To agree to write a Brexit blog this week of all weeks may be crazy. But since everyone agrees that nobody knows what will happen, it may yet be quite safe. I may turn out to have been amazingly prescient. And if not, no-one can blame me!
So, three propositions:
- Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement (WA) gets through Parliament.
- There follow three years of wrangling and uncertainty over the UK’s future relationship with the EU.
- Meanwhile, the underlying ills which shaped the referendum remain unchanged.
The parliamentary arithmetic suggests that it is virtually impossible for the WA to get through Parliament. Despite that, it may pass, for three main reasons. First, enough Conservative MPs may conclude that May’s dogged commitment offers the only way to avoid a cliff-edge crash-out or a general election with the spectre of a Corbyn victory. Secondly, growing business support for the deal will have an impact, undermining the hard-line Brexiteer argument that it is the worst of all worlds. Thirdly, the hopelessly incoherent opposition Labour Party, may decide that ultimately the WA doesn’t matter all that much, and focus on the future UK-EU relationship. PM May is, for her own reasons, already trying to shift the ground in that direction. It could make it easier for some Labour MPs to abstain.
If that happens and we move into “transition”, the negotiations for the new relationship will still embody all the old Leave vs Remain contradictions. Party splits and arguments about “rule-taking” and “vassalage” will persist. But the UK will be formally and legally speaking out of the EU. Brexit will have happened. Some of the venom may dissipate, not least if the particularly toxic migration issue is put to one side. There may be more focus on economic arguments. The government will probably need to use the option to extend the transition period, as the Business Secretary has already indicated. The negotiation will expand to fill the time available to it. Who knows how it will play out. A more measured process does not, though, make EEA membership or anything similar more likely: “Canada ++” voices may prevail, especially if business has a three-year window to prepare. In any case, uncertainty will continue.
None of this will change the fundamental problems facing UK, many of which have no direct link to EU membership but nonetheless significantly coloured the Brexit debate. These include huge challenges to our current constitutional settlement. A Parliamentary system which promotes polarisation and side-lines minority voices; continuing tensions over Scottish independence, or greater devolution for Wales or the status of the NI Assembly; and frustration in the English regions are among factors feeding popular dissatisfaction with existing political structures. Other underlying challenges include generational inequality, with my generation’s children expecting to have tougher lives than we did; funding health, welfare, and education services properly without crippling taxes; regional and city disparities in wealth, opportunity and quality of life. And that is without the policy challenges of big data, AI, climate change, terrorism…
This scenario evokes the fatalism of Beckett’s “Endgame”. But it avoids crisis and allows a process which the UK Civil Service can manage even in the absence of effective political leadership. It is, sadly, better than many of the alternatives.