Dogged by Brexit

January 23, 2019


OBLIGED by parliament to fetch up with a plan B after her deal with the European Union (EU) was voted down last week by a majority of 230, the largest defeat for a sitting government in the House of Commons, Theresa May did just that on Monday.

Her plan B barely differed from her roundly rejected plan A, though. The solitary concession was that EU citizens applying for settlement in Britain would not be charged £65 for their effort. The opposition welcomed the token measure, but accurately noted that the Brexit crisis remains unresolved.

There are less than 10 weeks to go before the March 29 deadline, and the prospect of crashing out without a ratified deal remains the likeliest outcome. Some members of parliament, mostly on the Conservative side, and a sizeable proportion of the public have few qualms about a no-deal Brexit, notwithstanding considerable alarm among bureaucrats and businessmen in particular about the chaos that could immediately ensue. The most worried segments of the public have lately been stockpiling food and medicines, just in case.

May characteristically displayed no emotion in the face of last week’s historic defeat, but right afterwards invited the other parties to talks at No.10 Downing Street. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has faced much criticism for turning down the invitation unless the ruling party rules out the no-deal option, while smaller parties attending the negotiations appear to have made no headway in shifting the perspective of the obdurate prime minister.

Crashing out without a deal remains the likeliest prospect.

It is possible that next week the Commons will vote to block a no-deal scenario, necessitating an extension of the Article 50 deadline unless a coherent deal is ratified by the end of February. May says the EU will reject that option, even though indications from Brussels suggest preparations are already being made for a postponement.

Her claim that a second referendum, another of the mooted options, would be deeply divisive is more credible. But deep divisions are already in place. Opinion polls suggest that a re-vote would reverse the popular verdict, not because all that many Britons have changed their minds but for the simple reason that the electorate now includes many teenagers who were unable to vote in 2016, and the young are broadly inclined towards continued membership of the EU.

Opinion polls can, of course, be way off the mark. It’s nonetheless intriguing, though, that a recent one suggested that were the vote in a general election restricted to 18 to 24-year-olds, not a single seat would go to the Tories. That may be an exaggeration, but it’s an interesting result even with a substantial margin of error.

Corbyn has thus far resisted calls from the party membership as well as a large segment of Labour MPs to unequivocally back a second referendum. He prefers the idea of a general election, despite predictably failing to dislodge May through a parliamentary vote of no confidence, not least because all too many Labour-held constituencies in the north of England voted to leave, and the MPs who represent them would be loath to back a fresh vote.

Meanwhile, the Tories who clearly have no confidence in May voted to keep her prime ministership alive, as did the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party, which cannot bring itself to back her deal because of the so-called Northern Ireland backstop, which effectively keeps the United Kingdom, including Britain, within an EU trade framework. 

The obvious alternative would be a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and the colonised North — which, like Scotland, voted to remain in the EU. There have even been suggestions that both Scotland and Northern Ireland could continue to be members of the EU even as England and Wales opt out. But that’s far-fetched in the absence of Scottish independence and Nor­­­­­­­­thern Ireland’s long overdue reunification with the Republic, neither of which is a short-term prospect.

Another option that has lately been aired, most recently by former prime minister Gordon Brown, is people’s assemblies whereby representatives of both camps would gather together to thrash out a way forward, as people in Ireland successfully did over the fraught issue of abortion. But, like May’s consultations with other parties, which should have been initiated in 2016, the idea comes a bit late.

The Brexit disarray increasingly tends to be described as Britain’s worst crisis since the Second World War. There is, of course, no risk of German bombers suddenly appearing in the skies over London. It’s worth recalling, though, that when the conflagration broke out, Britain opted for a government of national unity. And when it ended, the electorate overwhelmingly rejected Winston Churchill in favour of his less flamboyant Labour deputy, Clement Atlee, whose government instituted the welfare state that survived pretty much intact until the Thatcher-Blair years. In that respect, an action replay holds out considerable promise.

Published in Dawn, January 23rd, 2019