As for that Brexit plan, whilst it’s an overstatement to say it’s alive and kicking, it remains the only real plan on the table and appears to be the basis for the cross-party talks now underway, seeking to find changes that could attract fresh support. But for it to eventually get through after a defeat by 230 votes, theGovernment need to convert 116 MPs to their cause, without losing other ones out the other side. To put it mildly, that appears a huge challenge.
So to turn to the only question you’re asking, what happens next? Well, let’s start by offering the caveat that nobody knows. There is no grand plan, no great game and no compromise people have always had in mind. It really is bad as you fear.
First things first, be very clear that the default outcome on 29 March is no deal. There is no need for anyone to vote for it – they already have when they agreed to trigger Article 50. So when people say there is no majority for no deal, that doesn’t matter. No deal is what happens if no alternative agreement is reached by 29 March, so do not rule that out at all as a potential outcome.
But it is true that few want it, and it’s equally true that reaching that alternative agreement in the ten weeks left looks very hard indeed, so it now appears increasingly likely that Brexit may be delayed. We are so close to the departure date and nowhere near a deal. The Government’s position has shifted from saying they won’t delay Brexit to they don’t want to delay it. A subtle, but huge change. Until this week, the EU was opposed to delay too, but that position appears to be shifting, in the knowledge that a disorderly Brexit would impact the whole continent, not just the UK. The extent of that possible delay is being debated – with some arguing one month is enough, and others suggesting three. Briefings from Brussels yesterday suggest the Commission was looking at the option of a nine month delay, until 31 December.
But a delay is not an outcome, just a dragging out of the process. So this takes us back to a heavily amended May deal remaining on the table. Cross-party talks are underway, and the talk in Government is of a potential move to permanently remaining in the Customs Union, which would remove the issue of the backstop forever and bring Britain very close to the relationship Norway has with the European Union. Under this model, the Brexiteers dream of the UK striking free trade deals with China, India and the US would be dead, and for that reason a large number of them would hate it. But it would bring the PM close to the Labour position, and it is possible to conceive of a coalition of Remain Tories and a united opposition seeing this one over the line in theCommons. But make no mistake, the Tory Party would split over this, perhaps forever. It would be totally out of character for our small c conservative little England Prime Minister to be the woman who forced a split in one of the most successful political parties in history, but faced with few other options it cannot be ruled out.
Some continue to argue we should just ditch the whole thing of course, and simply Remain in the EU. But to do so without one referendum overturning another is unthinkable and that leads to the proponents of a second vote. 70 Labour MPs are publicly backing it now, and the pressure mounts on Jeremy Corbyn to make it official party policy. If he does so, backed by other parties and a dozen or so Tories who support it, it could just command a majority in theHouse of Commons. Combined with a Brexit delay, it could offer a way out. But the heavy emphasis needs to be on the word could. What would the question be? Why assume Leave would not win again? There’s every chance it would, and then we’d be in a position even worse than we are today and a hard Brexit unavoidable. For Remainers, a second vote is a roll of the dice too.
Finally, some think a General Election can solve this. But, again, it’s hard to see how. At the moment, both major parties are horribly split and their official Brexit policies aren’t really that different. There is every chance a General Election in the middle of this would result in a repeat of the 2017 result and a reinforcement of the stalemate Parliament that’s bedevilled us for the last year-and-a-half.
As said above, there is no right answer to any of this. Nobody knows where this ends. But keep one clear fact in mind. If nothing else happens in the meantime, in 70 days time at 11pm, Britain leaves the European Union without a deal. Something big needs to happen to stop that, and lots of people both in Westminster and in Brussels need to make massive compromises, agreeing to things they’ve previously dismissed. The clock still ticks.
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