If there’s one thing that unites supporters of Brexit and its opponents, the passionate and the apathetic, it is the plaintive question: when will it end? No one can deny that the process of leaving the EU has been extremely trying for the patience of all concerned. It has been a waiting game since the day after the referendum was held on June 23 2016.
There was the wait for a new prime minister in 2016, followed by the wait (complicated by the Gina Miller court case) to trigger article 50 that provides a two-year period for organising an orderly exit. From the EU perspective, the subsequent negotiations have been a case of waiting for the UK to make up its mind about the terms of withdrawal. Now that a finalised agreement exists on paper, the wait is on for whether parliament can accept it, and whether the prime minister can survive ordeal by ratification.
But none of this waiting has occurred by accident. The UK government, facilitated by Labour’s lack of enthusiasm for the topic, chose to make Brexit more a question of “when” than of “how” – a strategy whose limitations are becoming increasingly obvious.
Theresa May’s predecessor David Cameron, fearful of the message it might send, prevented civil servants from preparing contingencies in the event that he might lose the 2016 referendum. The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee called this decision “regrettable” even prior to the referendum itself. Although Cameron promised to stay in power regardless of how the result went, it was inevitable that Brexit would require a change of Conservative leader.
One of May’s first decisions was to fight a rearguard legal battle to avoid giving parliament the right to begin the formal process of leaving the EU. She then waited more than a year before asking the cabinet to back a concrete proposal for a future trade relationship – the ill-fated Chequers plan. There was good reason for her to procrastinate because she knew ministers were deeply divided. Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party held its fire, waiting for the government to implode under the weight of its contradictions.
Chequers did not make it into the political declaration appended to the withdrawal agreement that came out of the meeting of the European Council on November 25. Parliament is now impatient to have its say on the agreed terms of withdrawal, which it must do by January 21 2019. This is a consequence of the tempestuous passage of the EU Withdrawal Act, during which rebellious MPs forced the prime minister to give them a “meaningful vote” on the Brexit deal before it could be enacted.
The prime minister cancelled this vote at the last minute on December 3, thereby emboldening her backbenchers to trigger a no-confidence vote in her party leadership.
In fighting, successfully, to stay in power, May warned that toppling her would delay or even cancel Brexit. Just a few days prior to that, she had told parliament that failure to accept the withdrawal agreement would postpone or perhaps frustrate EU withdrawal.
Running down the clock
If anyone is playing for time, however, it is the prime minister. She has promised a vote before January 21, probably after Christmas, leaving very little legislative time for passing the eventual withdrawal agreement bill needed to ratify the UK’s departure. With no time to orchestrate a plan B and certainly no concrete alternative offered by Labour, MPs are more likely, in her estimation, to approve her deal. As the clock ticks towards the Article 50 deadline on March 29, they will, she thinks, give her the green light to avoid crashing out.
In the final straight, what is now fully apparent are the limitations of the Theresa May Brexit method, riddled as it is with doublespeak. She was the one who began the negotiations by arguing that “no deal is better than a bad deal” and ended up praising the outcome as the only possible compromise solution. It was she who said there could be no extension of Article 50 and yet now warns Brexiters in her party that rejecting the withdrawal agreement could lead to precisely that.
By hoping that the passage of time would narrow the options available to parliamentarians, the UK government has in fact created the opposite effect. Alternatives to May’s Brexit, spanning a no-deal disorderly exit to a second referendum, are more within reach than ever before. She is close to losing control of the process, especially if the 117 Conservative MPs who defied her in the leadership vote do so again in the meaningful vote.
The waiting game of Brexit was not an accidental construct. If something now derails the course the prime minister wanted the process to take, it will be an accident entirely of her own making.