Endgame forecast

I had been planning to record some more observations on the Brexit process over the last couple of weeks, but to be honest I have almost entirely lost the will to write about it, since the stupidity of it all is just too depressing. However there is a sense that some sort of conclusion might be reached next week, so I guess I should try to think through the possible outcomes.

The first question will be settled next Tuesday, when MPs vote on Theresa May’s supposedly revised plan; unsurprisingly, the EU have not made any concessions, so the proposal will be essentially identical to the one that was roundly rejected in January. May’s only hope of success seems to rest on the hard-Leaver wing of her party losing their nerve and falling in behind her, out of fear that otherwise there might be no Brexit at all. This looks very unlikely, so firmly have the ERG and the DUP nailed their colours to the mast on the Irish backstop question, so, unless there is a major breakdown in Labour Party discipline, it seems inevitable that the deal will be blocked once again.

This will trigger another vote the following day, when Parliament will be asked if it wants to categorically rule out a no-deal exit, on the understanding that doing so will prompt the government to seek to delay the departure date. Opposition to no-deal does seem to be the one position that commands a majority, so this outcome looks rather more likely.

Of course an extension to article 50 would require the agreement of the EU, and this may not be forthcoming, unless there is some indication that the extra time will allow a compromise to emerge. There is no sign of such a consensus at the moment, and, despite the looming deadline, the opposing positions in the UK seem if anything to be hardening, so Brussels may well decide that it’s better to get the shock of Brexit over now, rather than dragging the uncertainty out any longer.

The only plausible way to break the impasse would seem to be another referendum. The Labour leadership have, belatedly, come out in support of this, though a significant section of the parliamentary party remains opposed. There is a plan that would see Labour allowing May’s deal to pass, on the condition that it is ratified by a popular vote. However this would raise the question of what should be the other option on the ballot; no-deal or no-Brexit? Perhaps both? Organising a vote would take time; a possible date for leaving would have to be put back months, which would then oblige the UK to participate in the European elections, a turn of events unlikely to calm passions. The referendum campaign itself would almost certainly be ugly, and divert political attention away from the actual running of the country. There is something to the argument that the original Brexit result has already been confirmed by the 2017 general election, and another plebiscite would only deepen popular alienation from the political process, fuelling reactionary populism. The “People’s Vote” option is far from a panacea, and the potential complications may render it unviable.

So, for the record, what do I predict is going to happen? I think that: the vote on Tuesday will go against the government by a large margin; the Commons will vote to rule out no-deal, but will be unable to agree on an alternative; Theresa May will half-heartedly ask the EU for more time; Brussels will refuse a short extension and May will decline to request a longer one; the clock will run down and the UK will crash out of the EU on the 29th of March 2019.

Where might I be wrong? If the vote on Tuesday is relatively close, May could try again the following week, and manage to cajole enough waverers to get it over the line. Alternatively, she could abandon the right of her party, and compromise with Labour on a soft-Brexit plan. There might turn out to be a majority in favour of a second referendum. The EU could to agree a short delay, and, chastened by the brush with disaster, our politicians may use the time to negotiate a sensible solution.

Or maybe I’ll wake up, and it will all turn out to have been nothing but a bad dream…

More delay

I had hoped that this might have been the week that we finally got some clarity on just how badly the country was going to be hit by the Brexit tsunami, but, true to form, Theresa May has postponed a decision yet again, until the 12th of March this time. Since this is barely two weeks before the deadline, and she has, entirely predictably, made no further progress towards a deal, it is looking ever more likely that we will end up with the worst of possible outcomes.

In these circumstances one might expect that our elected representatives would do something constructive, but instead we’re getting a doomed centrist realignment, which isn’t really what is needed.

Still, it is just about possible to imagine a way out; Labour propose a suspension of article 50, enough MPs from the relatively sensible wing of the Tory party support the idea to see it carried, the EU agree to this on the condition that the delay is long enough to actually work out a deal, this allows time for momentum to build behind the demand for a second referendum, which results in a clear majority for remain, allowing the nation to move on from the whole sorry episode.

I’d have to concede that this scenario is unlikely, and even if it unfolds exactly as I predict there would still be the not inconsiderable problem of a sizeable and emboldened far-right armed with a convenient betrayal narrative. I’d take that though, since the alternative is no-deal, and a triumphant far-right ready to exploit the subsequent economic implosion.

State in denial

It’s a little ironic that, while over in the US Donald Trump is attempting to evade constitutional checks and balances by declaring a patently bogus state of emergency, this country, which really is facing a national catastrophe, has a political class which seems to have collectively lost any sense of urgency.

