Why Brexit might be delayed

Parliament looks set on throwing out Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement. Here’s how that could delay Brexit.

In the world of Harry Potter, the name Voldemort causes chills to run down the spines of witches and wizards.

In the non-magical world, it takes two words to make Brexiteers shudder: “No Brexit”.

The government managed to go nearly two years without naming That-Which-Should-Not-Be-Named. Today Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt finally uttered those words.

Hunt warned that if parliament rejects the withdrawal agreement, it could cause a “Brexit paralysis” which might result in the UK not leaving the EU at all.

It’s the first time a government minister openly acknowledged the possibility of cancelling Brexit altogether.

The government’s come a long way indeed from its initial standpoint of “no deal is better than a bad deal” to its new mantra of “no deal might be worse than no Brexit”.

Despite this thinly veiled attempt at scaring Eurosceptic MPs into backing Prime Minister Theresa May’s deal, the government faces defeat in parliament. MPs are scheduled to vote on the deal on Tuesday 15 January.

With two and a half months on the clock until the UK’s scheduled departure, what happens if parliament rejects May’s agreement?

Scaremongering

Yesterday the Wall Street Journal noted that the UK is stuck in a vicious cycle:

  1. British Prime Minister Theresa May suffers defeats over legislation but can’t be removed.
  2. The main opposition Labour Party calls for fresh elections but is ignored.
  3. Brexit is debated and no consensus found.
  4. Repeat, with no clear end to the cycle.

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt is now trying to break this cycle by arguing that no Brexit is “looking much less likely”.

The government still hopes MPs will support the withdrawal agreement so the UK and the EU can enter a transition period that will last until (at least) December 2020. That’s why it’s appealed to its friends.

Bank of England governor Mark Carney has repeatedly stressed the negative consequences of the UK leaving the EU without a deal.

Today CBI director-general Carolyn Fairbairn backed up Carney and the government. The head of the UK’s largest business lobby group stated that “no-deal cannot be ‘managed’”.

The government faces almost certain defeat in parliament, which is why it’s resorted to scaremongering as its last hope to rescue the Brexit deal.

Here’s the problem: nobody likes this withdrawal agreement. Not even the government, apparently, because the only way it tries to sell the deal is by pointing out how bad the alternatives would be.

First it published studies showing that May’s deal would be much less damaging than no deal, in an attempt to sway Europhiles. It was “May’s deal or no deal”.

But that didn’t work. Now the government is appealing to Brexiteers by implying it’s “May’s deal or no Brexit”.

Scaremongering as a tactic hasn’t worked before and it’s not likely to work this time either. That’s because there’s a second reason why MPs are probably not going to be scared into voting for something they hate.

In addition to threatening MPs with “no deal” and “no Brexit”, the government’s tactic amounts to running down the clock.

By framing the vote to MPs as a choice between May’s deal and something they like even less, the government hopes to rally sufficient support to let the deal scrape through.

The flaw in this plan is that the government’s argument doesn’t hold up. If both no deal and no Brexit are terrible options, then the government should ask for an extension of the negotiations.

The next few months

“Never believe anything in politics until has been officially denied,” said Otto von Bismarck.

The phrase is as relevant today as it was back in the 19th century.

After taking over from David Cameron in July 2016, Theresa May denied she’d hold a general election before 2020. As we all know, the UK chose a new parliament in June 2017.

Today May rules out that the government will ask for an extension of Article 50, and thereby delay the UK’s exit from the EU. The PM has to say that for two reasons.

First, because the best way to confirm something in politics is to categorically deny it first.

It’s an essential requirement of doing politics to tell people they’re barking mad before telling them they were right all along.

Second, May is trying to scare MPs into voting for her Brexit deal by tapping her watch and pointing out that time is almost up.

Just over two months remain before the UK’s planned departure from the EU. If she were to imply there’s going to be more time to negotiate and maybe get a few more concessions from the EU, MPs will have no reason to back her deal next week.

It probably won’t make much of a difference, though. Next week MPs will most likely throw out the government’s withdrawal agreement. What happens then?

If the government suffers a small defeat, May will make a final attempt at winning concessions from the EU. Minor tweaks will be presented as major concessions and the government will put the new deal to another vote before the March deadline.

If the government suffers a big defeat, and assuming May wants to avoid “no deal” and “no Brexit”, she could consider a new election, a new referendum or an extension of the exit talks.

It’s not certain the EU will agree to an extension of Article 50, but the trading bloc will want to avoid a no deal scenario as well. It has little to gain from choosing the worst Brexit for all parties involved.

Regardless of what side of the debate you’re on, it’s a shambles that there’s no clarity about what stands to happen this close to the deadline.

Jeremy Hunt claims that if parliament cancels Brexit, it’ll destroy trust between politics and the public. I think it’s fair to say that whatever Brexit we end up getting, that trust has already been lost.

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