A comedy of errors

I’ve been quiet here for a while, I’m not a natural blogger. But it’s 7am here in Jeju (on holiday!) and I’ve been awake for a few hours as my body adapts the the timezone so it gives me the opportunity to update. And we’re, theoretically, only a few days from Brexit and a series of “meaningful votes” have just taken place in parliament. So what do they mean?

Summary of where we’ve reached since my last post. The deal (withdrawal agreement) is agreed by everyone except parliament, where it has been voted down twice by significant margins previously inconceivable for official policy of the sitting government. The principle objection to the WA is the backstop, which claims to protect the NI border (from the UK who have amongst the most to gain from protecting it, and protected from us by Brussels no less). It’s biggest flaw is that it creates a situation in which our departure from the EU leaves us subject to EU laws and trade policy (via the customs union) without any say, for an indefinite period, without any unilateral right to exit. It’s been called Brexit In Name Only for good reason; cancelling Article 50 and remaining in the EU would genuinely put us in a considerably stronger position to leave the EU (and retain influence in the meantime) than our government’s best effort in leaving via the WA!

So the failures to get that past parliament aren’t surprising. The odd thing is how little else is certain. May has more been forced to request that the EU extend A50 until the end of June (if she can get her WA to pass on third attempt on 20th March) or for longer otherwise (purpose to be agreed). Parliament has voted to not leave without a deal, but it remains the default and requires an act of parliament to change it which requires time of which there is precious little left.

Reading back through my past blog posts my predictions of only getting a bad deal were spot on, but I never foresaw one that if passed would actually tie us more closely to the EU than we started; I talk about making up for the bad deal through trade elsewhere which the WA would hamper if not completely rule out. For that reason I would much prefer to remain in the EU at this point (to fight again another day) than see the WA pass. Despite the huge margins against it so far I’m unable to convince myself it won’t go through though.

Calls for another referendum have been persistent but oddly don’t seem to be growing. There is a movement to try to achieve it but it seems to me to lack the steam to achieve it, we’ll see in the next week or two if I’m right. It is true that seeking a long extension to A50 will require us to have a reason beyond dragging everything on even longer, and a second ref would qualify, but my instinct is that May would trigger another GE first (and I’m 50:50 on whether she would resign or try to fight it herself). Labour are in a terrible state but the Tories aren’t much better and desperately need new leadership (any leadership at all would be progress!).

But the EU might not grant an extension, or if they do it might be on terms we won’t accept. It’ll almost certainly involve more money, for a start. And with EU elections in May we either have to be out or field candidates, the latter being a huge embarrassment and likely to see a surge in support for Farage’s new Brexit Party (which has seen a lot of UKIP MEPs switch to it already).

The EU believes that a no deal Brexit will all but destroy the UK and are seemingly quite comfortable with this. They also believe that they’ll get the €39bn divorce figure regardless of there having been no deal. Since an extension requires all 27 countries to agree, inside a short time frame, and for the UK to accept any terms and then pass primary legislation to change the existing law that sees us leave on 29th March, I really struggle to see that happening. It’s what Parliament seems to want, which makes me all the less convinced it’ll come to pass. (What that statement says about Parliament speaks volumes.)

Making predictions at this point is like predicting a coin toss. But here are some possible scenarios.

  1. May gets her deal through in the end and we enter transition. This ought to be the most likely outcome (and I honestly believe the worst one) but the numbers against it in Parliament make me question it. It’s possible Labour will abstain on 20th if all other bets are off, but as currently constructed voting it down on 20th leads to a long extension which could include a GE or 2ndRef so I think the WA is dead.
  2. The EU might reject an extension, or put terms on it that parliament can’t accept. (I wonder, for example, if they only offered one for time to hold a GE or ref whether that would be seen as undue interference in UK democratic processes?) If that happens then my understanding is that we crash out without a deal. This is the worst of all genuinely Brexit options (the WA isn’t remotely Brexit) but not worse than most other options. I predicted a no deal outcome months ago but I’m finding it hard to really believe in it now, especially one entirely by accident (by running out of time) and thus ill prepared for.
  3. We get an extension for a GE or Ref. Of those I think the GE is most likely, and I just hope May stands down first. But there’ll be precious little time for the Tories to hold a leadership challenge so it’ll be very messy. If they can position themselves with a clear Brexit plan (which would have to be around a WTO exit, ie with clear statements of unilateral actions we can and will take) then we could win and win well against the current Labour party who would probably have to offer a second ref.

The more I look at the scenarios the more that no deal looks most likely; as Sherlock Holmes would point out, once you’ve ruled out the impossible then what’s left, however improbable, is the answer

But a no deal with May at the helm would be terrible, and in any case she’d likely stand down leaving worse in her stead until after a leadership election, when we’d be in desperate need of fast and decisive action. (David Liddington is defacto deputy but is of entirely the wrong stuff for the job, and Philip Hammond as Chancellor couldn’t be a worse choice to steer the ship through something he has already stated repeatedly will cause us untold damage.)

In short, there are no good outcomes. An extension for a GE is probably the best, as reluctant as I am to say so.

No deal with no notice and no leader (the incumbent qualifies as no leader whether or not she steps down) is not a great choice. Which right now makes it the most likely outcome of this mess.

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