Brexit- Where Are We Headed?

Back in December I gave my view on key Brexit developments and where we were headed. With yet another key vote coming up next week, it seemed a good time to give readers a view on where we are and where we might be headed. If I may say, my predictions are so far looking quite sound, so here goes again.

Rather than go through all the ins and outs of the various votes since December, I’ll try and give an overview of key options and where I think we’ll end up. As ever, predictions can be difficult and Brexit has a habit of making prognosticators look foolish…

Before I do, its worth reminding ourselves of the apparent (and alleged) significant criminality associated with the Brexit vote. See for example- this  or this– though there are many more alleged failings and dark connections. As you’ll see below, I think we will exit the EU, but how tragic if it turns out a close vote was stolen. It tells me that, if we are to use referenda to decide signifiant issues, we must be MUCH tighter on the franchise, the rules, and the enforcement of those rules, and MUCH clearer on the grounds under which a result can be struck down, who should move to strike and who should decide and on what grounds.

I also want to remind you, dear reader, of my suggested principles to inform what the UK does on the Brexit issue:

  • we must respect the result of the referendum, so that a second referendum should only proceed if it is considered legitimate and can be done well in time (in terms of process, electorate etc.)
  • we must also respect the rule of law, so regardless of how difficult it could be, if evidence of abuse and illegality is persuasive then the result must be quashed 
  • we should try, if we can, to take a middle ground that respects the result, but also respects how close the result was. As far as possible, extremes on the debate (no deal, Hard Brexit etc.) should be avoided. 

Onto the main business….

Key Developments?

There have been quite a few debates, amendments and votes in parliament since the autumn. What do those votes tell us?

Firstly, they tell us that various factions in parliament will unite at various times to oppose Mrs May’s deal unless it changes, though please understand that those groups come from very different starting points and have VERY different objectives.

Secondly, as predicted in my earlier blog, there is no appetite for an election just yet, and Mrs May will want to stay on to see things through. So an election is probably coming, but not until post-Brexit.

Thirdly, we finally had the parliament show, albeit rather timidly, that it doesn’t want a No Deal Brexit, and will take action if needed to ensure that doesn’t happen. Now there are two other factors which mean we can’t be certain we won’t crash out in a ‘Bumbling British Brexit BallsUp’, but I still think No Deal is unlikely. [The two factors are nervous Remainer MPs, particularly Labour MPs in the North, not wanting to be seen to look like they are obstructing the referendum vote result , which is why Yvette Cooper’s amendment was defeated, and secondly, the automatic operation of the law, which means we leave by statute on 29th March unless something else changes].

Fourthly, as predicted, there is zero chance of a second Scottish independence referendum any time soon [and that’s ignoring any ongoing criminal cases I might otherwise mention]. The SNP is caught in a bind, both secretly fancying a disastrous Brexit to aid their cause, and also fearing a disastrous Brexit will weaken their case [on the second point, just think how naive 2014 promises to leave the UK in 18 months now look, and how hard to persuade many votes if the UK has a poor future relationship with the EU- think currency, hard borders, trade relationships etc.]

Fifthly, Labour has finally made it clear that, as we thought all along, Corbyn wants Brexit done so he can move onto his dream of socialism in one country, with the Tories blamed for (most of) the Brexit mess. Polls may yet frustrate Corbyn’s ambitions and pin some blame on him, especially amongst his younger hitherto voters, but for now he feels confident enough to show his hand.

Which is why the letter to the Prime Minister, and Keir Starmer’s interviews recently are so significant. You can read the BBC’s take on the politics of it here

So What Are The Options..?

There remain quite a few possible options for Brexit but let me quickly rule some out:

  • No Deal– I still think this can only happen by accident, and that there is enough will at UK and EU level to avoid this-so very unlikely (I hope)
  • Current Mrs May deal– dead in its current form, as a 230 vote defeat showed!
  • General Election– at the recent votes showed, Labour doesn’t have the votes to force an election, SNP don’t want one at the moment and Tories will only vote for one if they think it helps (and it currently doesn’t until Brexit is complete)
  • Second Referendum – this is possible, but unlikely at present I think. Parliament will only go for it if it feels genuinely stuck, but despite appearances and as I will explain in a moment, parliament as a collective beast really does have a plan (two in fact)

Ok, that’s cleared a few possibilities off the slate, leaving in my view only two. Let me remind you what I was suggesting in my last blog:

‘So, it is very clear that whatever happens, we are now heading for a much softer Brexit than might have been apparent in 2017, or even 6 months ago’

and

It seems clear to me that behind any minor tinkering, the EU is NOT going to renegotiate the legally binding withdrawal agreement’

and

Now the future relationship is an entirely different issue, which is why I think parliament will accept withdrawal and we will leave the EU as expected. ‘

I stand by those comments, and a cursory glance at the EU’s comments reinforces that view.

The Two Realistic Options

So, here are my suggestions for the two Brexit options still on the table (and remember I’m still focused on how we leave, not our ultimate long-term destination):

Option 1 Mrs Mays Deal Version 2

Option 2 Labour’s New Plan

Option 1 is an updated version of Mrs May’s original withdrawal agreement- with all of the changes focussed on the crucial backstop issue. For this to succeed, Mrs May would either need to secure enough further concessions from the EU on the terms of the backstop to secure the votes of all of her party, a handful of Labour rebels, and the DUP, or enough MPs would need to get nervous of a No Deal crash-out as the clock runs down, and decide to go with this deal, either to avoid no deal, or no Brexit. Indeed, Keir Starmer suggests that running down the clock is Mrs May’s real game.

