Brexit deconstructed: Britain is running out of road - fast!

Much like Wile E. Coyote, Britain's dash towards Brexit means it is fast running out of road.

Much like Wile E. Coyote, Britain's dash towards Brexit means it is fast running out of road. - Credit: Archant

James Ball explains why when it comes to Brexit we are all just passengers in the back seat.

Imagine, if you will, the United Kingdom as a car on a road. Millions of us are strapped in the back with no real say in where things are going at the moment – except for a shout or two to the front seat – while a few dozen in the front squabble over control of the steering wheel. And there's a brick strapped to the accelerator.

This is a rough way to understand the Brexit mess at the moment. The frustrating thing for those of us hurtling ever-more-quickly towards either a cliff edge or a wall is that the people squabbling in the front aren't yet bothering to argue about a destination: they're paralysed with indecision over different emphases on basically identical Brexits.

Theresa May has ruled out staying in the single market and customs union, while simultaneously promising a comprehensive trade deal with the EU, a frictionless Irish border, and the ability to make trade deals with other countries around the world.

Jeremy Corbyn rules out staying in the EU single market, though says he would like access to 'a' single market, or all of the benefits of the single market without all of its costs, wants a frictionless Irish border, and has given mixed signals over the future of the customs union.

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The two positions differ only in emphasis – both are offering quite hard Brexit deals, and are continuing to promise outcomes which the EU Commission and EU leaders, including Emmanuel Macron during his UK visit, have repeatedly said are impossible.

Such paralysis and fantasy politics would be frustrating and pointless during politics-as-usual, when the car was parked – but it isn't. Thanks to the aforementioned brick-on-the-accelerator, the Article 50 process, UK politics are hurtling towards seismic change. The UK is now coming up on 11 months into a 24 month process which ends in our no longer being an EU member, barring extraordinary action.

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We're running out of road faster than we think. Any exit deal – which will be much less than a full trade deal – will need to be ratified by the EU parliaments, and likely by the national parliaments of most or all EU nations, a process which takes months. If we don't have a deal by September or so, ratifying it in time will become so challenging it will border on impossible.

If we then factor in that the next talks don't start in earnest until March, and that the EU virtually shuts down in August, the UK is not in practice looking at another 13 months of road ahead, but rather more like six.

Despite the lack of time left to us, no-one in the front seat seems particularly alarmed about the brick strapped to the accelerator. There would be two sensible responses to facing the fact we're this close to impact with no realistic possibility under this weak government of getting a good outcome in the time remaining.

One would be to try to take the brick off the accelerator. This need not mean trying to cancel or reverse Brexit, but at a minimum could mean simply seeking more time for the Article 50 process. The other would be for politicians of all stripes to accept that the time for unrealistic promises with no hope of being realised ended a long time ago, and so parties need to start setting out which of the actually possible options on the table are the ones they advocate.

Not even the smaller pro-EU parties seem to be particularly offering that. The most commonly-stated third position – advanced by the Liberal Democrats, to minimal public enthusiasm – focuses largely on the importance of a second EU referendum, which could ambiguously range from a referendum on 'deal or no deal', or 'deal, no deal, or reverse Brexit'.

When it comes to the much likelier situation of either facing a very weak exit deal, or none at all, the Lib Dems have been far less vocal – they may have a position, but they don't articulate it on this central issue nearly so urgently.

The UK has had weak and chaotic governments before. John Major governed with a tiny majority – then none at all – for five years, and got almost nothing done. Labour governed from 1974 to 1979 – nearly lasting a full five years – with a series of confidence-and-supply deals followed by straightforward minority government. Both governments managed to survive because they could just let up the gas, and accept the country wouldn't make any monumental changes under a government with no clear mandate.

That's not the position we're in today: by triggering Article 50, we remain committed to a monumental change which will affect the country for decades to come, the terms of which are being defined by a minority government which doesn't even agree with itself what exit should look like. Meanwhile, the opposition remain divided with themselves and have no clear water between themselves and the government.

And all the while, the brick on the accelerator drives us forward, faster and ever faster.

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