This Deal, No Deal, or No Brexit? My Analysis and Conclusion

Acknowledgements of articles written and/or points made by: Steve Peers, Garvan Walshe, Lee Rotherham, Iain Martin, David Henig, ‘Steerpike’, Richard North, John Springford, Charles Grant, Peter Foster, David Allen Green, Alex Barker, Jim Brunsden, The Institute for Government, Lars Karlsson, Adam Tucker, EFTA4UK, Sam Lowe, Sylvia de Mars, George Peretz, Andrew Duff, Andrew Chapman, Carl Baudenbacher, Victoria Hewson, Fabian Picardo, Katy Hayward, David Phinnemore, Brendan O’Neill, Allie Renison, Tim Montgomerie, Ian Dunt, Juliet Samuel.

NOTE THAT THIS ARTICLE HAS BEEN SUPERSEDED BY THIS TWEET THREAD (UNTIL I GET TIME TO WRITE ANOTHER ARTICLE): https://twitter.com/rolandmcs/status/1064496749673422848

If this Withdrawal Agreement (‘WA’) is passed and enacted, the ‘Remain’ option is finally left behind while other options stay on the table (with their trade-offs).

Leaving ‘Remain’ & Political Union behind should be Brexiters’ biggest consideration and achievement, rather than now over-reaching themselves in a quest for something better.

Those are my big instant takeaways from the WA.

‘Remain’ is already unrealistic in my opinion, nor is it desirable in a broader sense — it will inflame and entrench the divide for years, and at a volume and pitch beyond anything seen now. It will further carry the toxic battle back into the heart of the EU — an interesting attraction from the perspective of a Hard Leaver— and along the way probably convert Article50 into a mere negotiating tool via a demonstration of its revocability (maybe with legal backing). It will also solve nothing about Britain’s innate and historic awkwardness within the EU and our consistent misunderstanding of what the EU is, which pervades both sides of the UK’s EU debate.

Plus, the status quo ante has gone. The result of 23rd June 2016 can be reversed but it can’t “unhappen”, nor can it be expunged from the collective memory, and nor could EU/UK relations ever be the same whether in or out.

Judging by this WA, the trade-offs or key points of ‘flex’ in any future, as-yet-undefined final agreement are:

  • Free Movement (which could still allow an EEA-style final settlement)
  • the Irish border (which could still allow a ‘Canada’ final settlement).

Therefore arguments about the shape of the final settlement will continue after March 2019.

It must be acknowledged that there is a clear risk for Leavers of a more ambitious UK/EU Customs Union being agreed after exit (as per John Springford here) because the default CU envisaged with the backstop is not good enough for either party, and one could imagine an adrift British Government later agreeing to further (Single Market) provisions on top. But those are battles to come — they are not inevitable if Government and Leavers actually engage constructively with the debate about trade-offs.

[At this point in the post, one could very easily lean towards ‘No Brexit’ because history shows that Leave figures and the Government will not engage constructively — so why give up the semi-detached EU membership deal we have now and will never recover after exit? Equally, this is the point where Hard Brexiters shift to supporting No Deal if they aren’t already there, denying that trade-offs even exist.]

Leavers’ and British politics’ failure to get to grips with the trade-offs are the reason why one could envisage a drift to this CU-with-SM position. If a more rounded CU-with-SM did happen in future, the question of “Why did we leave in 2019?” would then make a reappearance.

At the currently-stated transition end-date, we could of course kick the can down the road again and keep these arguments about the final settlement going even longer (which could well happen, due to a British refusal to face trade-offs).

This would see the UK extending the transition which we are entitled to do under the WA but we have only one shot at that, and political considerations mean such an extension could not be overly long. The “20XX” thing is therefore more a bit of fun than a bit of fear and yet the “XX” will need to be filled in.

The key thing is that the EU has its own problems and nervousness about keeping this transition deal in place for any longer than necessary (which, I suspect, is why there’s provision for only one extension to the transition). They fear that while Britain continues to argue with itself about the final settlement, we would have one foot in Europe’s market enjoying tariff-free access and no rules of origin while ruthlessly undercutting the business standards of the EU’s single market. Note that this last sentence is a quote from an excellent FT article entitled “Flaws in Brexit backstop store up trouble for UK and EU”.

So my key observations are:

1. The WA delivers on the referendum mandate and means the UK leaves the EU.

2. It fully ends the UK’s entanglement with ‘ever closer union’/political union which was at the very heart of the Leave case.

3. It provides for an orderly transition stage.

4. That transition stage is in effect time limited. It is in no one’s interest for it to continue in perpetuity.

5. The arguments about the final settlement can continue for maybe a few more years after March but the trade-offs on Free Movement and/or an Irish (sea) border eventually need to be confronted. British politics needs to recognise this is not generally a feature of EU awkwardness, but of reality.