Despite multiple signs of impending doom, parliament has agreed to give the government until the end of the month to come up with an escape plan, even though there is no indication that Theresa May is going to use the extra two weeks any more fruitfully than she has done the last two years.

May’s strategy has been to play both sides against the centre – threatening Europhiles by hinting that she is prepared to countenance a no-deal exit if they don’t back her, while simultaneously telling Brexiters that she might just abandon the whole thing if she doesn’t get their support. This sort of duplicitous diplomacy might have had a slim chance of success in medieval Europe, when the population was largely illiterate, and information took months to spread around the country, but hoping that it could work in the modern world of hyper-connected 24-hour news-feeds seems optimistic to say the least.

The latest reports suggest that the government is going to abandon even the pretence of negotiating a new plan, which is not surprising, since any leverage they might have hoped to have with Brussels disappeared when the fragile Tory truce fell apart last week, exposing the fact that no concession from the EU will be enough to appease the likes of the ERG. Come February 28th May will just present the Commons with the same deal they roundly rejected last month, in effect daring them to crash the economy by turning it down again. However it seems likely that this gambit will fail, since Tory hard-Brexiters don’t believe (or don’t care) that no-deal will be so bad, and the opposition parties are reluctant to let May off the hook by taking even partial political ownership of the whole debacle.

The only way I can see a majority being assembled in support of May’s deal is if it is made conditional on ratification by a new referendum. This idea has some traction in the liberal press, though nowhere else as yet, but the prospect of passing responsibility for Brexit back to the electorate might start to appeal to MPs once they finally realise that the alternative is taking the blame themselves.

Incertitude prolonged

So, we find ourselves mere weeks away from what might very well turn out to be the most momentous event in the country’s post-war history, and it is still almost impossible to predict what is going to happen.

The general air of uncertainty is only heightened by a government that seems to have no clear plan about what it wants to do. For a day or two last week it appeared that Theresa May had settled on a strategy of trying to coerce the EU into granting concessions by embracing the hard-Brexiteers, but the nation barely had time to get its collective head around the madness of that scheme before she abruptly shifted course by softening her opposition to a Norway-style solution, seemingly with the hope of winning over disaffected Labour MPs, then, in the space of a day, performing yet another U-turn and ruling out a customs union. The end result is that she has alienated everyone, and a parliamentary majority for any position looks as unlikely as ever.

The stance of the Labour Party is no less opaque. Jeremy Corbyn has proposed to negotiate with the government to produce a compromise policy, but it’s not clear if this offer is in good faith, or a ploy to split the Tory Party, and perhaps provoke May into calling a snap election.

May is due to address the Commons tomorrow, to report on her latest fruitless trip to Brussels. She will probably ask for more time to come up with a deal, and, since no one seems to have any better ideas, it seems likely that she will be allowed to kick the can a bit further down the road, and keep kicking it, until the road runs out.

Delusion prevails

Turning reluctantly away from the realm of anthropomorphic whimsy, we direct our attention back to the real world, only to find that fantasy is the order of the day there too.

The right-wing press was in full voice this morning, proclaiming Theresa May’s great victory in the Brexit vote at Westminster last night. On closer examination though, it became clear that her triumph consisted entirely of temporarily uniting her fractious party around the latest in her series of unrealistic plans, this one involving yet another trip to Brussels to renegotiate the very agreement that May herself was describing as final and unchangeable until just last week.

Of course this scheme started to fall apart almost as soon as it was conceived, as EU leaders lined up to reaffirm the position that there would be no further compromise on the Irish border question, and Tory Brexiteers hinted that, even if May miraculously returned with a deal which excluded the backstop, they would reject it anyway.

The government is effectively holding the country hostage, threatening the chaos of no-deal unless they are given what they want. This might be an understandable tactic, though still recklessness of the highest order, if they had a clear set of goals in mind, but to pursue such a course of action for the sake of the half-baked wish-list that is the Brexit programme seems little short of madness.

In any case, it’s clear that the hard-core leavers of the ERG have only made a temporary truce with May to waste time, and edge the nation closer to, and eventually over, the precipice. It seems alarmingly likely that their plan will succeed.

Maintaining perspective

I know I complain a lot about the political situation in this country, but it is important to keep some sense of proportion. We may be stumbling towards an economic setback that will cripple the nation for a generation, but I guess that the citizens of Venezuela, Zimbabwe or Yemen, to give just three examples, would trade their problems for ours in the blink of an eye.

The developments in Venezuela are particularly depressing. It doesn’t seem so long ago that the Bolivarian revolution was an inspiration, but now the years of US-inspired economic sabotage, combined with the squandering of Hugo Chavez’s progressive legacy by his less-than-stellar successors, have led the country to the brink of civil war. There may still be room for a political solution, but with reactionary elements of the opposition emboldened to the point of recklessness by a US administration ideologically attuned to the rightward shift in Latin American politics (and keen to deflect attention from domestic problems) there is a real risk of the sort of tragedy which dwarfs anything we may be facing here.

