My advice: Take the deal you have.
With just over two weeks until the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, per the Article 50 withdrawal notice they handed in nearly two years ago, Brexit is in doubt. In two dramatic days, Parliament rejected Prime Minister Theresa May’s negotiated withdrawal agreement, by an overwhelming majority, and then voted against the inevitable result of that decision too. That is, Parliament held an expressive vote announcing its wish, by a very narrow majority, to take a “no deal” exit from the EU – in which it would trade with the rest of Europe on the default terms of the World Trade Organization – off the table.
The latter vote has no legal effect. Without obtaining an extension from the EU, something that may come with unpalatable conditions, the U.K. will exit on “no deal” terms later this month unless Parliament passes May’s withdrawal agreement on a third try. Thus there are more votes in the coming days and hours. Parliament may support asking for a small extension – now obviously needed – or pass enabling legislation if May’s deal triumphs at the last moment. Or Parliament may ask for a much longer extension during which to negotiate an alternative to May’s deal that won’t be rejected by historic majorities of Parliament.
Theresa May, or some other Tory who never quite believed Brexit was a good idea, can find between members of her party and Labour a majority of MPs who support a Norway-style deal, one that keeps the United Kingdom in the customs union with the EU, keeps payments flowing from London to Brussels for access, and keeps the free movement of goods and people going, but excludes the United Kingdom from what is otherwise termed the “political project.” As yet no one has the courage or cheek to pursue this option, because even though a majority of Parliament would support it, the risks are serious: splitting one’s party and being seen to break faith with the result of the referendum. There are already signs that party discipline is breaking down among Tories.
It is one the ironies of Brexit. A movement to champion parliamentary sovereignty is discovering, perhaps with horror, that Parliament truly has all the cards. The people can try to impose an agenda on it by popular referenda. And the two major parties will dutifully campaign on manifestos that commit them to implementing the result. But it won’t happen the way voters expect. Their politicians feel nothing about breaking promises that they hated making in the first place.
The riddle at the heart of this are the harder-line Tory Brexiteers. Why do they keep voting with Labour against the withdrawal agreement that May negotiated? Yes, they object to various parts of the “backstop” that keeps the U.K. attached to EU customs rules until a future trading relationship is finally negotiated. They fear it is a trap and want legal assurances that they can escape it. May’s own assurances that U.K. payments to the EU as part of their separation agreement could be withheld if there is bad faith do not suffice.
Parliament is set to take more expressive votes on what kind of Brexit would win a majority from the house. The harder-line Brexiteers’ amendments are already failing to win support. When will it dawn on them that Theresa May’s Brexit is now the hardest Brexit they are likely to get? And one that avoids the real perils of no-deal uncertainty?
Many of my colleagues prefer the idea of no deal: The U.K. should strike out on its own. But the fact is, getting out of a trading bloc one has belonged to for decades is tricky. Business relationships would be altered. The City of London, arguably one of the pillars among global financial capitals, would be seriously impaired at first. The U.K. would be anxious to sign new trade deals, but in a poorer position to strike them on the most favorable terms. In the long run, the United Kingdom has strengths that would see it through. Most important, it has a large, rich economy and its own currency, which give it the ability to maneuver. But politicians do have to worry about the short term as well.
And what is that short term? We do not know. In the past I’ve said that Parliament was sleepwalking toward no deal, especially when it failed to approve of May’s deal without having any constructive alternative. Now I think the harder-line Brexiteers may finally come to recognize that, absent May’s deal, Parliament inclines toward a very soft Brexit, perhaps permanent membership in the customs union – that without May’s deal, the bend in the road ahead is toward a second referendum that would damage the country they love and further impair democracy in the U.K. and Europe.
My advice: Take the deal you have. Get out of the EU while you still can. Live to fight on and improve the arrangements in the next phase of negotiations. Do this even if it results in the very thing you are most loath to do: giving the prime minister a little credit for her work.