Brexit: Time Is Not On Our Side

By Dafydd Rees
If you are looking for some sense of perspective of how far the UK’s collective corporate reputation has fallen this festive season, just watch the anchors on international news TV channels grappling with the bizarre political machinations at Westminster.

Here’s a flavour of some of the questions from bemused US TV news presenters I noted down from my sofa this week.

How can such an important vote just be abandoned hours before its due just because the Government realised it was going to lose? Who and what is this 1922 Committee?

I thought the Prime Minister had won. What do you mean she now faces the prospect of a parliamentary no confidence vote? What has the Queen got to do with this? Why does no one know how all this will end?

As a nation this is a self-inflicted humiliation without obvious historical precedent. Our mythical constitution has been revealed as more a metaphor for the old Hans Christian Anderson children’s story of the Emperor’s New Clothes. The idea that our parliamentary system is a shining beacon of stability and common sense has proved little more than an idle boast.

There is one thing we have been able to demonstrate beyond any doubt. Our inability as a nation, time and again, to deal with the simple fact that we are divided right down the middle on the issue of Brexit.

It was true in June 2016. It is true in December 2018.

The perception of the UK on the global stage is changing. This is a reputational problem with long term consequences for the political and economic fortunes of the UK.

I’ve spent time this party season swapping pleasantries with diplomatic representatives from the Far East, Europe and the US. Once there was a time when we avidly sought and swapped opinions on the latest instalments in the Brexit saga. Not anymore. Now they just want to change the subject and move on. What once had more of the air of a political parlour game has become a national tragedy.

We are also witnessing the personal humiliation of Theresa May. She may have survived a vote of confidence from her own MP’s but the political colossus of summer 2016 has been reduced to a sad and lonely figure.

Her credibility is in tatters. Her authority is based on the fact no other politician or party appears to have a better idea.

Last week she told Parliament her deal with the EU was the final word. Any suggestion that the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement could be renegotiated was pure fantasy. This week she is shuttling across Europe trying to do precisely that.

Theresa May is following a twin track political strategy. Firstly, run down the clock as the Article 50 timetable counts down to March 29th next year. Secondly play on the general mood of public dissatisfaction which instructs our politicians that it’s time to get on with it.

Government blunders down the decades have been many and varied. But one thing binds them all together. Making decisions in haste and without considering all the consequences leads to certain disaster.

Senior Whitehall civil servants have been telling me privately for months that they are preparing for the inevitable public inquiry into the way the Brexit process has been mishandled. Over the past two years I have heard persistent accounts of the ministerial pressure to twist the economic facts to suit political purposes.

So what next?

Journalists and think tanks have been using up all the felt pens to draw multi coloured charts and plot varied and confusing scenarios of what happens next.

But it is simple. If the Government has run out of road, Parliament must decide and quick.

There is no parliamentary majority for No Deal. So, we have the deal reached by Mrs May and the models of EU economic co-operation suggested by EU negotiator Michel Barnier based on the existing trade models which the EU already operates with Norway and Canada.

MPs need to reach a consensus on which of those three options is best for Britain’s future. If more time is needed beyond the current March timetable so be it.

Then the people need a final say. The public should be offered a vote which let’s them decide whether what’s on offer is better than what we’ve got.

Whether you find yourself on the Leave or Remain side of the Brexit debate, it is inevitable that one set of die-hards is hell bent on accusing the other of betrayal come what may. A failure to consult the public would only serve to nurture an ugly mood that will permanently poison our already bitter politics.

Business has largely sought to pull up the duvet and pretend Brexit isn’t happening. That’s a position which run out of road in recent days. Any sense of schadenfreude in corporate circles at the political mess we’re now in is set to be shortlived.

The reality of the change and disruption to existing business models and supply chains is undeniable. The National Audit Office has identified more than 300 major policy and regulatory changes arising from Brexit which Government is already seeking to make. They encompass every sector and aspect of business life. Here and now is the time for business to fully engage with what that means for their bottom line.

This personal and national tragedy has divided Britain in a way that leaves too many of us confused and concerned for the future. Time is not on our side.

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