Where next for Brexit?

Theresa May asked EU leaders for an extension to the exit day of 29th March and was offered a fairly derisory choice: get your deal through Parliament and you have until 22nd May, otherwise you have until 12th April. All that faff and we’ve gained a couple of weeks, with the following suggestions for ways forward.

No deal

The default position if the clock runs out is that the UK will crash out without a deal. Some Brexiteers and ‘Leave means Leave’ supporters think this would be a good idea, but in reality it would be catastrophic for every part of life, including the economy, jobs, food and medicine. The damage would spread to the EU, and would particularly hit countries which rely on trade with the UK, such as the Republic of Ireland.

If you’d asked me two years ago when the Article 50 notification was made, I would have laughed at the idea that we would get to this position. Whilst some uninformed backbenchers might think no deal is a good idea, surely no Prime Minister would allow us to crash out, especially as they will have been fully briefed about the dire consequences and will be aware of the contingency plans for dealing with medicine shortages and civil disorder. Given May’s utter contempt for Parliament and the people, I now think no deal is not only a possibility, but also the most likely option, and have been stockpiling food and medicine (where possible) for such an eventuality.

May’s deal

MPs have already rejected May’s deal twice, and by triple-digit majorities. The Speaker has also ruled that the government cannot bring back the same, or substantially the same, motion. It might be possible to get round that restriction by arguing that the extension granted by the EU is a change of circumstances, but that seems like a weak argument.

Even if the deal does come back for another vote, at least 70 MPs would have to change their minds and support the government, and then explain why they were voting for a deal that they had rejected only a week or so before. It’s possible that some might be open to ‘financial incentives’, but as we’ve seen with the DUP, a promise of support is not the same as a guarantee.

However, I do think that May might get her deal through purely by continuing to run down the clock, which seems to have been her strategy all the time. If it’s a choice between her deal and no deal, then MPs may decide that crashing into a barrier is better than driving off the cliff.

Of course, even if we do leave with a deal, that’s not the end of the process. There will be decades of negotiations to follow whilst we try to establish new trade deals, visa rules etc. with over a hundred other countries. The economy will be damaged, jobs will be lost, and a generation will grow up with a total distrust of politicians who got us into this mess.

Second referendum

I don’t think the so-called ‘People’s Vote’ is likely to happen. There simply isn’t time to arrange a referendum before exit day, and in any case a referendum would require legislation. With Corbyn refusing to take a position on anything other than the totally nebulous ‘jobs-first Brexit’, it’s unlikely that the legislation would even get through the Commons. MPs would also have to agree on the options available, with Brexiteers sure to vote against any proposal which would split the Leave vote (e.g. offering no deal, May’s deal or remain).

General elections

As with a second referendum, we lack both the time and the support in Parliament to arrange a general election. It wouldn’t solve the problem either, because Labour is the only other party likely to form a government and they are pro-Brexit. There is also no way that the EU will want to renegotiate everything with a new government, even if Labour did manage to win a majority – and judging by the opinion polls this is not something that can be assumed.

Revocation

The only tool left in May’s armoury is the ability to revoke the Article 50 notification. It’s already been confirmed that this could be done unilaterally, and depending on your opinion of the constitutional requirements this could either be achieved via Royal Prerogative (i.e. the government makes the decision on behalf of the monarch) or it might need a vote in Parliament in the same way that the original notification did.

The beauty of revoking the notification is that it can be done quickly, does not require agreement from the EU, and we would not lose any of our existing opt-outs (including from joining the euro) or rebate. It would no doubt infuriate many Brexiteers, but it doesn’t stop us holding another referendum in the future, once we’ve worked out what we actually want.

The major downside to revocation is that it requires the government to initiate the process, because they effectively control the order of business in the House of Commons. Even if MPs were somehow to secure and win a vote, there is no way to force a reluctant Prime Minister to take a particular course of action. May could potentially be held in contempt of Parliament if she refused to implement the clearly expressed will of the Commons, but given that she is appointed by the Queen she cannot be ‘sacked’ by MPs.

Overall then, I think the most likely options are no deal, May’s deal and revocation, in that order. Since this means anything from total catastrophe to business as usual, I’ll be bracing for impact by stockpiling as much as I can to make sure I can ride out the first few months of shortages and civil disorder.

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