Brexit: Endgame

As I write this there are fewer than 40 working days until the UK is scheduled to crash out of the EU; and the House of Commons has fewer than 32 days to meet and agree on the next steps.

It has been a long time since my previous blog post; mainly because – well: life – but also an overwhelming frustration with the state of politics in the UK and around the world and the sense of an inevitability about how this whole debacle will unfold.

Shortly after the result of the EU referendum was known, I made a private prediction to a friend about how I anticipated the next two years would unfold. Albeit, I wasn’t starting from a great place having confidently predicted that the British public would see sense at the 11th hour and vote to Remain. How wrong I was. However, having been humbled I redoubled on my analysis and mentally charted my roadmap to March 29th 2019 – the day the UK is legally duty bound to exit the European Union. Now that we are five seconds to midnight, and all my predictions so far have been more or less on point, I thought it was time to go out on a limb and publicly document how I see the final weeks panning out, so that I can further humble myself when I fail to predict the next big curveball in British politics.

The next milestone in the process is the 13th February, when Theresa May will return to Parliament with an alternative proposal to the “backstop” arrangement. For those unfamiliar with the backstop and why it is so controversial – it is the arrangement in place in the current draft agreement for the conditions of the UK’s departure from the EU that would ensure that Northern Ireland remains in regulatory alignment with the EU so as to avoid the need for customs check (or any sort of border) between it and the Republic of Ireland. The consequence of this however, is that any regulatory variation that the rest of the UK chooses would result in a border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK – something NI Unionists are at pains to avoid, and also subjects the UK to EU customs arrangements indefinitely, that it can only extricate itself from if the EU agrees to any new arrangements.

It was no surprise to me that the Withdrawal Agreement suffered the largest ever defeat any Government has faced in the House of Commons in the history of the institution. Theresa May attempted to negotiate a deal that was a fudged compromise between the Brexit extremists (or idealists to be kinder) in her own back benches and the Remain leaning MPs in her party and across large sections of the opposition parties. A compromise was never going to succeed, as the very nature of the aspects that each camp would need to compromise on form the very red lines that each side will refuse to move on. Brexit idealists are motivated by the concept of British sovereignty – something that you either have or have not in their eyes. They cannot stomach a framework that would see the UK continue to be legally duty bound to uphold standards agreed within the EU – and even less so now that the UK would no longer have a say in what those standards are. Remainers cannot understand why you would leave in name only – why not just stay if all you have negotiated is a loss of influence?

Theresa May has gambled that if she can negotiate an alternative to the backstop; something that would assure the sovereignty of the UK; then she can bring her Brexit backbenchers on side and perhaps whip some of her Remain MPs into supporting the deal under the guise of respecting the “will of the people” and thus scrape through the numbers required to get the deal through the House of Commons.

This will fail.

At least, this is my prediction. There are a number of challenges to this approach, which I think creates an insurmountable hurdle for May. The first one is the hardest – her team have been negotiating with the EU for nearly two years and the backstop was the best deal that they could come up with. The conclusion from talks was that there was simply no way to avoid a border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland unless there was complete customs regulatory alignment between them. Within hours of Theresa May announcing her intention to return to Brussels, the EU declared that they saw no viable alternative. On 13th of February, when May returns to the Commons, I anticipate that all she will have achieved are, at best, further verbal concessions / reassurances from the EU. This will prove insufficient to woo the hardcore Brexit MPs, and is moving away from the sort of deal that Remain MPs would like to see.

Secondly, there is an emerging trend that public opinion is moving away from an EU departure, with latest polls showing an 8 point lead in favour of staying in the EU. This will embolden Remain leaning MPs further to resist any attempt to railroad through a deal against their wishes, or the wishes of their constituents.

Thirdly, even if I am wrong on the first point and May somehow convinces the EU that there is a viable alternative to the backstop, any alternative would eventually, by necessity, create a regulatory divergence between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. This has the potential of the nightmare scenario of reigniting the troubles, and paving the way for NI to cede from the UK. There is also the risk of contagion – an indignant Holyrood, upset at being shut out of Brexit talks, would pounce on such a deal as a blueprint for Scottish EU customs union membership and further the case for independence from the UK. This would violate the fundamental principle of the Conservative and Unionist party and would be met with widespread rebellion on both sides of the EU membership debate.

