Opinion | A Brexit Deal Has Arrived. Now the Chaos Begins.
LONDON — The selection a new pope is traditionally announced by white smoke drifting from the Vatican chimney. The news of a draft agreement for Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union trickled out in a more modern manner: a volley of tweets.
A long waiting period is over. It is now almost 20 months since the British government notified the European Union that it wanted to leave the bloc. It is scheduled to do so on March 29, 2019.
The last year and a half has seen British politicians trying to figure out what, exactly, Brexit means. Finally, after months of negotiation, a draft deal has arrived. And now the real chaos can begin.
Prime Minister Theresa May has to accomplish a feat that almost everyone thinks is impossible: make her draft deal look like a success and find the votes to get it through the House of Commons. The trouble is that everybody hates Mrs. May’s version of Brexit. Remainers say that it will damage Britain’s economy compared with staying in the European Union. Brexiteers say it doesn’t fulfill their promise to “take back control” of immigration, regulation and trade.
It is, to be fair to her, perhaps the best deal that could have been achieved under the circumstances: There will be no border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland (achieved by keeping all of the United Kingdom in a customs arrangement with the European Union for the moment). European citizens living in Britain can continue to do so. Both sides agree in principle that the free movement of people from Europe will end.
The most contentious part of the agreement is the mechanism for ending it: A collapse in talks on the future relationship would trigger a “backstop” where Britain might have to accept European rules and regulations indefinitely. The mere thought of this is giving hard-line Brexiteers palpitations.
The Conservative Party is split over the wisdom of Brexit as a project, but it is united in disappointment over the form it has taken.
In Parliament on Wednesday, Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party, got his best jabs by quoting Mrs. May’s own colleagues: Jo Johnson, the anti-Brexit Conservative who quit as transport minister this week, described it as a choice between “vassalage or chaos.” Liam Fox, the former trade secretary, once said there would be 40 trade deals lined up “seconds after” Britain left the European Union. So, Mr. Corbyn asked, how many will be ready? (The answer, which the prime minister dodged, is none.) Peter Bone, an arch-Brexiteer, accused Mrs. May of “not delivering the Brexit people voted for.”
The party’s whips have a hell of a job ahead of them. To further complicate matters, everyone believes that the defeat for Mrs. May would lead to her downfall as prime minister. So members of her cabinet will be considering not just the country’s future but also how their choices will look in a future leadership election.
Mrs. May’s survival is dependent on the 10 votes of the Democratic Unionist Party, whose base is among Northern Irish protestants. The D.U.P. has said for months that it will not accept any deal that peels Northern Ireland away from the rest of Britain and toward the Republic of Ireland. The proposed deal, in the party’s opinion, does exactly that, because any future trade deal could see Northern Ireland treated differently from the rest of the United Kingdom, keeping it in the European Union’s single market for goods, following European Union laws and regulations while the rest of the country does not.
The Labour Party, for its part, was already set to vote against the deal that Mrs. May is presenting. “There is no majority for anything but chaos,” a member of Parliament told me last week.
The next few weeks will be an exercise in brinkmanship. Rupert Harrison, who was chief of staff to the former chancellor, George Osborne, wondered on Twitter if the Brexit vote could follow the same pattern as TARP, the 2008 bailout in the United States: “voted down, markets puke, passes second time with small changes,” Mr. Harrison wrote.
The other options, if Mrs. May’s deal fails to get through Parliament, could include a general election — unlikely, as the Conservative Party would have to call one, immediately after humiliating itself — or another referendum. But there is little time for these before March 2019.
Mrs. May used to argue that “no deal is better than a bad deal.” Having returned with a bad deal, her only argument now seems to be that no deal is worse. If the country’s agreements with the European Union expire without being replaced, Britain would face grounded planes, trucks backed up on highways, and food and medicine shortages.
Would members of Parliament really let a “no deal” Brexit go ahead? The terrifying possibility is that they might not be able to stop it, simply because it is the only option left.
Helen Lewis (@helenlewis) is an associate editor at New Statesman and the author of the forthcoming “Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in Nine Fights.”
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