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Taking stock of Brexit with fewer than 60 days until we Leave

January 30th, 2019

Let’s take stock of where we are right now. Most of the leading chains of supermarkets, together with KFC, Pret A Manger and McDonald’s, have warned that a no-deal Brexit would put Britain’s food security at risk. The Health Secretary has confirmed that medicines are going to be prioritised over food, which is simultaneously very sensible and absolutely nuts.

He has also confirmed that a lot more needs to be done to safeguard supplies of medicines, with over half of medicines having “some touch point” with the EU. The chief executive of Airbus has warned that the company would look to move operations outside the UK in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

But in two months’ time, if nothing happens, Britain will leave the EU with no deal.

There is no sense of urgency. The meaningful vote was originally scheduled for mid-December. That vote was pulled and rescheduled for mid-January. The vote having been crushingly lost, alternatives have been voted on this week.

What have we learned from them? There is as yet no majority to take concrete steps to delay Brexit though Parliament thinks no deal would be a bad thing, there is as yet no majority for Parliament to take control back from the government and Parliament has instructed the government to renegotiate the backstop and put in place “alternative arrangements” (to be defined). So that’s all clear then. It has already been rejected by the EU, and who can blame them, since it hardly looks like a stable basis for negotiation even if the EU were inclined to give up one of its long-stressed red lines.

The next meaningful vote will be held on Valentine’s Day – maybe, or maybe later than that. There is no particular reason to assume that vote is going to illuminate a path forward either.

There are now only four possible decisive actions that could be taken before 29 March: sign the deal that has already been comprehensively rejected (perhaps with a few vague words that will satisfy no one); revoke the Article 50 notice and countermand the instruction given by the people in the referendum; extend the Article 50 period; or leave with no deal.

Indeed, two of these options are highly problematic too. Any extension of the Article 50 period would need the agreement of every other EU member state: that might be quite exciting given how many wildcards are currently shuffling round that deck. Worse, it now seems impossible to enact all the legislation required to implement the deal before 29 March. Like a plane taking off from Madeira airport, Britain may already have passed the point of no return with no way of recovering from serious engine trouble that doesn’t involve some kind of major accident.

No one is changing their minds. The government still seems to be pushing its deal, though it enthrals no one and appals many.  The Labour leadership opposes it in favour of its own deal which borrows philosophically from Rorschach inkblots. Conservative Leavers oppose it without being very clear what they would actually actively accept, if they would actively accept anything.

Various MPs who voted Remain in 2016 have various schemes to mitigate or reverse the government’s plans, none of which seem close to commanding a majority.  The EU hierarchy tuts that Britain needs to get itself together, without seeming to consider that if the deal on the table looks like a complete turkey to the collective wisdom of Parliament, it’s doomed to be stuffed, which is not exactly in the EU’s interests either. Something is going to have to happen, but it’s not at all clear what.

What is most surprising is the absence so far of any sense of panic, either from the politicians or from the public. With the striking exception of Oliver Letwin, a man who seems to have more common sense than many who have ridiculed him in the past for lacking it, no politician seems in a hurry to get a deal signed. The ERG might not want one at all, Theresa May is hoping that time will tell politicians to sign her deal, those against this deal but who are opposed to no deal are expecting another opportunity to pounce and those who want another referendum are waiting for the right moment to strike.

The public has low expectations of Brexit, on balance expecting it to make things worse and indeed on balance thinking that it already has made things worse. So far, however, they really aren’t getting worried about how it might turn out. The assumption is that it will be all right on the night.

There is absolutely no evidence to support that assumption. Quite the reverse: it’s hard to imagine that McDonald’s will have intervened to warn its customers about the risk that there may be hold-ups to fast food unless they thought that risk was pretty high. These are companies who will have intervened in the most controversial political debate in living memory only if they felt that they had to for the sake of their reputation should events unfold as they fear.

The lack of competence on all sides coupled with the lack of any desire to compromise suggests that the eventual resolution is going to be chaotic. The prospect of chaos is welcomed by the hardline Leavers, who seem to see Brexit as a god to be worshipped like Shiva the destroyer, where any suffering is to be seen as the obligation to be paid to secure nirvana. Or perhaps they think of it as their Mayan sacrifice.

This enthusiasm is not shared by others. In a recent opinion poll not a single respondent who voted Remain in 2016 professed to be happy at the prospect of Brexit. I doubt whether any disruption is going to be accepted phlegmatically by them.

Nothing is going to change until panic really sets in. When it does, things will move at high speed. Lasting choices will be made quickly off the back of emotion. Theresa May is calculating that ultimately they will back her deal in those circumstances. (She might be right.  Certainly the anti no-dealers in her own party have been all discretion and no valour to date.)

The nature of that kind of decision-making, however, is that unexpected choices that might look strange in retrospect may well be made. Don’t bet the house on any outcome and don’t assume that any bet is a sure thing.

However it all turns out, it’s going to be a turbulent flight.  Buckle up.

Alastair Meeks