What’s going to happen with Brexit?

2018 is almost done, the Parliaments have adjourned for the holidays and fewer than 100 days are left before the scheduled date for the UK’s departure from the European Union. At this time of the year I am normally asked what I’m doing over the holidays but this year the first question is “what’s going to happen with Brexit?”.

As if I knew. It’s nice people think I might, but I really don’t. The fact is I don’t think anyone knows - that is anyone at all, including Mrs May, Monsieur Barnier, Frau Merkel and Santa Clause. Far from the possibilities narrowing they would seem to have widened since Mrs May’s short-lived Withdrawal Agreement was announced.

What we all know is that the politics of the UK are in a dire state and Parliament at Westminster is deadlocked. There is no majority for Mrs May’s Withdrawal Agreement and the accompanying political declaration that consigns the UK to walking the Brexit plank blindfold. There is no majority for leaving with ‘no deal’ either but on neither question was the Commons allowed to express its clear view.

Less clearly, there is probably not yet a majority for any single way of resolving this impasse. The only way a majority may emerge is once the Commons is able to express a view on what is on the table. Mrs May’s game in this is to waste time. In this the holiday has been her friend. Her game seems now to take the issue to the wire hoping the fear of ‘no deal’ will bring those opposing the agreement to accept what she terms ‘the inevitable’ even though it is a very bad deal indeed. This is a dangerous game and not the strategy of a rational administration.

I have never accepted that anything is inevitable in politics and this certainly isn’t. Labour MPs, however, will need to hold their nerve and find a way to ensure that ‘no deal’ is not an available option.

Labour’s position of seeking a General Election relies, of course, on a motion of no confidence in the Government being called and won by the opposition. Needless to say, the usefulness of a General Election in this situation is dependent on it being won by Labour rather than it strengthening the Government. Either could happen, neither is certain. While the General Election route is hard both to achieve and to predict, one certainty is that a General Election, given the current timeframe, would require an extension of the Article 50 process or the withdrawal of Article 50 by the UK. If only I had a fiver for every time in the past two years some smart Alec has told me that neither of these things were possible! Fortunately, thanks to the brilliant work of my EPLP colleagues, Catherine Stilher MEP, David Martin MEP and their co-litigators in the Scottish courts, we now know for certain Brexit can be stopped.

As I see it, and as many of those whose political noses I trust see it, the electorate very much want Brexit to be stopped - or rather they want Brexit to stop. Whether they voted ‘leave’ or remain, they are fed up with hearing about it. This is the truth behind the ‘they just want us to get on with it’ mantra of Mrs May and her loyalists.

Unfortunately, that is not what will happen if the UK crashes out with no deal, leaves with Mrs May’s deal and goes into ‘transition’ or concocts some last minute Norway style get out. In any of those circumstance our political discourse will continue to be dominated by the relationship between the UK and the EU for the foreseeable future. This is how it goes: first off, the ‘transition’ is scheduled for 21 months. The UK then negotiates its future position directly with the EU Commission. Trouble is the current Commission goes out of business in May and the new Commission, with summer holidays and everything, is unlikely to be approved before mid-October. There goes a third of the ‘transition’ before negotiations can get moving, then it takes time for positions to be set out and understood, etc so in practice there is 12 months at best to cover everything that is necessary to define a future relationship. Some of it is relatively simple, some rather complex, certainly a priority for the UK but for the EU, not so much. The only logical conclusion is that the transition simply isn’t long enough to avoid another ‘cliff edge’ at the end of 2020. How long the UK is in ‘transition’ with no seat at the table and no representation remains anybody’s guess but whatever it is ‘Brexit’ and what it will mean will continue to rumble on for years to come. Sorry folks, but there is no way this sorry tale ends with an ‘exit’ of any sort on 29 March.

Which leaves the other possibility of a vote on the outcome on offer. A number of arguments are made against another referendum. Some say it would be an affront to ‘democracy’. I find it hard to see how giving people the opportunity to change their mind or confirm their choice in which everyone, hopefully including those disenfranchised last time round, has a vote can negate democracy. This is nonsense, but it is the ONLY argument the Brexiteers who got us into this mess have left and a pretty pathetic one at that. Others say another vote would be divisive. I can’t argue that it would not be but I’m afraid anyone who cares to look will see how desperately divided we are as a country and I fail to see how it could get any worse. Others still talk of civil disorder - the threat of the far right. For me the problem has sprung precisely from a failure to confront the far right and in trimming and triangulating around their poisonous agenda. We cannot let such threats stand or we are on a very slippery slope indeed. Finally, there are those who don’t want another vote because it could produce the same result. Well, I wouldn’t want that, of course, but if it did at least it would resolve a situation where we currently have a result the legitimacy of which will never stand for many of the 15m people whose voices have been studiously ignored - a funny way to ‘bring the nation together’. Others suggest some kind of vote without 'remain' - membership on the current deal i.e. better terms that are available to any other EU member - on the ballot. If you really want to divide the nation that’s how to do it. To deny the option to change one’s mind is certainly an odd view of democracy and has been to tool of dictatorships for the past century. There are, indeed, risks in another vote - but on what the people started they should be allowed the final word.

So, I just don’t know how it will all end. What I do know is before ‘the nation can brought together’  in any satisfactory way questions buried under the Brexit landslide must be addressed; how we bring about fair shares in a fair society; how the UK relates to the rest of the world; how the rights of citizens are guaranteed; an honest migration narrative; the nature of work in the modern world; and the unfinished business that is the nature of the United Kingdom’s own union.

Happy holidays.