Tuesday 17 September 2019

John Downing: 'Another Brexit referendum is moving up the agenda in the UK but bewilderment remains dominant factor'

'May has vehemently denounced the idea of a second Brexit vote. But she is no stranger to screaming political U-turns on Brexit' Photo: AFP/Getty Images
'May has vehemently denounced the idea of a second Brexit vote. But she is no stranger to screaming political U-turns on Brexit' Photo: AFP/Getty Images
John Downing

John Downing

Theresa May is back in the cauldron of the British parliament today as she delivers a report on her ill-starred trip to the EU summit last Thursday and Friday. And tomorrow she faces another gruelling meeting with her cabinet.

The past week's events further drained her already diminished authority and she is in the final months of her tenure as prime minister. Her final task remains piloting through a Brexit deal which avoids an EU crash-out in 130 days' time on March 29, 2019.

The more immediate deadline is January 21, the outer date by which the UK must by domestic law have completed the Brexit deal process. If the deal is not ratified by Westminster by then, the government must move and publish its other plans and options.

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The Brexit divisions at Westminster cannot be overstated. Brexiteers continue to insist the UK could exit without a deal and still avoid economic disaster. The Remainers are pushing for a new referendum.

May has vehemently denounced the idea of a second Brexit vote. But she is no stranger to screaming political U-turns on Brexit - and nobody would be astonished if she, or whoever comes after her, did opt for another referendum.

It could allow taking the issue away from the Westminster bubble for a direct appeal to the British public.

The admiration gained by May's battling through adversity might help sell this deal.

But another referendum would certainly be divisive - and would have no guarantee of being decisive. It would take up to four months to organise - taking us beyond the March 29 deadline.

There would be a huge row about what question(s) would be asked. Should it be about deciding on the exit deal terms? Or should it revisit the Remain or Leave question?

A new vote could trigger deep alienation among a Brexit-fatigued population, and there are worries divisions would be exploited by the far right. There is no guarantee English voters would heed multinational firms' warnings on jobs if a no-deal Brexit was a referendum option.

By now many of the options being explored - not least another referendum - involve an extension of the March 29 deadline. Extension would require the unanimous consent of the remaining 27 EU member states. That would probably be forthcoming provided the UK planned a referendum, or there was another credible chance of a breakthrough.

But delay also risks ramping up a backlash less than three years after UK voters opted 52pc by 48pc to quit the EU. We also have to remember European Parliament elections happen in May, and by summer into the autumn all focus will be on changing the policy-guiding Commission, whose term ends in November.

How far and how often can that Brexit can be kicked onwards?

In any other jurisdiction - or in any other circumstances - another UK general election would have happened by now. But the 2011 Fixed Term Parliament Act restricts the likelihood of this - by its logic the last election was June 2017 and the next one will be June 2022.

The only way that can change is the passing of a no-confidence motion in the government - or a two-thirds majority of MPs opting for an early vote. Tory Brexit rebels and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) have to realise they may be helping Labour's Jeremy Corbyn to power.

But, in yet another Brexit twist, the DUP and Mr Corbyn's Labour are making eyes at each other. Let's recall that even in the dark days of IRA murder and mayhem in the North, Corbyn, then a far-left marginal figure, was one of Sinn Féin's few friends at Westminster.

May's last move to call a snap election in June 2017 was a disaster and a repeat cannot be appetising. Besides, she promised MPs last week she would not lead them in the 2022 election. What about an earlier poll? And how could she unite her party?

So, we land at Ireland's most-hated option: a no-deal Brexit. It is rightly billed as Armageddon. But even as they risk committing the sin of presumption, many Brexiteers argue realistically that would have to be "managed" in EU-UK emergency talks. The Taoiseach has himself raised that possibility in recent weeks.

That would see diplomats scrambling to hash out specific agreements to minimise trade disruption, avoiding Border checks re-appearing in Ireland, and ensuring protection for UK citizens in the EU, and EU citizens in the UK. The British presumption also involves assuming the EU would shift off the high rock of insisting there can be no further re-negotiation.

But business and money markets would be horrified at the prospect of a no-deal exit. It could swing things back to an extension and second referendum. That would require the pro-EU MPs at Westminster getting over their party allegiance and making common cause on Brexit.

Yet it remains impossible to see Mrs May shoehorning her most reviled deal into a ratification vote at Westminster. A decisive rejection risks killing the deal stone dead. Tory Brexiteers' assumption of more talks to manage the next moves might be sorely tested. It is clear EU leaders do not want to be pushed into making any more concessions. Apart from anything else they fear it will only spur the DUP and the Brexiteers to demand even more changes to the Withdrawal Agreement.

The real risk is EU leaders could conclude to better use the time to focus on no-deal preparations which would protect jobs and trade across the EU, which still has 460 million people. Such an appalling vista would surely hasten May's already certain departure.

But a change of leader could trigger a full-scale Tory civil war. It could also encourage opposition parties to attempt to bring down the government.

A combination of political turmoil and the growing likelihood of a no-deal exit could fuel a major economic crisis that would lead investors to take cash out of Britain.

The knock-on for Ireland would be very harsh. Such prospects for the UK have already probably stopped May writing her resignation letter in her tougher moments of the past few weeks.

But that leadership change might pave the way for the UK parliament to explore different options. A potential successor to May, Work and Pensions Minister Amber Rudd, has spoken about prospects of "a coalition of those who want what's best for this country". Advocates of another referendum, or other options, would all have the chance to make their case.

The Tory Brexiteers might favour another election rather than watch pro-EU MPs cook up a consensus to deliver a soft Brexit or delay leaving for a considerable time. Anti-EU campaigners would point to the parliament votes as proof that an elite is busy betraying Brexit and the will of the people expressed in the June 2016 referendum.

The bewilderment grows and this one changes by the hour.

Irish Independent

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