First was the shock. It seemed as if Britain had driven off the edge of a cliff. Then denial. The dust settled and nothing much seemed to have changed. But now, among those that follow politics and business, there is a slow, creeping realisation of just how big a mess Brexit is. This isn’t so much that the country has ruined itself in the long run (many believe that to be true, but a cogent case can be made otherwise); it is the sheer extent of short-term disruption. So we might ask: can it all be made to go away?
What has woken people up to the depth of problem is the government’s proposal to trigger Article 50 of the EU treaty in the first quarter of 2017, which leads to the country’s departure two years after that. That is not near enough time to put in place new trade treaties, and handle a host of other issues (who pays for British nationals’ medical bills in Spain? How do we manage the Irish border? And on, and on) all at once, given that this is all a matter of negotiation, and negotiations always go to the wire. That means that many businesses with an international dimension (not just exporters – anybody using imported parts or services from anywhere outside the UK) could hit a wall of confusion in 2019.
What makes this worse is the realisation that the split is going to be more “hard” than “soft”, for the reasons I explained in my recent blog. Remain supporters desperately argue for some sort of middle way that protects trading relationships – but no compromise deal looks anything like as good as the real thing, membership with the layers of concessions that Britain had accumulated for itself over the decades. So can we call the whole thing off?
The problem is that as soon as Article 50 is triggered (which astonishingly the government claims does not require a parliamentary vote), then it becomes very hard to come back. The government would have to negotiate re-entry from a very weak position. Such concessions as Britain’s contribution rebate would become an obvious target. So something needs to happen before that. Any hopes must largely rest on a court case challenging the government’s right to invoke the article under royal prerogative. If the government loses, then parliament has the opportunity to throw a spanner in the works.
Could the government fail to find a majority to push through Article 50, if it was forced to? Its majority is small, though some of the Irish parties would support it on Brexit. A rebellion from its backbenchers, or even ministers, is certainly feasible. But would Labour turn up with enough numbers to back them up? In the old days that would have been quite a safe bet. The party in opposition loved nothing more than to make mischief for the government, regardless of the rights and wrongs of the case at hand. But the current party leadership seems little interested in such games. There would need to be strong political reasons to galvanise both Labour and any Tory rebels.
What might those political reasons be? Remainers are trying to build a case around the idea that the Brexit vote did not amount to a mandate for the “destination”, or what replaces EU membership. This is weak. It suggests consultation just on the question of what type of Brexit we want – a choice between a miserable compromise or a highly disruptive major break. But the best alternative to hard Brexit is to overturn the referendum result itself. For that, something needs to happen to shake confidence in the referendum mandate.
Alas there is little sign of that. The lies peddled by the Leave campaign (most notoriously the idea that £350M would be available to spend on the NHS if we left) are being shrugged off, and set against some of the Remain campaign’s claims, such as that a Leave vote would lead to a draconian emergency budget. But something might blow up in the next six months and catch the public imagination. Or it could be financial instability, which is surely a possibility given the huge uncertainties and the country’s dependence of foreign finance. The wobbling pound is so far the only real sign of trouble – what if it keeps wobbling?
But these are thin pickings for people who support UK membership of the EU. It seems that the slim majority for Leave in the referendum, now routinely described as “overwhelming” by its supporters, has been the basis of a coup, which disenfranchises people like us. The people were consulted, and now the political elite has reasserted full control. The irony, of course, is that the Leave campaign was based on the slogan “take back control”, and appealed to voters who felt disenfranchised by political elites. No student of political history will be surprised that it is being used to consolidate elite power, albeit with some change in personnel.
There seems to be little that Remain supporters like me can do. It will take a feeling of betrayal from within the Leave camp, and a split, in order to give the idea of reversing the referendum result any traction. Unfortunately, if this ever happens it is likely to be too late.
So we must channel our anger into rebuilding the forces of liberalism for the long term. And we need to focus on two problems in particular. How can we give people a greater sense of political control over their lives, while enjoying the opportunities that global connections provide? And how should European institutions be reshaped so that they better serve European people, and so that one day, we may persuade the British people to rejoin? Meanwhile we must watch helplessly as a slow-motion disaster unfolds. “Told you so,” are the most unsatisfactory words in life, but I fear that it is all we are left with.