My own view is that there is little chance of securing further concessions from the EU (quite rightly) for this to ever convince recalcitrant back benchers like the ERG group. The EU feels it has already had its fingers burned by supporting Mrs May before, only to see the deal she promised she could deliver, rejected and crushed. I don’t feel that are in any mood to offer anything substantive in the last few weeks.

In addition, if you are Labour, why would you ever give up the chance of splitting the Tory party and giving the Prime Minister the credit for securing a deal, when you know you can (probably) extend the leave date and secure your own plan?

So, I just can’t see Mrs Mays deal version 2 passing.

That only leaves us with Labour’s New Plan. Now, of course Labour’s plan is (almost) entirely Mrs May’s plan, with one significant addition- that of a permanent Customs Union. I’ve felt for some time that a permanent Customs Union is the only realistic means by which the UK can deliver 3 otherwise conflicting objectives:

  • reclaim some measure of control of laws and borders whilst also
  • ensuring peace and no hard border in the island of Ireland whilst also
  • not adding a new border in the Irish sea

Don’t get me wrong, I am still firmly of the view that Brexit is a bad idea, not only economically, but also for the signal it sends about our relationship to our closest neighbours in an increasingly fractured and dangerous world. But as per my principles I set out above, I firmly believe that a measured Brexit, that respects the closeness of the result, and keeps us as close to the EU as we can whilst still leaving, and protecting the Good Friday agreement, is the best way forward.

Remember of course, that Customs Unions only deal in goods, not services, and with 80% of the UK economy made up of services, a permanent Customs Union still allows the possibility of services trades deals to be struck. I think most British voters also want to protect the food and environmental standards we have, so fair trade deals that lower them are non-starters really, despite a lot of hysteria about chlorinated chickens and so on.

[There are other conditions in Mr Corbyn’s letter to the Prime Minister but they are less significant]

I can’t see Mrs May, an ultra party loyalist, accepting the Labour plan, as it would split her party. However I can see parliament taking control on a free vote in February/March and making this new plan the basis of the UK’s future relationship.

Intriguingly, it does seem to me in an opposition vote or free vote that the majority of Labour MPs, plus 30-60 Tory MPs, and with either the support or the abstention of SNP/LibDems, has a chance of succeeding. Though it will be very close and tense

Incidentally, having watched the UK parliament in action several times over the last few months, I came away impressed and proud- the very opposite of the lesson most others seem to draw. I saw a group of elected representatives wrestling with a difficult problem and seeking compromise and a way through, despite terrible leadership from the main parties, and despite a fair minority of nutty and reality-denying chancers. If we as ‘The People’ voted almost 50-50 on one of the most complex problems I’ve ever considered in politics, and if we always call for compromise and debate, I wonder why so many of us consider the parliamentary debates to be so faulty?

Summing Up…

If I’m right, we’ll know much more clearly in the next few months where Brexit will take us. If I’m right it won’t trigger an immediate general election, nor will it trigger a second referendum on Brexit, nor will it trigger a second Scottish independence referendum.

If I’m right, as I said some months back, some version of the Withdrawal Agreement will pass, I just don’t think it will be Mrs May’s preferred option. I now think Labour’s New Plan or a version of it, will carry the vote in parliament, adding a permanent Customs Union to our future relationship.

I think we will leave on or around March, possibly extending into the summer to get the necessary laws and arrangements passed. I think an election follows in 2019 or 2020 where parties set out their views on where we go next. I think we have some years yet of wrangling over the future relationship, and that the issue of our relationship with Europe won’t away in the medium to long-term.

Are there any positives for a remainer like me? Yes, firstly we’re heading for a softer Brexit. Yes, the potential way emerging offers the chance to shape new fishing and agricultural policies and presents a huge opportunity for a fairer and more environmentally sustainable approach. I also think (with Keir Starmer continuing to shape Labour’s approach to free movement), we have some chance to shape a fairer, less harsh and more sensible policy for the UK on immigration and freedom of movement.

The downsides remain fierce- less investment, loss of confidence and our status within the world and the EU diminished. Having to accept laws we shaped but didn’t shape all that much. Losing the right to move to other EU member states when we retire, and the loss of many EU citizens who no longer feel welcome. Plus we can expect a raft of hard cases as the fate of EU citizens in the UK, and UK citizens in the EU are decided.

But, after 3 years of angst, I can see a more positive picture emerging and a chance to put endless Brexit debate beyond us eventually. Or more realistically, Brexit may not be the sum total of our political debate come 2020 or 2021.

Finally… the bigger picture …

People like me must accept the result, but that doesn’t mean the reasons people really voted for Brexit have gone away. A combination of duplicity and dark money, illegality and magic solutions thinking, a feeling of our leaders being remote and out of touch, a need to preserve communities and ways of living and a sense of loss, and multiple other reasons have fed the Brexit fire.

When, inevitably, actually leaving doesn’t solve these issues, we need to be ready with positive, progressive and more radical solutions…