Brexit – A Very British Coup

Written by Dafydd Rees

Politics has never shown itself to be more stubborn or sly, so why is business not more publicly concerned or the markets in meltdown?

Could it be because we are all living in a state of collective denial about the momentous events taking place at Westminster. And there lies the danger.  

Everyone heard the sound of those thudding hooves. Last night, there was a political stampede at Westminster of unparalleled proportions.

MPs gave Theresa May’s Brexit deal a definitive thumbs down. But our elected representatives have a bewildering set of contrasting motives and objectives.

Brexiteers believe rejecting the Prime Minister’s deal serves their ultimate ambition of a hard Brexit;  a definitive rejection of all the EU’s legal, political and economic structures.

Remainers believe this historic vote brings the prospect of a second referendum closer, while Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn thinks his Brexit strategy will lead to a General Election.

They can’t all be right. They certainly won’t all get their way.

The only legal certainty is that on March 29th 2019 the UK leaves the EU, whether we are ready or not. And we’re not.

Reaching agreement with the EU on a suspension, delay or extension of the Article 50 process would appear a pressing and immediate priority. It’s necessary to ensure Parliament has the time and space to reach a collective decision as to what the UK really wants. On a practical level it’s required to ensure there’s sufficient parliamentary time to pass the necessary legislation to leave the EU.

Yet, if the media briefings are to be believed it is not even on Downing Street’s “Things-to-do list.”

So why is it that faced with this political meltdown, the business community and global markets appear so sanguine?

The financial markets are unruffled. The pound momentarily dipped at the news of the Prime Minister’s humiliation, but normal service has now been resumed.

The Chancellor and the Business Secretary have briefed business organisations and it looks as though their reassuring bedside manner has worked its magic.

While there has been persistent and genuine concern voiced across the board about the likelihood of a no deal, there is so far little obvious external sign that Britain’s commercial or financial communities believe the political shenanigans won’t be resolved and that commonsense prevails.

Why?

Here are some of the reasons I’ve been given as an explanation over the past few days.

Business, like the general public, are bystanders to the political machinations now underway. There is no obvious process or timeline in place to allow business to make a contribution or supply with evidence.  We’re waiting for the smoke to clear and our elected politicians to have taken some kind of decision. Until then, there is little else to do.

Theresa May’s ability to frustrate the process and delay or stifle debate has had the required effect. Doing the rounds at Westminster last night I saw little evidence of the political dexterity that I recall encountering as a political journalist a generation ago.

Protestors waving flags is a poor replacement for political strategy. In the 1990s Tory dissent over the Maastricht Treaty produced spectacular subterfuge and deft manoeuvring.

We’re in a crisis. There’s been a parliamentary coup. And yet nothing appears to have changed.

And there lies the greatest danger. Complacency.

If we can identify one common thread from great human conflicts and economic disasters of the past it is that all sides thought someone else would blink first, or that all those involved were rational and reasonable.

Unless there is significant compromise between the political parties at Westminster, a political U-turn by the Prime Minister or some extraordinary concessionary offer from Europe we face economic disruption and dislocation that can’t be properly assessed and definitively has not been prepared for by business or governments here or across the EU.

I, for one, find such a situation profoundly disturbing.

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