Following a bewildering sequence of parliamentary votes this evening, it looks as if Brexit is going to come down to a binary moment.
What is going to happen next is that British Prime Minister Theresa May will try to persuade Brussels to rework part of her terrible Withdrawal Agreement (the agreement providing for a transitional period during which the EU and UK will agree the basis of their long-term relationship). The EU may or may not throw her a few sachets of saccharine to sweeten the deal.
May will then return to the House of Commons to present MPs with a distinctly unappetizing choice. Either they accept the Withdrawal Agreement (and the prospect of a stint in a purgatory of sorts during the transitional period with, I might add, not much of a heaven on offer at its conclusion) or Britain crashes out of the EU on March 29 without any deal at all. Those who defend opting for the latter course assert that, apart from some manageable—and temporary—disruptions, all will be well: The UK, they maintain, can easily trade with the EU under WTO rules, a claim that bears little connection with reality. To understand why, it is well worth looking at some of what has been published over at Richard North’s EUReferendum for years. A good place to start is this monograph from 2016.
Doubtless, there are band aids that can and will be applied. The UK is not—low bar—going to be reduced to some sort of feral forager island in the wake of a no deal Brexit. But not all the disruptions will be minor and they will not be temporary.
Confronted with that reality, my best guess—and a guess is as good as anyone can manage at this point— is that enough of the large majority of MPs who originally voted against the Withdrawal Agreement will change their minds to ensure that it is approved.
But this cannot be taken as certain (as the sharp fall in the pound after the voting would suggest). Wild cards include Tory Jacob Rees-Mogg’s Somme Squad (the fundamentalist Brexiteers of the ERG), the Ulster Protestants of the Democratic Unionist Party, and a parliamentary Labour Party now led from the far left by Jeremy Corbyn. Many Labour MPs will be reluctant to vote for no deal, but for Corbyn, a hard Brexiteer for decades (however much he might downplay it for now), it gives him what he has wanted for so long and, courtesy of the disruption that will follow such a Brexit, ‘no deal’ will also almost certainly mean that he will be running Britain’s next government.
Britain was heading for a botched Brexit from the moment that May took her fatal decision to take the country out of the Single Market that the EU shares with Norway and two other non-EU countries, but the extent of the current shambles truly beggars belief.