Friday 18 October 2019

John Downing: 'Brexit day is looming - but we're none the wiser as to what the outcome might be. Take your pick from these...'

'Already the talk has moved to uncertain scenarios around what happens next.' Stock image
'Already the talk has moved to uncertain scenarios around what happens next.' Stock image
John Downing

John Downing

Barring Santa Claus arriving early in the Westminster Parliament, accompanied by a reincarnated Elvis Presley, Theresa May's efforts to get ratification tomorrow for her UK-EU divorce deal are doomed.

So already the talk has moved to uncertain scenarios around what happens next. Reality is, dear reader, your guess is as good as anyone else's. But let's sample eight separate scenarios around which current speculation is turning.

1. Theresa May defies all odds and wins: This is about as likely as the inter-pub team from 'Houlihan's Select Lounge and Grill' beating the Manchester United first 11. But, if there was a crazy sum game outcome of rival forces cancelling each other out, it would be to Ireland's great joy.

Threats of a hard Border would seriously recede - and there would be up to two years of breathing space to sort out the EU-UK future relations, securing Ireland's lucrative trade with the UK for now.

2. The EU is called to deliver a post-midnight rescue: If Mrs May survived the most fundamental policy reverse delivered to any post-war UK leader, she would very probably appeal to the EU for help to put her crocked deal back into play. Brussels diplomats insist the main Brexit Withdrawal Agreement cannot be reopened.

Otherwise the French would demand more concessions on fish, the Spanish would be back on the Gibraltar case, and so on, across the 27 remaining EU states.

But more EU political guarantees would very probably be advanced on a political declaration framing upcoming talks on a future EU-UK relationship. This could well include a specific assurance that everyone wants to avoid using the Irish backstop and would instead seriously bid for a better arrangement on future EU-UK trade.

3. A second Westminster vote: This might follow from any such EU placations. Chances of success second time around might be increased by a huge amount of money market turmoil. But let's not forget that MP opponents of this deal, on both the Brexiteer and Remain sides, insist right now that they need changes to the main agreement. The EU insists this is not possible.

Everyone on the EU side is adamant the main treaty is untouchable. This one could involve more brinkmanship and the Irish negotiators, who have done well up to now, will need to watch these closely. It took forever for the Irish to get the Border some prominence - now it's the key issue.

4. Change of prime minister or change of government: Failure for Mrs May would see her out the door of 10 Downing Street in any other circumstance. Uncertainty about even that prospect tells us much about the strange political times in contemporary Britain.

Labour is determined to move a no-confidence vote in Mrs May if and when she fails to pilot through her Brexit deal.

The Democratic Unionist Party, propping up Mrs May's minority government, and her own rebel party members, must then decide. Do they want Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn to lead? Are they ready for an early election? But the war may well be within the Conservative Party with a leadership challenge. At best this could take several weeks to play out, fuelling continuing uncertainty.

5. Another election: The importance of the 2011 Fixed Term Parliaments Act is often missed by people on this side of the water. It effectively means an early election requires the support of two-thirds of MPs. Tories and the DUP do not appear keen on going that road. Brexit was not a big theme in the last election in June 2017 which proved such a disaster for Mrs May.

But it would be centre stage in any election now. Everything is so volatile that another election is as likely an outcome as any other despite the legal obstacles.

6. A second Brexit referendum: Unthinkable up to even last week, this notion is gaining ground. But that option opens several other cans of worms.

For a start, it would take four to six months to organise. Given the backwash of rows and litigation which followed the 2016 Brexit mark one vote, the Electoral Commission insists that proper registration of canvass groups and full supervision of their finances must be in place and will take time.

Then there would be squabbling about the wording(s) to be put before voters. Would it be a straight "Leave/Remain" or should it deal with the EU-UK exit terms?

Remain sentiment has grown since last time - but an outcome remains uncertain. Ireland re-ran EU referendums twice, in 2001/2002 on the EU Nice Treaty; and 2008/2009 on the Lisbon Treaty. But we are more used to referendums and the issues were far less divisive.

A second vote is only likely if Labour finally backs it. That would mean Labour failed to get its favoured option of a general election. Either another referendum or a Brexit-themed general election would require EU unanimous agreement to extend the Brexit deadline. An extension would probably be granted, but must not be taken for granted. The other EU governments would have to know there was a real chance of a resolution of one kind or another, and given the experience of the past two years, that could be problematic.

7. Norway or Canada or some such: This is the point where the UK politicians turn to other deals that are not actually on offer, right now at any rate. The arrangements with Canada and Norway offer preferential access to EU markets.

Norway twice almost joined the EU but its voters, emboldened by oil riches, rejected the idea in 1972 and 1994. Norway is part of the so-called European Economic Area, which offers many advantages. But Norway allows free movement of people, which is a major flashpoint for British voters who were motivated to back Brexit over immigration fears. It would require more negotiations and delays.

8. No deal or crash-out: This is everybody's nightmare. It would wreak economic havoc in Britain and probably something worse in Ireland. For a start a crash-out would put the kibosh on the Border backstop and the transition period, up to the end of 2020 or more likely 2021, which Irish and all other EU businesses need for breathing space.

It is a real prospect if a deal is not ratified by the Brexit deadline of 11pm Dublin time on March 29 next. There is little appetite for such an outcome among all bar a few Brexit fanatics in England, and we mean England, not Britain. But it could be hard to avoid if wiser politicians do not act in time.

Finally, there is the least likely notion of all that political paralysis in the UK could lead to "No Brexit".

Irish Independent

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