So, when May comes back on 13th February and her revised agreement suffers another landslide defeat, what next? Much of what will follow will be dictated by the clock, as there will be only a matter of weeks left. There are three options: allow the UK to crash out; request an extension to art. 50; rescind art. 50 and cancel the exit process.

The House of Commons has already expressed that it is opposed to leaving the EU without a deal, and every fibre of me hopes that Theresa May is bluffing and will step back from the brink once all other options have been exhausted. Given the massive shock that this would deliver to the UK economy, I fully expect that this nuclear option will never be allowed to go ahead.

Requesting an extension to article 50 is something that can only be granted if all 27 member states individually agree – a single dissenter could veto this. With elections coming up in EU countries, this option is not palatable to anyone, and the EU may also wager that the UK doesn’t have the political will to crash out. Refusing to grant an extension would force Parliament’s hand into cancelling the process altogether. In any event, the EU has made it clear that it would not agree to an extension unless it was to allow for a significant political realignment within the UK. I interpret this to be for a general election (for which the chance has passed) or for a referendum on the EU withdrawal agreement. Additionally, the continuing uncertainty would accelerate the economic impact to the UK as more businesses choose to invest on the continent instead, and jobs continue to hemorrhage from domestic markets.

Cancelling Brexit is something that the UK can unilaterally do, by withdrawing article 50, however this would essentially take Brexit off the table for a generation as the UK could only legally withdraw this if its intention to halt the exit process is genuine, and not simply a temporary effort to buy more time. This would also almost certainly result in the implosion of the Conservative party, but it’s hard to see what that would amount to in practical terms. Having already attempted and failed a leadership coup, Theresa May is sitting safe as leader until the next General Election, when she has said she will stand down. Certainly, the next leadership contest could be ugly, but MPs would be powerless to do anything to further the EU exit process. There may also be temporary widespread disorder in the streets and a spike in hate crime, but one that would eventually be brought under control as passions subside and law enforcement identify and isolate the ring leaders.

Considering the three options, my guess is that the logical path that Theresa May will take is to request a half hearted extension to the exit process with no clear commitment for a referendum. The EU will then refuse to ratify this, and give Theresa May the political ammunition to make the EU the scapegoat, and cancel Brexit in the national interest. The protests in her own party and on the streets will be immediate, vocal but short lived. The damage to the UK economy that has already been done will take a decade to recover from, but life will be largely unchanged for the majority of people.

So, over the next eight weeks or so, we shall see if what I predict will come to pass. What are your thoughts? Let me know…

4 comments on “Brexit: Endgame

  1. Hi Michael,
    from the result I’ve predicted we will leave without a deal but I sincerely hope you a right. This was a Conservative argument that has shook the foundations of our country, one that they should never have gotten everyone else involved in, I am ashamed and embarrassed by them. I believe the plan has been leave all along, everything else is smoke and mirrors, the blame will be and is now carefully being placed on others rather than the Conservatives. They should never be let anywhere near power again, but they will, because they won’t get the blame. My country disgusts me.

    • Thanks Tim,
      I agree – the question should never have been framed as a referendum in my opinion. Our relationship with the EU is highly complex and I’d wager the majority of people (and I include myself in this) don’t fully understand how the EU works and the benefits it brings the UK. We have a representative democracy for the reason that our MPs are elected to office to take responsibility for learning these things and making informed decisions that benefit their constituents. Putting this question as a referendum was highly divisive, and arguably the decision the electorate voted to leave was entirely based on misconceptions about how the whole project works. Unfortunately, having done so, it is very difficult to walk back from that outcome without a further referendum.

  2. Great writing Michael. I should have known you would blog about politics.

    Why haven’t you monetised your site?

    Talk to me about Pinterest. It has great possibilities.


    • Thanks!

      I don’t blog often or regularly enough to generate consistent traffic at the moment, plus I do it more as a cathartic activity than any earning potential. Hosting the site only costs me about £2 a month