JAMES BALL: We're heading for a straight duel... No-deal or No Brexit

PUBLISHED: 12:00 21 December 2018

Prime Minister Theresa May speaks in the House of Commons at the start of a five-day debate on the European Union Withdrawal Agreement. Picture: PA Wire

Prime Minister Theresa May speaks in the House of Commons at the start of a five-day debate on the European Union Withdrawal Agreement. Picture: PA Wire

Early in 2018 the chances of no Brexit seemed totally out of reach, but the battle is now between a second referendum or the disaster of no-deal, writes JAMES BALL in this week's Deconstructed.

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Let’s start with the good news: over the course of 2018 the chances of stopping Brexit – and the movement for a People’s Vote – have gone from vanishingly remote to a serious possibility. The momentum is moving in the right direction, and thanks to sustained campaigning, there are now real reasons for hope.

There is, though, a big gap between a real hope and a reality. At the time of writing, neither Theresa May nor Jeremy Corbyn explicitly supports a second referendum, let alone one including Remain.

Even if a vote were secured, May would campaign against Remain in favour of her deal, and there’s no guarantee Corbyn would campaign for Remain – and even if he did, absolutely no guarantee his support would be any less tepid than it was in the 2016 campaign.

A second referendum, if secured, will be a bitter and divisive battle with absolute no guarantee of victory. There is no reason to expect it to be fought any more honestly than the first time, and we should also not be too comforted by the polls showing Remain in the lead – that’s just what they showed first time around, and we all know how that turned out.

But there is a bigger danger: Remainers are starting to relax that we have seen off no-deal, exactly as Brexiteers are working to amp it up as a possibility, and normalise it.

Time and again we hear phrases along the lines of “there is no parliamentary majority for no-deal” or “parliament will veto no-deal”. It is absolutely critical that we realise these statements fundamentally misunderstand how no-deal works – and by doing so increase the chances that it could happen if we all remain deadlocked.

Parliament might be sovereign – despite what Brexiteers claimed about the EU overruling it, it does retain power in the UK – but that power isn’t absolute. Parliament can vote that it doesn’t want climate change, doesn’t want anyone in the UK to be unemployed, or that it doesn’t want the country to be hit by an asteroid. However, unless it takes specific action in each of those cases, that vote will mean nothing.

So it is with Brexit: parliament can vote against no-deal as many times as it likes: unless it comes up with an alternative plan before March 29, 2019, a no-deal Brexit is what we’ll get. Article 50 forces that to be the case: unless the UK secures a withdrawal agreement, or else extends or revokes Article 50, we leave without a deal on that date – no matter what parliament says.

Against that backdrop we have a dangerous political climate: on Monday, the Sun claimed the EU had “caved” and would unveil plans for a “managed no-deal” Brexit – referring to plans Brussels has been formulating through the period to take the bare minimum action to minimise the huge disruption a no-deal would cause, focused on minimising harm to EU states, not the UK.

Elsewhere, Conservative ministers know a leadership contest is imminent, and so are telling party members what they want to hear instead of governing in the national interest. This means that even formerly pro-Remain ministers like Jeremy Hunt are giving newspaper interviews claiming that no-deal could work for the country – the ultimate in reckless irresponsibility, and done while holding the office of foreign secretary.

On Tuesday, the consequences of this noise-making began to come clear, as the government announced it would begin implementation on more than 320 strands of no-deal “preparation” – in reality, mitigation against total disaster, as it is far too late to properly prepare. While some tried to write this off as a political move to edge nervous MPs towards a deal (as was likely a factor), it was also the minimum required of a responsible government, to minimise deaths and chaos in the event this awful outcome actually happens.

And happen it could. There is a real imbalance in what must happen (or not happen) for a no-deal and what must happen for a People’s Vote. To get a second referendum, we need parliament to vote for it – and agree a question – the Electoral Commission to approve the question, and the EU to extend Article 50 to give us the time to do that. And then to stop Brexit, we need to win the vote.

To make no-deal happen, all its supporters have to do is stonewall everything else. If they can block an early election, block a deal, and block a second referendum – or run out the clock on them – they get what they want by default, and the rest of us will get the worst economic chaos in living memory. To an extent, they have the upper hand.

The clock is ticking faster than we know, because every course of action except inertia takes time. Once we hit the middle of February, an early election becomes a non-starter: the campaign period would take us through March 29, and so we would have no parliament during the critical exit date, making revocation of Article 50 (and possibly an extension of it) literally impossible.

We should not despair: thanks to efforts through the year, stopping Brexit is now a real possibility. But this is also the absolute worst time to relax, and certainly to celebrate. We are coming up to the real Brexit danger zone, and we need to walk into it with our eyes open, and ready for what will be a vicious and high-stakes fight.

The country is dangerously polarised, to the point that the possibility of any of the ‘moderate’ Brexit deals – whether May’s, Norway, or Canada – seems to be dropping, leaving us with the likely face-off between no Brexit and no-deal. It is a winnable battle, but one that we have to be ready to fight. Now is not the time to listen to anyone who reassures you no-deal is off the table. Brexit is over – but only if you want it, and work for it.

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