We’re in a mess. Is there a way out?

By Dafydd Rees

Theresa May’s plan for leaving the EU has taken two years to put together. It has taken 48 hours for it to fall apart.

Despite the confidence of many Brexiteers during the 2016 Referendum Campaign, leaving the EU was always going to be a painful and protracted process.

But now we are all getting a glimpse of that truth. Britain’s business community must focus on rapidly changing and confusing political realities.

The Prime Minister has lost two Brexit Secretaries and a Foreign Secretary since the summer. 15 government ministers have resigned over Brexit since the start of the year.

This morning’s ministerial resignations change the calculations over the future direction of the Brexit process. So, what are the options facing the UK now?

It is easy to forget that ever since June 2017, there has been a hung parliament at Westminster. Theresa May’s fundamental weakness stems from last year’s inconclusive General Election result.

No political commentator I have spoken to believes the Prime Minister can secure a majority for her Brexit deal in the House of Commons. The first meaningful vote in Parliament is currently set to happen before Christmas.

Theresa May’s strategy is to present MPs with the following choice – ‘like it or lump it’. She and her advisers are seeking to present this as a stark choice between her deal and no deal.    

In the past 24 hours a succession of Tory MPs have stated their determination to press for a no confidence vote in Theresa May’s leadership of the party.

We have all seen how dogged and determined Mrs May can be in a crisis. It is an open question whether her famed sense of duty tells her now is the time to stay or go in the face of an open revolt from within her own ranks.

In the next few hours and days, 315 Conservative MPs must decide what is best for their own personal career ambitions, the future of their Government and the national interest.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn wants to push for a General Election. The only thing uniting Tory party strategists at this moment is that can’t be allowed to happen. Thanks to the 2011 Fixed Term Parliaments Act they look set to get their way.

Senior Conservative sources have admitted that the chances of a People’s Vote have dramatically increased following the ministerial resignation of Tory Remainer Jo Johnson last week.

There are practical questions over the mechanics of how that public vote would work, the nature of the question and how long it would take to organise. Another referendum would also require that the EU agrees to allow the Article 50 legal process to be stalled or frozen. Currently, come rain or shine the UK leaves the EU on March 29th, 2019. That is in 134 days’ time.

Another idea gathering support in Parliament among MPs is for something called Norway for Now. This idea sees the UK staying in the single market and customs union for the time being, with the prospect of agreeing an enhanced free trade agreement with the EU, similar to the one that took trade negotiators more than  seven years to agree with Canada.

Since the start of the year, senior political figures from outside the two main political parties have argued behind closed doors that a constitutional crisis calls for a Coalition Government of National Unity.

There is precedent, most recently in 2010, when Nick Clegg and David Cameron argued that the financial crisis required a different kind of government. Something similar has happened in British history before but only in the teeth of the threat of a global financial meltdown or a World War.

A free vote for MPs in Parliament has been suggested. Critics point out that might work to decide a single issue, but the UK needs a united government to deliver the most complex and difficult negotiations in more than a generation.

The EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has warned this morning of the long road ahead facing the Brexit process. The deal under consideration only applies to the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. There are only 5 out of 585 pages in the Withdrawal Agreement devoted to the future trading relationship between the UK and EU.

There are European Parliamentary elections in May 2019, and a completely new European Commission leadership is unlikely to be in place before this time next year. Meaningful discussion about the UK’s future trading relationship with the EU will not happen until then.

What political strategists will watch closely over the coming days and weeks is whether the public’s disgust with this political confusion and the desire just to get on with Brexit provides the momentum to either force our elected politicians into doing something different or the Conservatives into choosing a new leader.

The current British Government looks to have run out of ideas and alternatives. The polls appear to show the UK remains divided down the middle. There is no parliamentary consensus for the Brexit deal proposed by Mrs May.

The Brexit process is set to roll on and on, consuming political energy and attention for years to come. There is no clear way forward, or indeed backwards. A No Deal with the EU fills business and most experts with fear and dread.

Be they Leave or Remain supporters, UK business leaders have been waiting for a deal to end uncertainty. This week’s events have only served to fuel concerns that the economic future of the UK is not the primary concern of politicians.

Theresa May and Parliament face hard choices. The markets are spooked at the prospect of an internal Tory revolt. The country deserves honesty and leadership. Supporters of the Prime Minister may be tempted to argue, “Après moi, le deluge.”

 

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