Deal, no deal, or no Brexit?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Anti-Brexit campaigners outside the British Houses of Parliament in London, Britain, 18 July 2018. [Andy Rain/EPA/EFE]

Theresa May’s attempts to negotiate a ‘soft Brexit’ are not backed by a parliamentary majority. Nor are the plans of the hard Brexiters. That could result in a new referendum, which could lead to the UK staying in, argues Hugo Dixon.

Hugo Dixon is the chairman and editor-in-chief of InFacts.

As the Brexit talks enter their final stage, the European Union should remember that there aren’t just two scenarios: that the UK leaves with a deal or without one. There’s a third: that the UK doesn’t leave at all.

Indeed, the chance that Brexit will be cancelled entirely is rising. Even if Theresa May gets a deal, her chances of ramming it through the UK parliament aren’t great.

The prime minister faces a near-impossible Trinity: she has to win over Brextremists such as Boris Johnson, Tory pro-Europeans and Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Although she can satisfy any two of these groups, she will need close to a miracle to win over all three simultaneously.

There are admittedly a handful of Labour Brexiters who will back the prime minister come what may. But they are counterbalanced by a similar number of pro-European Tories who are committed to a new referendum, or “People’s Vote”, at the end of the talks.

If May comes back with a deal, she may be able to win over other pro-European Conservatives. But Johnson’s troops will be hopping mad. After all, the whole point of Brexit for them is to “take back control”. The sort of half-in-half-out deal May is hoping to clinch would mean losing control. The former foreign secretary has said it would be “substantially worse” than staying in the EU.

There is a hard core of perhaps 20 MPs who will not succumb to any amount of arm-twisting. That’s more than enough to sink a deal – even without factoring in the possibility that the DUP’s 10 MPs will desert the prime minister if she agrees to regulatory checks in the Irish Sea, something its leader has called a “blood red” line.

May’s main hope is therefore to win over more Labour MPs to her camp – with the argument that her deal is better than crashing out. But claims that up to 30 are susceptible to her wooing are overblown.

When the EU looks at the prime minister’s near-impossible task, it may be tempted to cut her some slack. After all, it too will be damaged if the UK crashes out with no deal.

But this would be the wrong conclusion because the chance of the UK charging over the abyss is even smaller than May’s chance of ramming a miserable deal through Parliament.

Sure, if she breaks off the talks without a deal, the Brextremists will cheer her to the rafters. They will also be delighted if they manage to vote down any deal she comes home with. But she will then have a massive rebellion among pro-European Tories – even those who have backed her so far.

Take Amber Rudd. The former home secretary has been rallying MPs behind the prime minister, saying they must back May against the Brextremists. But these loyalists are not possessed by demons and will not, like the Gadarene swine in the Bible, follow her over the cliff to destruction.

As Rudd said this month, a People’s Vote was “absolutely” preferable to quitting the EU with no deal at all. There may be around another 40 Tory MPs in a similar position.

Note too that the Labour Party has given qualified support to a People’s Vote and the rest of the opposition backs the idea. Rudd’s comments suggest there are enough Tories to force such a referendum if the only alternative is crashing out.

The electorate would then probably prefer to stay in the EU. Public opinion is already turning against Brexit as people see that the talks aren’t going to plan. When they are complete, voters will see it is nothing like the “cake-and-eat-it” option Johnson promised in the referendum.

What’s more, pro-European campaigners have learnt lessons since 2016. They can’t just re-run David Cameron’s Project Fear. They must also stress the benefits of membership – to our power, prosperity and peace.

Pro-Europeans know, too, that they need to address the reasons that led many people to vote for Brexit in the first place – such as lack of investment in our crumbling health service and failure to control migration, especially from outside the EU. A People’s Vote campaign would, therefore, be very different to the 2016 referendum.

As European leaders prepare for [next week’s] summit, they should reflect that Brexit is an act of geopolitical self-harm. It will divide Europe when we need to be strong in the world – when Vladimir Putin is undermining our democracies, when Donald Trump is tearing up the world order and when China is increasingly flexing its muscles.

The EU, of course, must not seek to punish the UK. It should offer May the best deal it can, consistent with its principles and interests. But it shouldn’t either be party to any fudge that keeps the British public in the dark about what Brexit means until after the UK has left.

After offering the prime minister such a deal, the other leaders should then watch how the domestic political drama unfolds. They may be pleasantly surprised.

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