Time is running out on the Brexit hourglass and the cliff edge of a ‘no deal’ scenario is causing jitters to spread across the British economy as well as society at large.
What was a simple choice between two boxes – ‘leave’ or ‘remain’ - back in 2016, has escalated to the most serious constitutional crisis the country has faced since World War Two. How did this come to be and what therefore is most likely to happen next?
The first thing to account for is the variance in approach to the topic. For many in the UK, Brexit is not a political process but rather an exercise in ideology. This means that all arguments as to the impact on the economy and living standards of the British public fall largely on deaf ears. The warnings are dismissed as ‘project fear’ and the analysis that the vote has already caused a chilling effect on the economy and a lower rate of growth explained as simply the turbulence of a new post-EU era coming into being.
If a politician is basing their decisions on the existence of God, it is hard to argue with them about the mere facts and figures of human existence and sometimes this feels like the debate currently being had in the UK. Indeed, there is a stark contrast between the official British-EU discussions, which are in the large part technical conversations about trade, and the wider debate in the UK, which is about sovereignty and more ephemeral concepts such as national pride.
These two distinct and separate conversations are about to come to a head with the 29th March deadline rapidly approaching. The urgency of time may finally expose the disconnect between these worlds and force a reckoning that could set the direction of the country for decades to come.
Yet it remains hard to chart how a clear roadmap forward will come into being. There is more and more talk of a second referendum, putting the decision back to the people in the face of Parliamentary deadlock. However, polling suggests that the public are similarly divided between those who support no deal, a renegotiated deal, the current deal on offer or calling the whole thing off and returning to the pre-referendum status quo.
All sides are raising the prospect of social unrest if the scenario they oppose comes to be. Talk of significant job losses at the start of 2019 may adjust the tone of the conversation as retail figures continue to drop over the vital Christmas period, house prices fall and the demand for cars cools.
Part of the problem has come from the cross party nature of these new fault lines in British politics. We have a ‘remainer’ prime minister pursuing Brexit opposed by a ‘remainer’ leader of the Opposition who also supports the decision to leave the EU. The fidelity of both of these leaders to Brexit is regularly questioned by the more hardline ‘leavers’ but all sides are fundamentally flummoxed by the contrast between a simple remain-leave referendum result and the significantly different Brexits on offer.
A ‘Norway deal’ would see the UK remain incredibly close to the EU with the key issue of freedom of movement maintained. A ‘Canada deal’ would threaten frictionless trade and raise almost impossible questions about how to maintain a non-hard border in Ireland. The current Theresa May deal is considered by many a compromise that is attractive to nobody - despite the compromise at the heart of it and acceptance by the EU. Meanwhile, the ideas of ‘no deal’ or a ‘managed no deal’ are undermined by the lack of serious preparation and money invested in what would be needed to get a no-deal Brexit through without significant harm to the country.
The disconnect between what was promised at the referendum in 2016 and the reality of what is on offer in 2018 has a compelling logic for going back to the people for further democratic buy in. The analogy is often made that if the 2016 decision was like deciding to sell your house, a 2018 vote would be about what house people would like to buy or now that they have looked at what is on offer, a decision to stick with what they’ve got. As the March deadline relentlessly ticks down, this contradiction may finally unravel in the form of another say for British people as to what Brexit is to really mean.
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