Column / Brexit Briefing
End of Brexit phoney war? Wait and see
By Benjamin Fox
The House of Lords has given Theresa May an unwanted headache by sending her Article 50 bill back with some unwelcome extras.
An amendment guaranteeing the rights of EU citizens in Britain was backed by peers on Wednesday (1 March) by a comfortable 358 to 256 margin.
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The government has insisted that it won’t accept the amendment, so a game of parliamentary ping-pong is likely to take up the first half of March.
But in truth, the machinations over the bill are a side-show. Theresa May is going to invoke Article 50 in March, with or without a couple of minor amendments and it is then that the shadow-boxing will end.
For the moment, May is impregnable. Yet while May faces no meaningful opposition at home – the Conservatives actually took a safe seat from Labour at last week’s by-election in Copeland – her position is more fragile than it appears. The Brexit negotiation process will be like carrying a Ming vase down a wet corridor, with danger at every step.
”We are going to have to see where we are in two years’ time,” said Keir Starmer, Labour’s spokesman on Brexit, at a Labour Movement for Europe conference on Saturday.
Starmer, a former director of public prosecutions already touted as a potential Labour leader, has been charged with the near impossible task of trying to unite a party whose MPs and supporters backed Remain by a margin of more than 2 to 1, but hold seats that predominantly voted Leave in June.
As a result, the Article 50 bill has been a harrowing experience for Labour. The opposition party hopes that once debate shifts to the content of the ‘Great Repeal Bill’ which will form the basis for the UK deciding which EU laws to keep or scrap, it will be easier for them to oppose the government on substance.
For the moment, Starmer is grimly realistic. “I am not convinced that the public is going to want another referendum inside two years. Let’s get a parliamentary vote first,” he says.
The sentiment against Brussels
In the post-referendum period there has been little buyer’s remorse, but soon after Article 50 is triggered reality will kick in. The next battle will not be over negotiations of a future trade deal but the divorce bill, and the way in which the divorce is handled will dictate much of the tone of the two year talks. Remain supporters know that a punitive Brexit deal could just harden sentiment against Brussels.
While Brexit minister David Davis has said that the objective of the government is to secure the exact same benefits as it currently enjoys from membership - i.e. unfettered single market access without paying for it - a growing number of Conservatives are admitting that an agreement looks unlikely.
“We have to be realistic…the only practicable outcome, is no trade deal,” Nigel Lawson, finance minister for most of Margaret Thatcher’s eleven year premiership, and a veteran ‘Leave’ campaigner, told the Lords debate last week.
If Brexiteers are hoping to soften people up to the prospect of defaulting to a trading relationship based on the World Trade Organisation (WTO), it is worth pointing out that this would make the UK the only major world economy to trade with the EU on WTO rules.
The apparent willingness to accept the WTO option verges on the reckless. On Monday (27 February), former Conservative prime minister John Major told the Chatham House think tank that the government was offering Britons “a future that seems to be unreal and over-optimistic”.
“Obstacles are brushed aside as of no consequence, whilst opportunities are inflated beyond any reasonable expectation of delivery,” he added.
Low chances for a good deal
To Joe Bossano, former chief minister of Gibraltar, which voted by 96 percent to stay in the EU, the chances of a good deal are very low.
“The EU can only offer less than the UK already has, an offer that the UK has already rejected. By definition, that will be tough to sell,” he said on Saturday. “The point when it becomes clear that the ‘hard Brexit’ is inevitable, is when the debate changes. At that point the choice will be a clear one.”
If these are extremely bleak times for Labour and pro-Europeans, there is some consolation from the fact that Brexit will be a marathon not a sprint. This offers the main source of hope to Remainers that there is still something to play for. Like the rest of the country, they can but wait and see.
Benjamin Fox, a former reporter for EUobserver, is a consultant with Sovereign Strategy, a London-based PR firm, and a freelance writer.