As expected, the leaders of the European Union last week signed off on the deal negotiated by British prime minister Theresa May for her country’s exit from the EU. Now comes the hard part.
The British parliament next week begins debate on the agreement, with a vote scheduled for 11 December. Unless there is some radical shift in the dynamics of opinion between now and then, it seems doomed to defeat. The Guardian’s do-it-yourself guide suggests a vote of 441 to 198 against.
And no-one seems to have a clue what will happen then.
The media have been slow on the uptake on this point, but they finally seem to be coming round. The BBC’s Ben Wright this morning has a fine summary of the options. The bottom line is that it seems impossible to get to any of them; there is, as he quotes former Tory minister Justine Greening, “no majority for any route forward.”
But “nothing” isn’t an option. As I said back in July, “there’s no such thing as an impossible situation: something has to happen.” If parliament fails to agree on anything, then Britain will crash out of the EU on 29 March next year with no deal, leading to massive economic dislocation.
May’s three main groups of opponents have completely different strategies to deal with this. The leaders of the Labour opposition want a general election, which they (not unreasonably) expect will bring them to power, and they will then somehow sort out Brexit from there. The “remainers”, drawn from both parties as well as most of the crossbench, want a second referendum, while the hard-line Brexiters want to overthrow May from within the Tory party and seize power for themselves.
No-one can deal with the last group, whose scorched-earth strategy admits of no compromise. But it’s possible that the first two, despite their different approaches, could come to some agreement: the Tory remainers will support an election, on the understanding that a Corbyn government will legislate for a second referendum if no better option presents itself.
The problem with that, however, is that the timetable is so tight: a February general election (itself a daunting prospect – no election has been held earlier than 23 February in more than a century) would leave only weeks for the new parliament to act before the March deadline.
If the election produced an unexpected result, or if the EU refused to agree to an emergency extension while things were worked out (and possibly a new referendum organised), then chaos could result.
And it’s not even clear just what a second referendum would ask. Would people be asked to choose between May’s deal and staying in? Could there be some sort of preferential vote? Would the Norwegian option (leave, but stay in the single market) be on the ballot? Or would the same question just be asked again, with the attendant risk of going back to square one if it got the same answer?