Analysis & Comment

Colm McCarthy: 'May turns up volume as clock ticks down to chaos on Brexit'

Nothing has changed,” Theresa May’s regular explanation of her policy shifts on Brexit over the past two years, finally fits. A no-deal crash-out three months from now is just as likely following the meeting of Conservative MPs last Wednesday, as is her preferred deal with the EU following her fruitless trip to Brussels last Friday.

The no-deal crash-out will be kept prominently on public view: the clock ticking loudly down to chaos is the motivator to assembling a House of Commons majority for Mrs May’s deal.

Her intention appears to be a decisive vote on January 21, a choice between the deal as negotiated or the automatic expiration of the notice period on March 29. She deferred the vote last Tuesday for fear of defeat but cannot do so indefinitely without courting a vote of no confidence in the government.

There are other options. The United Kingdom could revoke Brexit unilaterally, since the European Court ruled last Monday that the UK has the power to do so. The government could seek an extension to the notice period from the European Council, but only for some adequate reason, say to facilitate a second referendum. Mrs May will consider neither course unless the deal as negotiated is defeated in parliament, nor is there a Commons majority for another general election. The withdrawal deal and the accompanying political declaration will be implemented if a Commons majority can be achieved.

If not, the live threat is no-deal, since it is the default option. It happens automatically in the absence of positive measures to avoid it. It cannot be averted by a disapproving vote in parliament. The UK will get no more from the EU and if it declines the deal there is no withdrawal agreement and no transition period after March.

Mrs May’s strategy is clear: put the deal to the Commons as late as possible, turn up the volume on the ticking clock, rinse and repeat. But with 117 Tory MPS voting no confidence in Mrs May, there is no sign of a Commons majority for her deal.

Had it been put to a Commons vote as planned last Tuesday it would have gone down in flames, defeated by as many as 200 votes and precipitating the collapse of the government. Who will change their position by January 21 or subsequently? If even 20 Tory or DUP MPs vote against, with the united opposition, that is enough to vote down the deal. In that sense, Mrs May’s victory last Wednesday changes nothing and almost all the 117 Tory malcontents would have to convert to avoid a defeat.

The straight revocation of the Article 50 resignation letter, in defiance of the referendum result, has few friends in parliament and the European Court’s verdict delivers to the UK an option unlikely to be used unless the clock runs all the way down to March 29. An application to extend the March deadline can be made to the European Council and could be conceded by unanimity.

If the basis for the request was either a general election or a second referendum, the request would be granted, but not to facilitate another can-kicking delay. The two-year limit on the notice period is there for a reason, to provide time for a withdrawal agreement, a task which the EU-27 feels has been accomplished, while denying the departing state unlimited opportunities for prolonging the process.

The Taoiseach was therefore quite accurate to observe in Brussels last Thursday that the UK can take the no-deal risk off the table through either revoke or extend. But Mrs May will wish to maintain that the triplet of choices consists of “my deal, no deal, or no Brexit”. Faced with the accelerating prospect of no deal, she can surely scare some middle-ground MPs to accept her deal, warts and all.

But there is a group of irreconcilables who may never convert. They have support in the country, too. If you read the below-the-line readers’ comments in the Mail or the Telegraph these past few days, they reveal a dogged indifference about failure to agree a withdrawal agreement, without which the UK crashes out.

The Bank of England amongst others has expressed alarm at the prospect of an instant recession and the financial markets will get their retaliation in first. But the out-and-out Brexiteer MPs are so sanguine about a no-deal crash-out that they could obstruct May’s deal down to the wire.

Nor has the Brussels meeting last Friday helped to remove any of the possible short-term outcomes – there could be a withdrawal agreement as negotiated, and hence a transition agreement and relief from any disruption, at least until the end of 2020, to current trading arrangements.

There could be a no-deal crash-out even though Mrs May and most of the House of Commons wish to avoid it. And there could be a respite from Brexit through a second referendum, a general election or even both.

Anyone rash enough to predict the course of the Brexit process immediately after the referendum in June 2016 would have revised their predictions quickly, repeatedly, and got it wrong time and again.

That nobody can determine the outcome for Britain’s trading relationship with Europe (or anyone else) just over three months from now is extraordinary.

The referendum itself always had this potential, since the Leave option was never accompanied by a clear articulation of what the option would mean. There are simply too many competing visions of Brexit and David Cameron’s government, perhaps in the expectation of a Remain victory, had done no detailed planning. He promptly resigned, and little was done over the balance of 2016.

It will come to be seen, whenever the dust finally settles, that the real damage was done in the early months of 2017.

Mrs May’s speech at Lancaster House in January set out a series of red lines which enthused the Brexiteers at the cost of eliminating the prospect of a successful negotiation. The deal envisaged at Lancaster House was never available, not because the EU were set to be awkward but because the trading privileges of the internal market are not available to non-members.

Under pressure from the Brexiteer ultras and the right-wing press, and against civil service advice, she proceeded to tender the Article 50 resignation letter in March, having fuelled unrealistic expectations of what could be achieved.

The EU and British negotiators have somehow managed to come up with a withdrawal treaty that meets the legal requirements, but it is easy to understand why so many in the UK are disappointed.

They were led to believe that the EU could ignore the constraints of the treaties of which the UK is a signatory and deliver to the UK a set of privileges as a third country which members do not enjoy.

The fault lies with the drafters of the Lancaster House speech and the decision to despatch the Article 50 notification before the UK government had settled on a viable plan for Brexit.

Short of a Brexit reversal, which would require a political convulsion in the UK, the best that Ireland can hope for is that the withdrawal agreement goes through.

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