May's Brexit chaos: EU can't always get what EU want

In light of the past week;'s events, our writers attempt to make sense of the Brexit situation, and assess what can be done

Edward Ingram
17th January 2019
Image: Flickr

A friend once remarked to me that if UK politics were a sitcom, it had gotten to the point where the writers had started running out of ideas and were trying to see what nonsense they could get away with.

That was two years ago.

The state of British politics is... unusual, to say the least. Theresa May's deal was utterly pulverised in Commons earlier - it was the biggest defeat in the House of Commons in the history of British politics. Only 202 MPs voted for it, and 432 voted against it: 38% of Conservatives, 99% of Labour, all the minority parties (except Sinn Féin) and even a handful of independents said no.

[pullquote]People are calling for a better deal, but we won't get one because the EU has all the good cards[/pullquote]

The deal is bad. It's catastrophically bad. It's basically going up to the EU and saying: "look, we don't actually want to Brexit, so why don't we hand over a whole bunch of assets and rights and you give us like two things and we'll just say we've Brexited, alright?" People are calling for a better deal, but we won't get one because the EU has all the good cards. They have four Aces and a King, we have two 3s and a business card from a fisherman in Leeds. ("But Leeds isn't even a coastal city-" EXACTLY.) A hard Brexit will likely also fail, as there are too many Remainers and soft Brexiteers in the Commons - unless it happens because the EU force us to stop faffing about.

So what happens next? I don't know. Nobody knows. May is still PM, having survived a no confidence vote in Commons (but only because her coalition holds a majority and doesn't want to lose power). She might try to get another deal from the EU, but they're not going to be interested - they like the deal they have, and will likely stonewall her out of any concessions in the hopes of preventing any Brexit at all.

[pullquote]The best we can hope for is that Labour ditch Corbyn once and for all and get someone that can actually get things done[/pullquote]

This is the point where the author of the article would point towards the leader of the opposition as a way out but that's not even possible as Corbyn is known to be quietly pro-Brexit. It's all nonsense, all the time, and there's no clear end to it in sight. The best we can hope for is that Labour ditch Corbyn once and for all and get someone that can actually get things done, someone that didn't take the Biblical passage about the "meek inheriting the earth" as literally, someone that isn't afraid to face down May and declare what a lot of us are thinking: that Brexit is a whole load of bollocks.

Oh, and one final thing: in the referendum, 52% of voters were pro-Brexit, but that was just 37.4% of registered voters, and only 26.5% of the UK population. Hardly the majority Leave makes it out to be.

Jack Coles

What a time to be alive. At least for the political enthusiasts amongst us. To everyone else, the past few weeks must have looked confusing, chaotic and overwhelming. But make no mistake, it is in no way an over exaggeration to describe the current situation in Westminster as a full-blown political crisis.

The Prime Minister’s deal has been destined to be voted down in the Commons ever since she first brought it back from Brussels. The contentious issue of the backstop managed to alienate both Leavers and Remainers, and united them against the government. The vote was subsequently pulled in December, when it looked certain the government would be defeated, in the hopes the PM could go back to Brussels and secure some changes to the deal. The EU however has been crystal clear that this is the final deal and that there will be no re-opening of the negotiations.

It was therefore a surprise to no one on Tuesday when the deal was voted down. What was perhaps shocking was the scale. The Government lost by 230 votes (202 for, 432 against), the largest defeat of a Prime Minister in British political history. What is so concerning about this is that it indicates in the clearest of terms that, whilst Parliament may be united in its opposition of the deal, there is absolutely no clear consensus of what form Brexit should take, and what should happen next. Consider the reasons that the deal was voted down. Tory Remainers, Lib-Dems and the SNP voted it down in the hopes of securing a second referendum. The DUP opposed the deal on the grounds that it treated Northern Ireland differently to the rest of the UK. Hard Brexiteers, meanwhile, voted against the deal in an attempt to increase the likelihood of a no deal Brexit. It therefore seems virtually impossible to secure an extra 118 votes (320 votes are needed for the deal to pass), without alienating one or more of these three factions. And that doesn’t consider the pragmatists who held their nose and voted for the deal the first time around.

[pullquote]If Parliament doesn't coalesce we will, as it stands , crash out of the EU without a deal and endure all the chaos that comes with it[/pullquote]

As of writing, the Lib Dems, SNP and Plaid Cymru have stated that they would only back the deal on the condition that it was put to a second referendum, something that the PM has explicitly ruled out. Meanwhile cross-party pragmatists have suggested the Government pivot to a Norway-style Brexit where we would remain in the Customs Union and in the Single Market. Again the PM has ruled this out also as she claims it would betray the result of the referendum, never mind the fact that it could irreparably split the Conservative party. Failing to reach a consensus isn’t unheard of in politics and in ordinary circumstances this wouldn’t be anything to write home about. However, these are not normal circumstances. As it stands it is written in UK law that the United Kingdom will leave the European Union on 29th March, regardless of whether or not a deal is agreed upon. That therefore means that No Deal is the default, not a choice which has to be voted on. Although there is a clear majority against No Deal in Parliament, as it stands there is nothing they can do to prevent it. If Parliament doesn’t coalesce we will, as it stands, crash out of the EU without a deal and endure all the chaos that comes with it.

It is this crucial factor which is driving the strategy behind the various factions in Parliament. Remainers calculate that the PM would never allow a No Deal, and would therefore either support a softer Brexit, or a second referendum to avoid it. Brexiteers on the other hand have reached the opposite conclusion and believe that the PM would be prepared to leave without a deal should Parliament not reach a position which satisfies her red lines, namely the end of free movement and an independent trade policy.

[pullquote]All the while the clock keeps ticking away, bringing March 29th, and no deal, nearer and nearer[/pullquote]

A possible way out for the PM could be through securing Labour votes. Labour MPs now feel free to pursue their own Brexit strategy, following the unbelievable absence of any coherent Brexit policy from the Labour front bench. Yet, just like the Tories, the party is split on Brexit. Around 80-90 Labour MPs back a second referendum, whilst the rest are split into supporters of a hard and soft Brexit. This makes the task of securing enough votes from the opposition seem practically herculean. Labour votes could be secured with the help of the Leadership, however it has become abundantly clear that Corbyn’s priority is not to avoid No Deal, but to secure another general election, so expect no help from him anytime soon.

So what next? Well as it stands all options are still possible, yet all are still pretty unlikely. There still aren’t enough votes in the Commons for a second referendum, nor are there enough for a hard Brexit. A softer Brexit could pass, but that would require a new Prime Minister with new negotiating objectives, and following her victory in the Tory confidence vote in December she is now firmly in power for at least a year. If I had to predict what’s most likely to happen next, which if the last 2 and half years has shown is a stupid exercise. I’d guess that having failed to secure a general election Corbyn will show his true colours as a Brexiteer and support the deal, not a second referendum. Perhaps after some concessions from the PM, such as on worker’s rights or on a customs arrangement.

However, until then anything can happen, and all the while the clock keeps ticking away, bringing March 29th, and no deal, nearer and nearer.

Edward Ingram

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