To pass her Brexit deal through the House of Commons next week, UK Prime Minister Theresa May needs a balance of terror among those who favour rival outcomes. She needs hardline Brexiteers to worry that if they don’t vote with her, Brexit won’t happen at all, and some ardent Remainers to think that unless they support her, Britain will “crash out” of the EU without a deal.
Her problem is that, far from such a balance of terror existing, the very opposite prevails – a kind of equilibrium of complacency. Each set of opponents is smugly confident that, once her deal is voted down, their own view will prevail. The new year has been marked by all of them claiming fresh support and optimism.
Advocates of a second referendum have released a poll showing ever more people demanding one. Those who want the “Norway option” claim momentum. And some who are relaxed about a no-deal outcome say the support for it is growing.
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With all groups, except the UK cabinet, believing they are in a stronger position, it is no wonder parliamentary numbers have shown little sign so far of shifting.
Somebody, somewhere, is obviously making a big mistake, but who is it? In particular I worry that my former colleagues on the Conservative benches, and many activists in their constituencies, are misjudging both the consequences of a no-deal Brexit and the chances of bringing it about.
The readiness to embrace this is understandable. Two years of maddening negotiations gives rise to a feeling of “let’s just go!” The apparent refusal of the EU to give legally binding assurances on the use of the Irish backstop reinforces the desire to walk away from it. The idea of telling Brussels we will not give them any money or obey any of their rules after March 29 is no small attraction.
Since the referendum in 2016, the Italians have lurched to populism, the French have taken to the barricades, the Germans entered a political paralysis and Jean-Claude Juncker even more the caricature of an out-of-touch Commission.
Dire forecasts are easy to greet with mirth, as my old friend Boris did very effectively. Shortages of Mars bars are not frightening to the electorate.
The Bank of England has foretold a deep recession, but suffers from previous inaccurate warnings, and its assumption that it would raise interest rates sharply, which no one believes, however true it might be.
In the meantime, many financial firms have already prepared for a no-deal outcome, and the EU has started to announce measures it would take to keep flights in the air and the access of its banks to City markets. So it’s not surprising many patriotic people think leaving without a deal wouldn’t turn out badly after all. And if it becomes a choice between this and the long, divisive and interminable nightmare of a second referendum, perhaps this would be a risk worth taking.
Yet a risk it remains, and a very serious one. The truth must be that no one really knows what would happen, and we should have sufficient humility and realism to acknowledge that.
Tariffs would be applied immediately to goods traded between the UK and the EU, and a common-sense assumption would be this would mean many higher prices or less business.
The car industry relies on its components moving seamlessly across the Channel. The supermarkets only have one-and-a-half days’ supply in stock at any time. Millions of people on both sides would have their legal status and healthcare thrown into jeopardy. The UK would lose the ability to track criminals into the rest of Europe, and so on – a list like this soon becomes a long one.
The UK National Farmers Union, business leaders, the people who run universities and many more all say it would be something between a disaster and a catastrophe. They could all be wrong, of course, but what if they’re right? You don’t have to study this for many minutes to think that it would be a very big risk for the livelihoods of a huge number of people, and if you’re in government you don’t subject those people to such a risk unless all the alternatives are truly terrible.
Here I respectfully disagree with Boris, who wrote recently that a no-deal outcome most closely corresponds to what people voted for in the referendum.
I seem to remember many assurances at that time that it would not be too difficult to reach a deal with the EU, and even that a trade deal with them would be the easiest ever negotiated. Major risks and uncertainty for businesses and families were not part of the promises presented to them.
The biggest problem in hoping for this type of Brexit, however, is there appears to be a majority in the Commons against it.
If we were going to leave with no deal, then the best chance of mitigating the many risks would be to do so with a clear plan, backed by a parliamentary majority ready to take all the necessary measures – many new laws would be urgently required covering customs and immigration checks, suspending many others and spending a lot of money on solving problems where they emerged.
There is no chance of that with this House of Commons. Nor would there be with any new House likely to emerge from a fresh election. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
- William Hague is a former leader of the Conservative Party
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