Pain-free Brexit is a Utopian dream

By Mike Cormack Source:Global Times Published: 2018/12/16 16:32:44

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Observing the Brexit process has been an exercise in thinking that things cannot get any worse, and then having these expectations smashed. From the beginning, British politicians have shown little sign of comprehending the EU and even less inclination to learn. Leading Brexiteers during the referendum campaign made promises that immediately proved ludicrous. 

David Davis tweeted "Post #Brexit a UK-German deal would include free access for their cars and industrial goods." (Germany cannot negotiate trade deals - the EU does it for all member states). The UK's International Trade Secretary Liam Fox insisted that a post-Brexit free trade deal with the EU would be the "easiest in human history." It wasn't. Boris Johnson claimed that the UK sent 350 million pounds a week to the EU which would be better spent on the National Health Service. (He conveniently forgot all the money received back from the EU).

And when a withdrawal agreement finally emerged, another Brexit secretary, Dominic Raab, said he could not support it. But finally the matter was to be put to the House of Commons after four days of debate.

This would not prove any simple matter. Speaker after speaker scorned the agreement. The Scottish National Party opposes Brexit entirely and so was against the deal. The Liberal Democrats argued the same. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP, of Northern Ireland) opposed the backstop - the mechanism which guarantees there will be no "hard border" between Northern Ireland and the Republic. And even the Conservative party was largely hostile.

The vote was therefore cancelled, Theresa May said, after listening carefully to members of Parliament. Her decorous language could barely disguise the enormity of the failure, signaling that the government did not have the votes for its key policy.

In almost any other situation this would cause the fall of the government. But these are not usual times. The Labour Party did not insist on a vote of no confidence, as would usually be the case. It argued that it could only do so if it could be sure that it would win - otherwise the Tory party would rally behind May. The latter point was true, but the former is questionable. The Tory party heads a minority government, with no majority in the House of Commons. It has only 318 seats out of 649. By definition it could lose a vote of confidence - especially after the DUP indicated that it would not support the government due to the backstop.

More likely, Labour did not want to win a vote of no confidence before Brexit had been confirmed in the Commons. The party thus kept its hands clean from any association with the policy. This might be tactically smart, but the fact that Labour has avoided committing itself on the single largest issue for many years looks like simple cowardice.

The cancellation of the vote however disturbed many Conservative MPs, who suspected it to be a ploy to prevent Brexit happening. Thus, enough of them (over 15 percent of the total, or 48) wrote to demand a vote of no confidence in the prime minister. This was held almost immediately, on Wednesday evening and the result announced that night. She won - but with 117 MPs voting against her to 200 for her, she has a third of her own party publicly opposing her leadership.

Where does this leave the government, and indeed the UK as a whole? There must still be a vote on May's Brexit deal, for which all signs are there still isn't a majority. There still needs to be a backstop unless there is a no-deal Brexit. The UK is still leaving the EU on March 29. Had May been deposed as prime minister, none of these facts would have changed. But with the anti-May faction numbering only a third of the party, there was no real chance of deposing her. Instead she has been left to stumble on, bloodied, wounded and diminished, following a confidence vote that had no hope of victory.

This was astonishingly bad politics, though nothing surprises in the Brexit process any more. What is clear, though, is that any actual form of Brexit is likely to be unpopular, because the notion of a pain-free Brexit was not based in reality. It is a dream.

The EU is a partnership which, for some costs, benefits its members. There is no such thing as Brexit while retaining the benefits of membership, while a no-deal Brexit would create enormous trading and economic difficulties (Handling imports and exports requires treaties and governance, which some Brexiteers seem to forget). Any form of Brexit will hence ultimately be a diminishment.

The Conservative party has been extraordinarily slow to accept this. But as the date for Brexit nears, it will have to be. Reality has a way of persuading even the most myopic.

The author has been a freelance journalist in China since 2008. Follow him on Twitter at @bucketoftongues.

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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