The Brexit Saga
Leader: No deal is the worst of all outcomes
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is in the midst of a major parliamentary showdown over his bid to take the United Kingdom out of the European Union by an October 31 deadline, with or without a divorce deal. Rebel and opposition MPs voted on September 04 in favour of a bill that could force the prime minister to request a Brexit delay until January 31, 2020. Reacting to the move, Johnson immediately pushed for a snap general election on October 15, arguing MPs had voted to “scupper any serious negotiations” with the EU. His bid for a new poll was blocked by legislators, however.
It was once Leavers, not Remainers, who insisted that a no-deal Brexit was unthinkable. David Davis, the former Brexit secretary, declared in February 2016 that German car manufacturers would be “knocking down Chancellor Merkel’s door demanding that there be no barriers to German access to the British market”. Liam Fox, the former international trade secretary, predicted that a new British trade deal with the European Union would be “one of the easiest in human history”. Boris Johnson himself, while foreign secretary, declared in July 2017: “There is no plan for no deal because we are going to get a great deal.”
The Brexiteers have again collided with reality. A deal was always achievable but not at any price. The Leave campaign’s promise to avoid the creation of a hard Irish border, for instance, created unavoidable restrictions. The predictable result was Theresa May’s unloved deal, which MPs rejected three times. Having encouraged the myth that “no deal is better than a bad deal”, the former prime minister was humiliated when she refused to accept her own logic.
Mr Johnson, who voted for Mrs May’s deal on the final occasion, insists that he will not endure the same fate. He argues, first, that only a sincere willingness to leave with no deal will encourage the EU to make concessions and, second, that the UK must leave with or without an agreement on 31 October.
There is no evidence that the first half of this strategy has succeeded. Angela Merkel’s declaration on 21 August that the UK should devise a solution to the Irish border problem within “the next 30 days” was merely a restatement of the EU’s long-standing position: it will consider alternatives to “the backstop” once Britain has the decency to offer them.
On 2 September, a leaked government paper confirmed that Britain has failed to do so. Indeed, Dominic Cummings, Mr Johnson’s senior adviser, reportedly described the negotiations as a “sham” in internal strategy meetings.
Faced with the reality that he will struggle to achieve a superior agreement to that offered by Mrs May, Mr Johnson sought to intimidate MPs into accepting a no-deal Brexit. He first announced the suspension of parliament for five weeks from 14 September, an act unprecedented in its length and purpose. He then withdrew the Conservative whip from 21 Tory MPs, including two former chancellors, after they rightly voted to take control of parliamentary business.
It is with good reason that MPs have sought to obstruct a no-deal Brexit. Leaving the EU with no agreement would represent the greatest failure of British statecraft since the Second World War. A country once renowned for its stability and pragmatism would risk shortages of food, fuel and medicine, and months of disruption at its ports (Michael Gove, the minister responsible for no-deal planning, has blocked the release of a new document on the government’s preparations). The 1998 Good Friday Agreement – a triumph of Anglo-Irish diplomacy – would be imperilled. The British economy, according to the government’s own analysis, would be 9 per cent smaller after 15 years.
For some, the appeal of no deal is that it would “settle” the Europe question after more than three years of negotiations, but it would do nothing of the sort. Far from concluding negotiations, the UK would be forced to resume them from a position of maximum weakness. Matters such as the rights of EU citizens and the Irish border problem would still need to be resolved in an atmosphere of mutual recrimination. The UK would be free to sign trade deals with other countries but they, not an enfeebled Britain, would dictate the terms.
No deal is not better than a bad deal – it is the worst of all possible outcomes. With each day it becomes clearer that Britain already enjoys the best deal: full membership of the single market and the customs union with a suite of opt-outs. Those MPs who voted against Mrs May’s deal without offering workable alternatives bear some responsibility. Their first duty, however, is to halt Mr Johnson’s destructive advance towards no deal, at any cost.
Can a no-deal Brexit be stopped?
In the absence of an alternative agreement, the default legal position is that the UK will leave the EU on the revised scheduled departure date of October 31.
If his attempt at renegotiation fails, Boris Johnson has repeatedly said he is determined to respect that deadline and take the UK out of the EU without a deal — a stance which won him strong support among party’s members, but which many say would be disastrous.
However, the government’s slim majority in parliament has now been wiped out after the defection to the Liberal Democrats of MP Phillip Lee, followed by the threatened expulsion of the Tory rebels. A majority of MPs are opposed to a “no-deal” Brexit.
The law aimed at preventing such a scenario would force the government to seek a further Brexit delay of three months. European leaders would need to approve unanimously an extension to the UK’s membership.
But time is tight, and no-deal opponents have a mountain to climb to pass legislation. Whether they can stop a no-deal Brexit from happening has become even more uncertain, given Johnson’s plan to prorogue parliament from mid-September. The prime minister and his supporters deny the suspension is for political reasons, arguing that a new session of parliament is needed for a new government agenda.
The original plan of opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was bring about the Johnson government’s downfall, whereby he would head a temporary government in order to delay Brexit and call a general election. However, there was hostility to his leadership among other opposition parties.
Now Labour and other opposition parties are in something of a dilemma over the prospect of a general election. Some believe that this is a scenario that Johnson and his team are actively seeking — and that they may look to delay a public vote until after the UK has already left the EU.
What’s Next for Brexit?
Leaving the EU with a Deal
A No-Deal Brexit
No one seems to think this option has much chance. After all, Parliament voted three times against a Brexit agreement negotiated by Mr. Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, and the European Union is stubbornly refusing to reopen negotiations. But don’t rule it out. The critical date is Oct. 17-18, when the bloc’s leaders meet, providing an opportunity for last-minute negotiations (which is practically the only way things get done there). If a potentially disastrous no-deal Brexit is still a possibility, Mr. Johnson can put a gun to the heads of European leaders to get a revised deal, then put the gun to the heads of his lawmakers to get the measure passed. “Either accept my new, revised, Brexit agreement,” he will say, or we are headed for the dreaded no-deal exit.
While it is widely thought that Mr. Johnson is using the threat of an unruly exit as a negotiating tactic, it is also possible that he actually means what he says. If European leaders offer too few concessions for his liking, he might plow ahead with a no-deal exit and, given the limited parliamentary time to stop it, he might succeed. It is, after all, the default option. That would allow Mr. Johnson to unite Brexit supporters behind him in a general election either late in 2019 or in 2020. The risk, however, is that the predictions of economic chaos after a no-deal Brexit are borne out, making an election unwinnable for him (and, if things are bad enough, possibly for the Conservative Party for years to come).
6: The Courts Decide
There are already three cases being considered against Mr. Johnson’s decision to suspend Parliament. Experts think these are unlikely to succeed — though Gina Miller, an anti-Brexit campaigner, defied such predictions when she won a case against Mrs. May’s efforts to bypass Parliament when starting exit talks.
She is trying again now. On Friday, former Prime Minister John Major said he would seek to join that action.
One of the three cases failed its first test on Friday, when a judge in Edinburgh refused a request by 75 members of Parliament for an immediate court order, though he still plans to hear further arguments in the case next week.
But there may be other opportunities to go to court. If Mr. Johnson refuses to resign after losing a vote of confidence and tries to push a general election beyond the Halloween deadline, a legal challenge would be likely. Then it could be judges, not lawmakers, who have the decisive voice in Britain’s biggest peacetime decision in decades.