We are sliding towards the Brexit abyss: will MPs call a halt or watch the fall?

Nissan have pulled back on investment and officials are planning for social disorder; yet the prime minister blithely assures us all will be well

Sunday 03 February 2019 19:02
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Home Secretary Sajid Javid: 'We will still be a very safe country'

Nissan has confirmed that it will not, after all, be making the new model X-Trail in Sunderland. While jobs are not – at this stage – apparently under threat at the car manufacturer’s plant in the city, the news comes as a blow.

In the months after the 2016 referendum, Nissan said it would build the new car in the UK after receiving assurances from the government.

Evidently those assurances are no longer sufficient, with the ongoing uncertainty about Britain’s future relationship with the EU enough to put the brakes on the company’s plans. The X-Trail will now be made in Japan instead.

Ministers have highlighted Nissan’s continuing commitment to current manufacturing output in Sunderland. But there will be deep anxiety among workers across Britain’s automotive industry that this development is simply a sign of things to come.

As new models enter production, will global firms take the opportunity to increase investment in the isolated UK or turn to other centres of operation which have established trading links with the rest of the world? It’s not difficult to see which option is likely to prove more attractive.

Meanwhile, it has emerged that civil servants have been making contingency plans to evacuate the Queen and other members of the royal family from London in the event of public disorder following a no-deal Brexit.

This exigency measure, which appears to amount to an updating of Cold War-era emergency planning, is an inevitable consequence of the prevailing risk of a chaotic departure from the EU. And while we might take the revelation with a pinch of salt, it is clear that officials believe the risk of civil strife cannot be ignored.

The overriding message we can take from both these very different developments is that faith in the government’s ability to deliver Brexit in an orderly and timely way is just about at rock bottom (not that it was very high before).

Certainly the events of the last week – during which parliament dispatched the prime minister back to Brussels to renegotiate a deal that the EU says cannot be re-opened – have not inspired confidence (quite the opposite in fact).

MPs have thus far declined to take the steps required to rule out a no-deal scenario, voting only that they don’t believe it should come to pass. On the other hand, there plainly remains no majority for the present withdrawal agreement.

Set against this hazy backdrop, the prime minister nonetheless tells us that she is determined to make Brexit happen next month, meeting the deadline that to almost everyone else looks more or less impossible.

Her bloody-mindedness would be impressive if it led to her making headway – but as things stand, nothing at all has changed since the Brexit deal was first agreed between the PM and the EU at the back end of November.

The home secretary, Sajid Javid, spent Sunday (hesitantly) reassuring the public that the UK will not be less safe after Brexit – which will come as a relief to Her Majesty, who had presumably begun to pack an emergency bag.

He also reiterated the vague contention we have heard from ministers before, that technology can offer a viable alternative to the Irish backstop arrangements.

This has become something of a mantra, yet it does not come packaged with the kind of detail that makes it appear plausible. Certainly European Commission officials are unconvinced: the technological answer wasn’t available last year; why should anyone think things have evolved since then. Like so much of the pro-Brexit case, it sounds like pie in the sky.

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May, Javid and Liam Fox – who has suggested that the EU is being irresponsible in its determination not to renegotiate terms – are all trying to put pressure on Brussels to budge this week. The possibility should not be ruled out, but the chances feel slim.

If no breakthrough is forthcoming in the next few days, the ball will return to the UK’s court and MPs will yet again convene in an attempt to find a way out of the Brexit mess.

Nissan’s decision not to bring new investment to Britain, and the worries in official circles about civil disorder might focus minds. MPs might even finally realise that the only sensible way forward is to offer the public a chance to have a Final Say on the matter. We must live in hope.

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