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Brexit: let the games begin

, October 30, 2018, 0 Comments

brexit-marketexpress-inWe are in a new phase of playing games: first, to avoid being blamed for a damaging divorce and second, the purely domestic (parochial?) contest to gain the keys to 10 Downing Street. These games involve carefully choreographed official statements, ‘off-the-cuff’ remarks, leaks and rumours: some designed to win public support and others to wrong-foot adversaries. It is possible to be cynical about all this but it is how democracies, when deeply divided, have to build a new consensus in order to reach difficult decisions. Disentangling the UK politically, economically and socially from long-term partners and allies is proving an almost impossible task and UK public opinion is more polarised than it has been since the 1970s and early 1980s.

I have consistently predicted binary outcomes for the Brexit end game:

Either: the whole of the UK outside the Customs Union and Single Market negotiated under ‘WTO rules’ with some ‘bells and whistles’ added to the current EU- Canada trade agreement plus significant military and security collaboration. This deal to be negotiated relatively amicably over a period of up to 3 years followed by a further transition period.

Or: the UK remaining completely in the EU or downgrading to EEA membership.

More time is definitely needed for the detailed arrangements and she seems anxious to avoid at all costs a rupture next March but it is still unclear where Mrs May is ultimately heading. Her actions hitherto have suggested that Tory Party unity is her key priority and that points to her preferring the WTO option. Extending the post-exit transition period has two immediate attractions for her: first, the EU is likely to deal and second, the UK would no longer be a full member of the EU. A third attraction might be that the transition period would in reality become a negotiating period when all the hitherto neglected serious practical details can be ‘properly settled’. A fourth and less clear attraction would be that it would be the sort of deal into which she might be able to bounce her backbenchers and the DUP: ‘take it or have Jeremy Corbyn or Boris Johnson as Prime Minister’.

An extended transition period could be a potentially handsome consolation prize after failing to keep the UK as a full member. Not least of the attractions would be the UK’s being in an even weaker negotiating position than it is now and eventually deciding- willingly or in desperation-to stay indefinitely in the Customs Union and Single Market. It would also deliver on the pledges to Ireland, even if there might have to be some backtracking later. A short-term political benefit of giving Mrs May an extension is that it avoids the EU’s appearing inflexible. On balance, therefore, the EU is likely to sign up.

The real threat to Mrs May comes from within. Some 30 Tory MPs are thought to be ready to vote against anything Mrs May comes up and If they stick to their guns Mrs May is likely to fail as Labour, Lib Dems and SNP would cheerfully join them in the voting lobbies. Worse than that, the Ulster Unionists are likely to smell a rat and realise that ‘loyal’ Brexiteers in the Government are probably willing to cut loose Northern Ireland during the extended transition/negotiation period. The hard core of Tory Remainers including some ministers may well not need to show their hand yet but some surely will. In short, the Prime Minister will not pull it off.

Mrs May is likely to resign once the Commons reject her deal but she could well have deliberately left the vote until as late as February in order to try to intimidate her wavering backbenchers. Any new Tory leader, even Boris Johnson, would have no choice but to seek to withdraw the Article 50 Notice and Parliament is likely to insist on it. The EU would almost certainly to agree but not without attaching a time limit beyond which the UK would have to commit to one of the binary options of WTO or Remain. Both major UK parties would find it tricky to campaign in a second referendum but may feel that holding one would be the least bad course to follow.

If the Tories advocated Brexit and the second vote was to Remain the Government would almost certainly have to resign. Whoever won the ensuing election would probably have to abandon Brexit altogether or accept the offer of EEA membership.