Never has delay seemed as appetising as it does over Brexit.
With the prime minister having announced that MPs won’t get another “meaningful vote” on her deal for another couple of weeks, we’re getting towards what Sir Alex Ferguson would call “squeaky bum time”. While Theresa May appears willing to wind down the clock, others are less sanguine.
So it is that Yvette Cooper and Sir Oliver Letwin are seemingly set to lay down an amendment this Wednesday which would effectively take the no-deal option off the Brexit menu, and thus almost certainly force an unspecified delay. Three cabinet ministers have given strong indications that they would be prepared to vote for it.
In an effort to head off the measure, which would diminish the government’s power over the Brexit process, Tory backbenchers have proposed an alternative amendment. This would also delay the UK’s withdrawal but for a strictly defined, two month period. The government would remain in the driving seat. It is even hinted Theresa May will announce a delay unilaterally, to head off any rebellion.
Meanwhile, EU officials are reportedly considering a much longer delay – to 2021. Their concern is that a short extension would simply see further time-wasting and a continuation of British parliamentary deadlock.
Supporters of a second referendum may believe that the longer Brexit is delayed, the more likely it is that the public will be given a Final Say on the withdrawal deal – although that logic may be flawed if the EU is painted as deliberately blocking Britain’s exit.
In any event, for now the prime minister remains in charge of the country’s destiny, holding firm to the tiller despite a buffeting from all sides and never minding the possibility that there may be a waterfall at the end of the Brexit river.
It’s easy enough to understand why she believes that the EU will eventually blink. For one thing, the EU has backed down frequently enough in the past to encourage those who think we need only to hold our nerve to get a better deal (ie the Lisbon Treaty). For another, there is no doubt that the EU would vastly prefer to avoid no deal.
But this attitude is utterly one-eyed. There are plenty of occasions when the EU absolutely did not blink – notably over Greek austerity measures. What’s more, while it is plainly true that the EU would not welcome a no-deal exit, that scenario would certainly impact more heavily on the UK than the remaining members (with the possible exception of Ireland).
And crucially, the only issue which the PM is seeking to re-examine – the much-debated Irish backstop – is not something which can easily be radically altered; retaining the integrity of the EU single market and customs union is a matter of law, not something which can tinkered with on a whim.
Yet arguably the greatest frustration in the present stage of Brexit is that we are missing the bigger picture. All talk is of varied lengths of delay, tweaks to the Irish backstop and parliamentary tactics.
Beyond Westminster, the effects of Brexit are already being felt, with businesses tightening purse strings thanks to the ongoing uncertainty and foreign investors looking elsewhere. Moreover, the deal negotiated by Theresa May has hardly found overwhelming support, even putting the Irish border question to one side: it’s the best she could manage and it’s not much cop – even as far as many Brexiteers are concerned.
Not only that, but this is only half the deal – the bit that gets us out; not the bit that will create new trading arrangements. That is probably the most important element and we haven’t even started to discuss it.
In that context, no wonder the prime minister is trying to take things to the wire. The more she creates anxiety about a no-deal option, the more everybody focusses on arcane questions of parliamentary process. And as other commentators have noted, the more likely it may be that she persuades her colleagues in Westminster to back her flawed deal.
It is all, very obviously, a shambles. So yes, let’s delay Brexit – indefinitely.
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