“Brexit means Brexit!” is a catchy slogan used by those who support leaving the EU. The problem is no one understood the details involved in actually leaving when they voted for it nor can they agree on what leaving the EU actually means now or how to do it. It certainly doesn’t mean a pain-free return to a pre-1973 UK, a time before Britain joined the European Communities which then morphed into the EU. It will not be a restoration of the “Empire”. And the millions of pounds each week that the Brexiteers boldly and falsely claimed during the referendum campaign would be available for the NHS because the country no longer had to “pay” the EU will not exist.
Earlier in this turbulent week, having twice soundly rejected Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement, Parliament took a number of indicative votes which resulted in proving that no plan was acceptable. A hard Brexit was soundly rejected by 240 votes. A softer Brexit that kept the UK in the trading markets of the European Free Trade Association and the European Economic Area but outside the EU customs union garnered just 64 votes. An almost identical plan but one that has the UK still remaining in the customs union was rejected by 70 votes. Another similar proposal that would seek a preferential trading relationship with the EU if the withdrawal agreement failed lost by slightly less than 300 votes. Revoking Article 50 was rejected by over 100 votes. An amorphous Labour proposal for a soft Brexit lost by 70 votes.
There were, however, two proposals that provided some hope, merely because they were not soundly rejected. The first was a motion to allow the public to vote on whatever deal finally emerged which only went down to defeat by 27 votes and garnered the most “yes” votes of any proposal. And a proposal to simply remain in the EU customs union fell by just six votes. The closeness of those two votes may now provide a path forward.
Meanwhile, yesterday, the original date for Brexit, Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement was voted down for the third time, this time by nearly 60 votes, a vast improvement over the prior two rejections by 230 and 149 vote margins which were resounding in their defeats. This time, the agreement was coupled with May’s promise to step down as Prime Minister if the plan passed. It didn’t. Now the new “deadine” is April 12.
But a third defeat apparently won’t stop May. Like Monty Python’s Black Knight, May believes her withdrawal agreement is not dead yet and plans to have yet another vote next week. This time, instead of pitting her plan against a hard Brexit, she appears to want to present a choice between her plan and the winner of an indicative vote between the two most popular plans in the prior indicative vote, staying in the customs union or another referendum on the final deal. Remainers rightly point out that May is getting vote after vote on her failed plan but the actual voters in the country do not get a second vote on Brexit now that they have realistic idea of what it entails. For some reason, that vote is set in stone and can never be amended.
To perhaps force an analogy, Brexit is like a married couple with children where one spouse suddenly wants a divorce in order to return to the good old days of single life with few cares and responsibilities. But every proposed divorce agreement actually leaves the spouse worse off. The cost of the economic split will substantially crimp the existing lifestyle. The custody arrangements are horrible. One child will hate the spouse for leaving, the other for staying. And, upon true reflection, that single life doesn’t seem that great. And now everyone is getting fed up because the spouse can’t decide what to do. The EU is fed up with the UK’s inability to decide on what they want. The people and businesses of Britain are fed up with years of uncertainty and indecision and the spinelessness of their politicians. And now everyone just wants the UK to make up its mind and get on with it, whatever “it” is. That is usually not a good recipe for a sound decision.
The hypocrisy on all sides has been a wonder to behold. Labour has primarily used the details of an actual Brexit as a cudgel to try and force a new election, while being able to paper over the fact that Brexit also splits the Labour party. Original Brexiteers Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson, having derided May’s plan as a capitulation for months, actually voted for it on Friday so that they could have the opportunity to become the new leader of the Conservative party when May stepped down.
The UK is only in this predicament because David Cameron had this bright idea on how to win his election. Worried about Conservative defections to UKIP, Cameron figured that promising a referendum to leave the EU would not only sap support for UKIP but also split the Labour party, especially in its core constituencies in the north of the country. Implicit in that promise was the belief that the UK would never be so self-destructive as to leave the EU but Cameron could claim he at lest provided the opportunity to do so. That turned out to be a great plan for David Cameron but a terrible plan for the UK.
It is remarkable how Theresa May has followed Cameron’s playbook. Her decision to call a snap election in order to solidify her position completely backfired and left her substantially weaker with a cobbled together majority. From the moment the UK invoked Article 50, May’s plan seems to have been to run out the clock until the deadline in an attempt to force acceptance of the agreement she negotiated or be faced with a calamitous hard Brexit. And after every defeat of her agreement, May keeps on trying to pit her plan against a less palatable alternative in order to get it passed. This was essentially Cameron’s play with the original election promise and referendum. It didn’t work for Cameron. It’s not working for May.
So where does the UK go from here with the next deadline of April 12 fast approaching? Well, as one cabinet member was reported to have said, “F%#k knows!”. We may see a vote between May’s plan and the plan to remain in the customs union. That would truly be ironic because remaining in the customs union without the political integration into the EU provides the UK with even less control over its own destiny that simply staying the EU. EU trade rules will have to be abided by and new trade agreements struck by the EU will be binding on the UK, but Britain would have no say in how those would be crafted. It provides the optimal solution for the EU, keeping the UK in the customs union but allowing them not to have to listen to Britain’s constant political demands for special treatment. As one pro-Brexit leader said, it would make the UK an EU “vassal state”.
Another option increasing in likelihood is a new general election combined with a long extension to the exit date. The prospect of both, an extension to the uncertainty that the public has endured for nearly three years and yet another vote that yet again may not provide a definitive result, is not a happy one. Every one is fed up and hates the whole process while still being passionate about the result. Welcome to Brexit.
Originally published at thesoundings.com on March 30, 2019.