All that said, many crises start out in a deceptively innocuous way, and we shouldn’t be too complacent about the relatively peaceful nature of British politics. However Brexit ends up playing out, the country is more polarised, and the far-right more confident, than has been the case for many years. Victories for progress won now – like protecting free movement – may head off bigger battles in the future, so we have to make the forces of reaction fight for every step.

No plan B

I’ve been out of the country for a few days, on a trip that I planned back in the summer, before I knew that there would be a constitutional crisis to enjoy this month, and have thus been unable to keep up with the news.

I was sure that I would have missed some important development while I was away, but it turns out that I needn’t have worried, since the situation has been more or less static since the tumultuous events of last week. Theresa May has abandoned her brief flirtation with reasonableness, and returned to peddling her discredited plan, while the opposition has yet to coalesce around a workable alternative. The EU remain disinclined to grant any further concessions. Time, and warehouse space, continues to run out.

There is talk of a cross-party group of MPs seizing control of the agenda, and forcing at least a delay to the leave date, but it’s not clear that they actually have the votes to do this, or that the government wouldn’t be able to just ignore them. In any case that would just put off the day of reckoning, with no sign that any realistic plan would emerge in the extra time.

Labour do seem to be edging towards support for a second referendum, which at this point looks like the least-bad option; if they do back it there might just be a majority in favour of this course of action when amendments are voted on next week. Again though, the government maintain that such a resolution would be non-binding, and they might continue to run the clock down; no meaningful vote is due until next month, by which time is may be too late to turn back from the cliff edge.

Customary deadlock

Having survived the second attempt to depose her in a little over a month, Theresa May addressed the nation from the steps of 10 Downing Street tonight, and reiterated her new-found willingness to listen to all shades of opinion on Brexit. However she also made clear that she would not move on her opposition to a Norway-style customs union, which looks to be the only position that has even the remotest chance of gaining a majority in Parliament, so the current impasse seems as insoluble as ever.

The government is obliged to present an alternative plan next week, but May seems to have no fresh ideas, other than gambling that the EU can be induced to back down on the Irish backstop by the threat of a disorderly Brexit, thus resuscitating her deal. This is completely detached from reality, not to mention wildly irresponsible, but it’s what passes for statecraft in this country these days.

Attention now shifts to the opposition, particularly Labour, and how vigorously they will promote a second referendum. Jeremy Corbyn has been lukewarm on this, though his party is firmly behind it, but he may become more enthusiastic now that his preferred option of a general election is off the table. There is talk that the EU may look favourably on a request to suspend Article 50, which would buy enough time to organise a second vote. There are many other obstacles though, so it’s still a long shot. Which is a shame, because I can’t see any other way of avoiding disaster.

No-deal looming

So, as widely prophesied, May’s Brexit plan failed to win approval in the Commons, though the scale of the defeat – by 230 votes, the worst for a government in modern political history – was surprisingly dramatic.

May had actually delivered a reasonably inspiring speech to conclude the debate, in which she once again pointed out that, terrible though her plan may be, the only other realistic option is no-deal, which would be considerably worse, but to no avail, her attempts to woo, cajole and threaten wavering MPs over the last month apparently only having served to harden the opposing positions.

In any other place or time a premier suffering such a blow to their authority would surely have fallen on their sword, but we do not live in normal times. To be fair, May did acknowledge the wound she had received, and invited the opposition to table a motion of no-confidence, an offer immediately taken up by Jeremy Corbyn, but this seems unlikely to be carried. May went on to pledge that, if she survives, she will try to build a consensus around an alternative plan – raising the question of why she didn’t do that before the situation reached crisis point – but with her next breath she undermined this fine sentiment by reiterating the inflexible red lines that doomed her last attempt at a solution.

In any case the EU have remained firm in their position that the deal cannot be substantially renegotiated, so there is no scope for coming up with any scheme that might break the deadlock. This would be equally true for any other government that might emerge after a general election, should May be deposed.

So, since no deal can be agreed, no-deal begins to look like the most probable outcome. Another referendum might head that off, though it would possibly be even more poisonous and divisive than the last one. Nevertheless, I think a fresh vote might just be the least-bad option, but with every day that passes the likelihood of such a solution being practicable diminishes.

I really can’t see this ending happily…

Not long now

In about 5 minutes we will know how Theresa May’s Brexit deal has fared in the much-delayed parliamentary vote.

Will that clarify anything? Probably not. I’ll come back with some comment when the result is in.