MITCH BENN: Two months to go and two straight choices

PUBLISHED: 14:00 25 January 2019 | UPDATED: 14:39 25 January 2019

An anti-Brexit demonstrator holding the European Union and England flags outside the Houses of Parliament. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski.

An anti-Brexit demonstrator holding the European Union and England flags outside the Houses of Parliament. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski.

PA Wire/PA Images

MITCH BENN discusses the problems with a no deal Brexit and what the works no deal have become.

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Almost immediately after the spectacular failure of the prime minister’s Withdrawal Agreement last week, the question was asked throughout the land: “Okay, so now what?” And this question was answered by everyone: “Literally nobody knows.”

However, one idea in particular started to gain a lot of currency: the idea that if we can agree on nothing else, it is nonetheless vitally important to ‘rule out a no-deal Brexit’.

Jeremy Corbyn kicked it all off by refusing to engage in cross-party talks – which in this instance seemed to mean talks about which party is now crossest (result: a draw) – unless the prime minister ‘ruled out’ a no-deal Brexit; rumours surfaced of letters signed by dozens of MPs being delivered to No.10, demanding that a no-deal Brexit be ‘ruled out’.

Okay, let’s say this loud and clear: YOU CAN’T ‘RULE OUT’ NO-DEAL BREXIT.

What you have to do is rule something else in.

A no-deal Brexit is not something we can now choose to do or not to do; it’s what’s coming, unless we can set something else up to prevent it.

It’s not an option; it’s the default setting. It’s been coming ever since the Article 50 letter was sent on March 29, 2017, setting a two-year timer ticking, at the end of which (specifically March 29 this year) our membership of the EU expires, whether or not we’ve managed to set anything up to replace it.

Part of the problem is that, within the big Brexit conversation, ‘no-deal’ has become perceived as an extreme and improbable outcome because it was only the most extreme and improbable Brexiters who were advocating it (although typically, as no-deal has become more and more likely, many mainstream Brexiters have started opining that it wouldn’t be so bad, and moreover, insisting that they’ve always said this, despite being on the record dismissing 
it as an unimaginable nightmare two years ago, but hey, bullshitters gonna bullshit).

If it’s only the nutters proposing this, the logic went, then this will only happen if the nutters get their way. Actually, no. The nutters got their way already; it’s up to everyone else to prevent this ‘extreme and improbable outcome’ and thus far we’ve failed to do so.

Many people have been making the analogy that trying to ‘rule out’ a no-deal Brexit after you’ve invoked Article 50 is like jumping out of a plane and then ‘ruling out’ smashing into the ground and dying.

You might not in fact smash into the ground and die, but only if you’ve arranged for some way of preventing this, like, say, remembering to wear a parachute or having an enormous net ready beneath you. It occurs to me that if anything, invoking Article 50 without any idea of what sort of deal (if any) you might be able to achieve by the end of the two-year deadline is rather more akin to jumping out of a plane clutching a ball of wool and two knitting needles with the intention of crocheting yourself a parachute on the way down.

So we can’t simply choose not to go through with a no-deal Brexit; we have to do something else instead. And there are only, it seems to me, two and a half options.

We could broker another withdrawal deal within the next two months and get it through parliament this time; given that the last proposal took not two months but two years to draw up and was utterly shredded in the House, this seems highly unlikely. Certainly it couldn’t be guaranteed, which is what ‘ruling out’ no-deal would require.

The only other choice is to change the deadline, and there’s just one way we can do this unilaterally. The EU27 might agree to let us extend the post-Article 50 transition period by, say, another year or so, but they’re under no obligation to do so (and are, let’s face it, so utterly sick of us by now that they may well be loath to delay our departure) and even if they did consent, that just means that we’ll probably be in exactly the same situation 12 months from now. Putting off confronting a problem is not the same as solving it.

So the only sure way to ‘rule out’ a no-deal Brexit is to revoke Article 50. The only certain way to prevent crashing out without a deal is to call Brexit off entirely, for the meantime at least. And we can do this; the EU have repeatedly assured us that we can rescind the notice to withdraw at any time.

Some people have suggested tabling a motion to the effect that Article 50 be automatically revoked if no deal can be brokered by March 28. This wily notion might work, as in order to reject it, the government would either have to endorse no-deal or admit that they’re not going to get a deal passed.

Keep resisting; Brexit is wounded, bleeding and howling. Time to put it out of its misery.

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