Brexit: the final fortnight

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?




3 thoughts on “Brexit: the final fortnight

  1. Meanwhile, out in the real world, Putin is trying his mischief. Probably calculating that with Trump more or else neutralised, and one of the big EU three totally distracted, he can get away with it. He’s probably right.
    I can’t imagine it will come to it (though Simon Jenkins had worries in today’s Guardian) but maybe a little war, or threat of, might snap the Brits out of their idiot funk.
    But it doesn’t seem May would be up to the challenge. One thing you’d have to say about Maggie, she knew how to exploit a little war to save her from first-reelection disaster.


  2. Canada had a similar problem in 1984 after the Supreme Court in Morgenthaler struck down its then federal abortion law. Ironically, the Court’s objection was not (unlike Roe v Wade to the south) that it was too restrictive, but rather that it was too vague and uncertain, which impaired the individual’s right under the 1982 Trudeau Charter to “liberty and security of person”. The Court left it open to the Canadian parliament to draft a new and clearer statute, which could have imposed extensive restrictions, as long as these were precisely defined. But no one Bill got a majority in both Houses (the one that came closest was the most draconian, but it fell short of 50% support), so by default abortion in Canada was left almost entirely unregulated by law, at least by federal statute law.
    It looks like Brexit might produce a similar stalemate – this time worse, with a ticking clock and with libertarianism not an option.
    The least-worst solution in wicked cases like this might be to agree, well in advance, that after some longish delay (2 or 3 years, perhaps, and a general election intervening), all elected legislators [*] shall meet and vote by “lowest-one-out” ballot until only two options remain, and by either prior statute or by political gents’ agreement, the higher of the two will be deemed adopted even if it doesn’t have an absolute majority of the entire parliament. In fact, I believe Australia used a similar method to select Canberra as the site of the federal capital district, in fulfilment of its constitutional obligation and of course House and Senate use exhaustive ballots to choose their Speaker/ President.

    [*] In the UK this would be the Commons only. In Australia or the US this would be a joint sitting.


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