Britain’s attempt to leave the European Union has now caused a full-blown political and economic crisis. Last week the deal negotiated with the European Union by Theresa May was rejected by Parliament by a massive 230 votes – the biggest defeat suffered by a prime minister in modern British history. Her political authority has all but vanished. Her cabinet is openly split on what should now happen and further resignations are likely. Her attempt to seek a compromise with opposition parties has failed, with the Labour party leader calling it merely a public relations deception. The country is in uproar and members of parliament are plotting to seize the initiative from the government in an unprecedented attempt to change the constitutional balance of power in Britain.
Unless a compromise can be found within the next few weeks, Britain will crash out of the European Union on 29th March without any deal to regulate its relations with its former partners. British business leaders and European politicians say this would be disastrous. It would immediately halt all free trade between Britain and its neighbours, with long queues building up at Britain’s ports as all trucks have to wait for extra customs checks. There would be an immediate shortage of medicines, of spare parts for British industry and of vital imports such as nuclear materials and fuel. Aircraft might not be able to land as the air regulations would no longer be in force. Britons might need visas to travel to France or Germany.
A “no-deal” Brexit would also embitter all future relations between Britain and its EU neighbours. Britain would renege on its promise to pay more than £30 billion to cover its obligations to fund EU pensions and projects agreed when Britain was part of the EU. London would have to negotiate emergency agreements so that police co-operation could continue and common anti-terrorist legislation could remain in force. Political friendships would be broken, and Britain would be seen as an untrustworthy partner in the future.
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The worst and most immediate effects would be felt in Ireland. The agreement that ended more than 30 years of violence in Northern Ireland, signed in 1997 by London and Dublin, led to the removal of any land border between the two parts of Ireland, and this has been important is normalising relations and bringing the two sides together. A no-deal Brexit would mean the immediate reimposition of customs and police inspections on the border, to stop smuggling and to control any illegal immigrants. Many people in Ireland, in the north and in the Republic, say new frontier controls would be used by IRA terrorists and extremists to resume their violent campaign.
The issue of the Irish border is one of the biggest obstacles to any Brexit agreement. Mrs May negotiated a so-called “backstop” – an insurance policy that meant that if no new trade deal between Britain and the EU could be negotiated in the next few years, the current regulations would continue, and Northern Ireland would have to remain inside the EU customs union, unlike the rest of Britain. This has been vigorously rejected by the ruling Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland, which says it would split the province from the rest of the United Kingdom, and push Ulster into a united Ireland, which the Protestant majority has always opposed.
Without the support of the 12 Northern Irish DUP members of Parliament, the ruling Conservatives would lose their majority in the Westminster parliament and would be unable to continue to govern. So May promised Parliament that she would try to get legal guarantees from Brussels that this “backstop” would not last more than a few years. But Dublin and the rest of the EU refuse to change this, saying that without this insurance policy, the EU could not guarantee the security of its external frontiers.
Many members of Parliament are in despair at what they see as the prime minister’s obstinacy and refusal to change the main parts of the deal she reached with Brussels in December. So some Conservative rebels, supported by many other opposition members of parliament, have now taken matters into their own hands. They are likely to win two votes in the next few days on crucial steps that are opposed by the government. The first would be to make it illegal for Britain to leave the EU without a deal – meaning that the Brexit leaving date would have to be postponed. The second would be for Parliament to suggest its own Brexit plan, whether the prime minister likes it or not.
Already there are at least two different scenarios being discussed. One, which is supported by the Labour party, would keep Britain within the customs union permanently. This gets round the problem of the Irish border. But it will infuriate the Brexiteers, who say that it would tie Britain permanently to Brussels and will not deliver true independence from Europe. Another proposal would be to join Britain to Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein in a free trade area, so that Britain stays in the customs union and also in the single market. British business would love this. But those opposing Brexit hate the idea, because Britain would have to obey all the EU rules without having any say in Brussels in formulating the regulations. Those wanting to remain say that Britain would be in a far worse position than if it simply stayed in the EU and cancelled Brexit.
There is also growing support in Parliament for a second referendum. Members of Parliament say it is clear that no solution will win a majority, and so it is better to ask the entire nation to vote again. Those opposed to Brexit love this idea, as they hope it would reverse the result of the 2016 referendum. Public opinion polls now show that around 56 per cent of voters oppose Brexit and would rather stay in the EU.
But a second referendum is very risky. First, it is not clear what the questions on the ballot should be. Should there be three questions: leave without a deal, accept the May proposal or remain in the EU? What would happen if no question won a majority? Secondly, any referendum that overturned the result of the 2016 vote would infuriate all the 17 million Britons who voted to leave and would feel cheated. They say it would be undemocratic. They have threatened violence if Brexit is cancelled. The third problem is that a second referendum would take at least a year to organise.
The Labour party opposition is itself deeply split on what to do. Its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, wants a new general election. But he failed to bring down the government in a vote of no confidence last week. No Conservatives, either Leavers or Remainers, want a new election as Labour is likely to win it. The DUP also does not want a Labour government in Westminster.
Many Labour parliamentarians now want a second referendum. But the left wing of the party, including Corbyn, opposes this, as he says it would alienate traditional working-class Labour supporters who mostly voted to leave in 2016.
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The government appears powerless to stop Parliament hijacking the government’s authority and making the new rules itself. This is an unprecedented constitutional challenge to the power of the Prime Minister, and reminds many Britons of the struggle between Parliament and King Charles I in 1649 which led to civil war, the execution of the King and a republic in Britain that lasted 11 years. But May has lost all authority, the unity of her cabinet and much respect in the country. She refuses to resign and remains in power only because no other senior Conservative minister has enough support to mount a coup against her.
Meanwhile all other political life in Britain is paralysed. It is a constitutional crisis without precedent, and reminds many people of the start of the Second World War when Neville Chamberlain, the Prime Minister, lost a vote of confidence in 1940 but refused to resign. The country had to wait a week until its saviour, Winston Churchill, replaced him. Unfortunately there is no politician like Churchill now alive who could rescue Britain from the mess.