6. Time will pass; public opinion may shift in various ways: on Free Movement; on Northern Ireland’s position in the UK (in 5–10 years there could be a Catholic majority in Northern Ireland); and maybe on EU membership, albeit with pro- campaigners looking at the much higher hurdle of ‘Rejoin’ and in a context of day-to-day continuity after the WA kicks in. On technical border solutions, the passage of time may also improve discussion and even allow progress on the setting up of better cross-border schemes….and again in a context that ‘Remain’ has gone.

7. Meanwhile there is now a huge risk/likelihood of Brexiter over-reach in which they reject This Deal and make a typically plan-less grab for No Deal, believing (from the comfort of cosy armchairs in a benign economic environment) that it’ll somehow work out fine and we’ll be free. But in my opinion, the killing of This Deal could very likely end in No Brexit. Parliament will not entertain No Deal for good reason.

So how about a second referendum on, say, This Deal versus Remain? I would suggest not and yet I’m also not passionately against such a second referendum. It could give public endorsement to This Deal (i.e. endorsing ‘what Brexit has actually become’) and so that may be the democratic way of approaching it. But I still incline against such a vote. Various points against a second referendum carry some weight for me (as noted by David Allen Green here).

There should not be a referendum on This Deal versus No Deal. It would be a horrific mess of ‘arguments’ and give voice to a wing of British politics that over three years has consistently proven to be a home to lying charlatans. A No Deal outcome would also be very unpleasant. Suggestions that “Britain has gone through worse” (implying World War 1 and 2) are hardly comforting. More reasoned reviews of ‘No Deal’ if that route looked inevitable are also dependent on certain optimistic assumptions e.g. phrases like “if the UK plays its cards right politically”; and the need for the UK to pay up what it owes anyway. Beyond the short-term potential for legal and actual chaos, there is little focus on the longer term effects of No Deal which would see a slow wilting of the UK’s trade position as companies, especially international ones, divert investment from the UK to elsewhere in the EU/EEA.

One mitigation to this No Deal effect would be for Britain to adopt a more rampant flavour of capitalism. But as many have noted, including other colleagues linked to Rightist/libertarian think tanks, Britain as a whole simply doesn’t have the stomach nor majority for that. Not even close. More’s the pity, one might say.

Instead we have an overtly Socialist party waiting in the wings.

I’m tempted to throw in one final point regarding No Deal. Taking that route would be a victory for the people who have consistently lied, misled, and doubled down on ignorant, petty, populist politics since the referendum. And in the teeth of all evidence to the contrary.

No Deal will be their victory. The wrong people — an extreme wing of Britain’s dreadful and widespread bluffocracy — will be applauding.

That will be profoundly unsettling for the long term political stability of this country. Suffice it to say, I aligned with that once on 23rd June 2016; I’m not minded to align with it again.

So my conclusion is to support This Deal, which I find slightly surprising to be honest and I don’t do so with enthusiasm. I had been leaning towards No Brexit, knowing in my bones that while sub-optimal and against my instincts, matters would not rest there — hence my recent tweets about revoking Article 50 and about a Remaining UK uploading renewed difficulties/toxicity into Brussels in its new role as a “cuckoo in the nest”. But This Deal is largely a can-kicking exercise (though not without risk to Leavers)….in addition to being a “closing off Remain” exercise. It takes the much-applauded (including by Leavers) December 2017 Joint Report to its logical conclusion and yet allows the debate on options to continue with an implied endpoint when Britain’s political class — and indeed all of us — will have to make our final choices.

I feel a lot older and wiser than when I first logged onto Twitter almost ten years ago to discuss this subject. I am also someone who is relatively unmoved by free movement (one of the trade-offs to a better final deal) and also unmoved by the overblown issue of a ‘border’ in the Irish Sea (the other trade-off to an alternative final deal).

I believe a united Ireland is inevitable in any event so why contort Britain’s position in the world for that?

Some say we will be locked into This Deal with its backstop and can’t leave it without the EU’s permission. No, we can leave it but it requires Britain to confront the trade-offs and reject cakeism — precisely what the EU has been asking the UK to do whilst drumming its fingers on the negotiating table watching the British fight amongst themselves. If we do face up to reality, then Britain can have Jersey, Norway, Canada, or a range of flavours in between. It’s the continued refusal to confront trade-offs that is prompting Brexiters to say we won’t be able to leave “vassal” status.

Such a ‘facing up’ moment is all the EU has sought from us from the start.

So just what do we want?


Footnote 1: I belatedly read this article from Juliet Samuel which is very good and takes much the same line as me: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/politics/2018/11/16/brexit-deal-isnt-disaster-mrs-may-resigns/

Footnote 2: When I say I’m relatively unmoved by free movement, I mean I largely favour it/can’t oppose it. I’m also unmoved by an Irish Sea Border because geology naturally provides for such a border and the need for people/goods to use a tightly-defined number of commercial carriers to get across the Irish Sea make it the obvious place to have risk-based checks. I find the proposition that this means Northern Ireland will no longer be in the UK wildly overblown.