The UK’s Brexit shambles reflects failures in a political system that lacks seriousness and foresight, writes Colm McCarthy
Having twice declined to resign after heavy defeats for her flagship policy, last Wednesday evening Theresa May offered Tory backbenchers her resignation in exchange for a final vote approving her withdrawal agreement. Last Friday she lost the vote a third time, and hence survived.
In the words of an unforgiving Scottish MP, she fell on her sword and missed.
Brexit day has now been deferred to April 12, a week from this Friday, unless the European Council receives and accepts a further extension request two days before then.
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In the meantime, no possible option has been decisively excluded. There could still be a crash-out without any deal, another extension if the UK indicates a new course and willingness to hold European Parliament elections, a general election or a second referendum. May’s deal could still be put successfully to another vote. Neither a general election nor a second referendum is guaranteed to dispose of the issue. A general election could produce another indecisive parliament and a second referendum will be resisted by those fearing a Remain majority, likely but not certain according to the most recent opinion polls. There is anyhow no clarity as to the question or questions that would be put in any second plebiscite.
The one clear option available to the UK authorities is revocation of the Article 50 notification, which would overturn the 2016 referendum result and return the UK to indefinite EU membership.
This entitlement was granted to resigning members by a European Court of Justice decision in December. It is entirely unilateral but would be politically incendiary and will hardly be entertained unless all other options prove unacceptable and the clock ticks down to crash-out.
The instant reactions of the European Commission and of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar last Friday were to sound the alarm. The third failure to pass the withdrawal agreement in the Commons brings back the prospect of an early crash-out, the default outcome two weeks hence unless evasive action is taken by the UK.
The Commission response was blunt: ”A ‘no-deal’ scenario on April 12 is now a likely scenario. The EU has been preparing for this since December 2017 and is now fully prepared for a ‘no-deal’ scenario at midnight on April 12. The EU will remain united. The benefits of the withdrawal agreement, including a transition period, will in no circumstances be replicated in a ‘no-deal’ scenario. Sectoral mini-deals are not an option.”
The Taoiseach was equally concerned but conciliatory, offering support should the UK seek an extended deferral beyond April 12. This would require a constructive outcome from next week’s proceedings in the House of Commons, some indication of a viable alternative to the thrice-rejected withdrawal agreement.
The Democratic Unionist Party voted against May’s deal last Friday, but its position may be shifting away from its erstwhile allies on the Eurosceptic right of the Tory party. The BBC quoted Nigel Dodds as follows: ”I would stay in the European Union and remain rather than risk Northern Ireland’s position. That’s how strongly I feel about the union.”
If this turns out to be the DUP view in the Commons next week, they could support revocation or the Remain ticket in a second referendum. Which rather begs the question why the DUP campaigned for Leave in 2016.
If Dodds feels that Remain is beginning to look like the best outcome for Northern Ireland, he is finally on the same wavelength as the Taoiseach. All the Republic’s politicians are agreed that any form of Brexit is undesirable and will welcome either a revocation or a second referendum, with the latter perhaps the more likely course. In a second referendum it would be quite something to see all the Northern Ireland political parties campaigning on the same side.
Aside from the economic disruption, it is beginning to dawn on some Brexiteers that a no-deal outcome does not deliver Britannia Unbound. There will have to be a reckoning with the European Union at some stage, and the three issues central to the withdrawal agreement will have to be addressed, and from a weakened negotiating position. These are the money due, the rights of expatriate citizens (Brits in Europe and Europeans in the UK) and the land border in Ireland.
Any long-term agreement between the UK as a third country and the EU-27 as a trading partner will come up against these three questions and the EU’s opening position will be along the lines of the spurned withdrawal agreement. It is this realisation which has triggered some of the Pauline conversions to Mrs May’s deal and the DUP may be making the same journey.
The UK embarked on the 2016 referendum without a detailed plan for the outcome which arose, a narrow Leave majority, even though the opinion polls had been indicating that such a result was entirely possible.
David Cameron led a Remain campaign which chose to avoid planning for a loss, even inside the civil service, for fear of lending credibility to their opponents. The Leave campaign did not put forward a plan either, to avoid divisions within the ranks.
The result was a political and administrative system unprepared for the task which lay ahead. Ministers in May’s government proceeded to underestimate – publicly and emphatically – the complexity of what they were attempting to do, and the Leave-voting public’s expectations have been unrealistic from the start.
It is not straightforward to disentangle a major European country, even with a plan, from a 45-year entanglement in an intimate economic and political enterprise with its neighbours and allies. Without a plan and given the wide variety of formats which the Leave instruction could take, the shambles was pre-ordained.
There are competent and knowledgeable politicians in the United Kingdom but the preponderance of the less accomplished is undeniable. The chaos could have been minimised had the system responded with greater flexibility to the referendum result. Perplexed TV viewers around Europe will be excused for feeling that the UK’s political system has displayed a persistent lack of seriousness.
The House of Commons earlier last week was entertained to some jolly exchanges between Tory MPs, including passages in Latin, about the expensive public schools they had attended, pitting Etonians against Wykehamists. (The latter are those blessed to have attended Winchester, in case you didn’t know.)
Any notion that the leading Brexiteers – almost all Etonians – are possessed of a cunning plan was prophetically addressed by George Orwell in a 1941 essay, when France had fallen, and England stood alone:
”One thing that has always shown that the English ruling class are morally fairly sound, is that in time of war they are ready enough to get themselves killed. Several dukes, earls and what nots were killed in the recent campaign in Flanders. That could not happen if these people were the cynical scoundrels that they are sometimes declared to be.
“It is important not to misunderstand their motives, or one cannot predict their actions. What is to be expected of them is not treachery, or physical cowardice, but stupidity, unconscious sabotage, an infallible instinct for doing the wrong thing. They are not wicked, or not altogether wicked; they are merely unteachable.”