious messiah who can unite the party and strike a deal. And the public won’t wear a self-indulgent leadership campaign, stretching past Christmas, when time is of the essence and the nation’s economic wellbeing is at stake.
Labour, meanwhile, thinks an election will break the impasse. But dissolving parliament needs a two-thirds majority vote on the floor of parliament, and even the most rebellious of Tories isn’t going to put his or her name to that. And even if there was one, on current polling it might not change the parliamentary arithmetic.
May’s own route off the carousel is probably to strike dread into MPs. She will tell them the only likely alternative to her deal is crashing out in an ill-prepared and potentially hugely disruptive fashion – for which all politicians would wear the blame.
And she will say that if the Conservatives muck this up, they risk ushering in a Labour government led by unreconstructed socialist Jeremy Corbyn, adding a new layer of disastrous economic icing to the already unpalatable Brexit cake.
Her ally is the markets: if they take proper fright, politicians might follow. But they’re not ready to do so yet. The stakes have to get higher, which is why May is warning of “difficult days ahead”.
Although a left-field outcome could emerge from the fluid and unpredictable parliamentary arithmetic, the choice is probably whittling down to May’s way or the no-deal highway.
Her deal is designed essentially to overcome one single problem: Northern Ireland. It has a 500km border with the Republic of Ireland, containing several hundred border crossings.
The two economies are seamlessly integrated, and nobody wants to change that. Particularly because putting up a border – customs checks, regulatory inspections – would risk rekindling the vicious sectarian conflict that was brought to an end by the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.
But Northern Ireland also needs to be seamlessly integrated with the rest of Britain, or there’s a risk that the ties that bind “the Union” may begin to fray. Although most English people have little love for, or interest in, Northern Ireland, the political class can’t abide the thought of Britain breaking up.
The trouble is, if Britain is to leave the EU and go its own way on customs, regulations and visas, then Northern Ireland can no longer be seamlessly integrated with both Britain and Ireland. But the politics of the province mean it’s too difficult to choose one over the other.
So London and Brussels have agreed that when they negotiate a free-trade agreement over the next two years, they’ll find some ingenious way of keeping Northern Ireland open to both sides.
They just don’t know what that solution is yet. So Brussels demanded that if the solution turns out to be illusory, the “backstop”, or default, would be Northern Ireland aligning with the EU. This is anathema to May, and to the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) whose 10 votes in the House of Commons give her a majority.
May’s counter-offer was to keep Britain aligned with the EU, in a temporary customs union, until the solution was found. This would ensure Northern Ireland was aligned with both.
The EU accepted this – for them, a big concession – but began to worry again about what would happen if the solution wasn’t found. What if Britain then just pulled out of the customs union? Brussels demanded a mechanism to ensure Britain couldn’t do this, or else a reinstatement of the earlier “backstop”.
But Brexiteers saw this demand as a perfidious attempt to lock Britain into the customs union – accepting EU rules, regulations and tariffs – indefinitely. With no say on what those rules are.
In the final deal, May has basically ignored this concern, pledging that the customs union would definitely be temporary but not offering a mechanism to guarantee this.
And that’s basically why her Brexit secretary Dominic Raab quit on Thursday, and why May’s own backbenchers revile her deal. They can’t abide the idea that Britain is hemmed in by the customs union until the Northern Ireland question is resolved.
Their own solution – a no-deal Brexit, and a free-trade agreement from scratch rather than from inside a customs union – would probably lead to a “hard border” between Ireland and Northern Ireland, although this is never acknowledged. Which is why May doesn’t support it.
And so the carousel goes round and round and round.
The no-deal nightmare
The public is said to want the government to “just get on with it”. Easier said than done. Trenches have been dug in parliament, and everyone is sticking to their guns and trying to spike those of their opponents. The complexity of the divorce defies the simple slogans of the Brexiteers.
But if the only route out of the impasse is a no-deal Brexit, with its food and medicine shortages and lorry pile-ups at the ports, the public isn’t going to like that much.
No-deal Brexit might turn out to be much less scary than the doomsayers let on. There will be six months of disruption to trade, for sure, and consumers will feel it. But it might take bark off the economy rather than coppice the whole tree. Still, given the poor state of no-deal preparation, you wouldn’t want to bet your house on that.
May will use the fear factor to push ahead with her deal. She’s a poor communicator and saleswoman, but she is dogged and resilient, and many Britons are developing a sneaking sympathy for her.
If she can keep a core of her cabinet with her and sufficiently spook parliament and the public, she might somehow find a way through. But if her ministers keep jumping ship and her authority leaks away, Britain sails further into uncharted territory and a likely cliff-edge Brexit.
May shouldn’t be underestimated, but the profound dysfunction of Brexit politics can’t be overstated. When unstoppable force hits immoveable object, nobody can say who will crumble.