Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May survived a no-confidence vote in Parliament, but the stakes in Britain’s Brexit dilemma have only gone up.
In a latest twist of the Brexit crisis, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May survived a vote of no confidence in Parliament last night. The confidence vote was called—not by the opposition but by 48 of her own MPs—after May withdrew a vote planned for Tuesday on the almost universally disliked Brexit deal she had assembled last month. May withdrew it because it had become clear she would lose, a ruse that provoked disgust across the political spectrum (and even a brief assault on a piece of British democracy’s costume jewelry, the Parliament chamber’s ceremonial mace). May thwarted the attempt to dethrone her, albeit by a narrow 200 to 117 votes (I repeat, from her own party).
She still won’t be around for much longer though. May only survived by promising beforehand not to stand for another election, further underlining the impression of her government as a runaway locomotive hurtling towards disaster. To a degree, May’s survival or departure is an irrelevance anyway: With or without her, the Brexit options for the U.K., which we will now look at, will essentially remain the same. What the chaos does do, however, is raise the stakes for Britain yet further, making it yet more likely that the U.K. will either stage another referendum or crash out of the E.U. without any deal in place at all.
The implications of either option are not pretty.
A deal no one likes
May’s position is under threat because MPs hate the Brexit deal she has negotiated with the E.U. This is partly her fault—not because a better deal is possible, but because by vaguely and falsely promising far better she helped to sustain unrealistic expectations throughout the negotiations. Remainers hate May’s deal because it is unquestionably worse for the economy than staying in the union. That isn’t a flaw in this deal per se, but in the whole Brexit project. There is in fact no Brexit scenario in which the U.K. would be better off. Die-hard Leavers hate the deal because it doesn’t offer the U.K. the complete independence from the E.U. they believe would set the country truly “free.”
Above all, they hate the Irish backstop. This is a proposed agreement designed to eliminate the possibility of a “hard border” (one with full checks) going up between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland due to some future U.K./E.U. deal. Because such a border would be a disaster for the Republic, in such a situation the backstop would mean that Northern Ireland would have retain or revert to membership of the single market, placing it in the same zone as the rest of Ireland, lying to its south and west.
This provision of last resort would create a different regime for Northern Ireland from the rest of the U.K., because, if there are no border checks between Northern Ireland and the Republic, then these checks would have to be introduced between Northern Ireland and the island of Britain. Many Brexiters, seeing this eventuality bringing Northern Ireland closer to the Republic and away from the rest of the U.K., thus strongly oppose it as a backdoor ruse for promoting a united Ireland. The alternative to this is granting the backstop emergency power over the whole of the U.K., a measure that, if it went into operation, could largely signal the de facto end of Brexit.
This has made the backstop the object of fear and loathing in pro-Leave circles. Negotiators for the E.U., however, have maintained that the provision is a fundamental, inalienable foundation stone of Ireland’s future economic, social, and political health. It is an issue on which they have repeatedly said they will not compromise.
Many Brexiters are refusing to accept either this, or the fact that the E.U. has—and has always had—the upper hand in negotiations. Even now, they are trying to wriggle the E.U. out of this unbendable position, with one Conservative even threatening to starve Ireland as a bargaining tool.
It won’t work: The E.U. will not concede on this point. Much of the exhaustion in the U.K. around Brexit is about having to wait in vain for this penny to drop. It has left many British people with the impression that they are being led by toddlers.
The endgame approaches
If May’s deal is thus unacceptable (and it certainly appears to be), that leaves two further options: The U.K. can just leave the E.U. without a deal in place, or have another referendum (which could either deliver a vote to still leave, or a vote to remain).
No deal means the U.K. will leave the E.U. without any deal in place on March 29. The effect of this would likely be stark and immediate. Almost all current arrangements with the E.U. would be torn up instantly on March 29, 2019. This would leave Britain to trade via World Trade Organization rules until it is able to secure trade deals with the rest of the world—a tortuous process.
Amid this chaos, the pound would likely plummet, making British goods much cheaper in international markets and international goods much more expensive in Britain. That would make essentials like food and medicines far more costly—this is, if such goods can make it across the border.
The government estimates that no-deal chaos at the U.K. frontier, both at passport control and customs, could last up to six months. Britain’s Road Haulage Association has warned of customs checks lasting eight hours at the ports. British businesses have been stockpiling food in case of no-deal, but the country’s reliance on just-in-time manufacturing is likely to throw a spanner among the cogs. It’s not just a question of doing without easy supplies of Spanish olive oil or French wine. It means that supplies of essential staples (most British food is imported), medicines, and components necessary for manufacturing could run dry. Quite aside from requiring space for 10,000 extra trucks in the Channel Port county of Kent to accommodate the massive backlog of trucks waiting to clear customs at the ports, this risks making daily living astronomically expensive. Even that prediction is assuming without firm grounds that all the necessary essentials will actually make it to market.
On the other hand, a rock-bottom pound could bring investment advantages in the long run, by making British goods and salaries cheaper. International investment in the country is unlikely to be forthcoming, however, while the country is in chaos. An unclear situation over migration would only compound this. A no-deal Brexit would bar E.U. citizens arriving after March 29 from applying for settled status, but the ability of of E.U. citizens already in the country to apply for this status has not been made explicit. If the toughest stance possible is taken, 1.3 million British citizens living elsewhere in the E.U. would be open to retaliatory measures. The Bank of England estimates that, because of all this projected insecurity, the country’s economy would be 10.7 percent smaller over the next 15 years in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
This is alarming, but May’s survival does mean something: Her win may be narrow, but it also stands as a rejection of the hard-right no-deal advocates in her own party. And it also raises the hopes of those who favor Plan B: Asking the electorate one more time whether they are for or against Brexit.
Referendum II, and Remain?
Given the appalling prospects, the idea of staging another referendum, to give a sobered-up British electorate the opportunity to end this self-inflicted catastrophe and remain in the E.U., seems highly tempting. But in a country where 52 percent of voters chose to leave—albeit with imperfect information on a Leave vote’s consequences—such a plan hardly looks democratic. Anything but an overwhelming win for Remain would send a message to Leave voters in the first referendum that the despair that fueled their vote for a change—arguably any change—was going unheard.
There’s more. Ever since the referendum campaign, all sorts of racist monsters have crawled out of the woodwork and gained an audience in Britain. A second referendum that only marginally overruled the first could hand these people a martyrdom narrative to make their hate more persuasive. Instead of being a more thoughtful re-appraisal of the situation, a second referendum campaign could end up being even uglier than the first—which, following the murder of pro-Remain MP Jo Cox by a neo-Nazi terrorist, was already about as bad as could be.
And while the needle of public opinion has shifted somewhat to the Remain side, so entrenched have positions become that there’s no clear indication that Remain would in fact romp home.
The Labour Party opposition, whose take on the issue has often been unclear, is suggesting a way around this by pushing for another general election before re-staging the referendum. A win for the party would thus be a public validation of the acceptance of another E.U. vote. That seems plausible, but it’s not an easy to sell to a membership with whom the idea of a second referendum as soon as possible is gaining by the day.
This is where Britain stands right now: frozen in front of a selection of bad choices. Working out which is the least-objectionable option is like going to a party thrown by a friend with an ill-behaved dog, and trying to work out which one of the bowls of party snacks you’re offered hasn’t been licked.
Reader, they have all been licked by the dog.
We’ve still got to eat one.