Two years after the Referendum, Brexit still is not clear to most people. So with the Prime Minister demanding that her party back her “or Brexit won’t happen” we present our simple guide. Just where are we up to with Brexit? What is likely to happen? And is it possible to take an unbiased view?
By Mark Richards.
Former Prime Minister Harold Wilson famously said that a week was a long time in politics. For Theresa May the last week must have seemed like an eternity as she has faced widespread criticism of her Brexit plans and accusations that – in trying to please everyone – she has ended up pleasing no-one.
In this article, we try and do what it says in the introduction. Take an unbiased view, bring you up to date, outline the likely possibilities – and be as impartial as it is possible to be.
Remind me of the background…
We are going back into the mists of time, but on June 23rd 2016 the UK voted to leave the European Union, with 17.4m people voting Leave and 16.1m voting to Remain. Before the referendum then Prime Minister David Cameron had sent a leaflet to every household in the UK stating that voting Leave meant leaving the Single Market and the EU Customs Union: more of that later.
…But by June 24th David Cameron was PM no longer and – after a mild bout of Tory infighting – vicar’s daughter and MP for Maidenhead Theresa Mary May became Prime Minister, famously standing on the steps of 10 Downing Street and declaring that, “Brexit means Brexit.”
So when are we leaving?
Theresa May formally gave notice of our intention to leave the EU in March last year, and we will leave on Friday, March 29th 2019 – so as you read this, in a little over eight months’ time. But – and this is about the biggest but there has ever been – we do not yet know on what terms we are leaving the EU. The government has only just published a White Paper on the subject. It is by no means certain to get its proposals through parliament, and it is by no means certain that the EU will agree to the proposals either.
What does the White Paper say?
It says a lot – it runs to 100 pages – but these are the main points:
The UK will maintain a “common rulebook for all goods” with the EU, including agricultural products. There will, however, be different arrangements for services (such as financial services) where it is “in our interests to have regulatory flexibility.”
A treaty will be signed committing the UK to “continued harmonisation” with EU rules, which is intended to avoid friction at UK/EU borders, including Northern Ireland
Parliament will oversee the UK’s trade policies. It will be able to “choose” to diverge from EU rules, but would need to recognise that “this would have consequences.”
The UK would still need to take notice of rulings from the European Court of Justice, with a “joint institutional framework” established to interpret UK/EU agreements
According to the government, these arrangements would:
- Give the UK and independent trade policy, with the ability to set its own non-EU tariffs and negotiate trade deals
- End the role of the ECJ in UK affairs
- And end the UK contribution to the UK budget, “with appropriate contributions in specific areas.”
According to the government’s critics, it does nothing of the sort, leaving the UK still liable to EU rules without having any say in how those rules are made. Arch Brexiteer Jacob Rees Mogg said it would turn the UK into “a vassal state” and a very long way from leaving the Customs Union or the Single Market.
The devil, of course, is in the detail – as above, the document is 100 pages long. But despite Theresa May supposedly having cleared it with Angela Merkel before she presented it to her own cabinet, there is no guarantee that all 27 EU countries will accept it. As has been said many times, “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.” That raises the spectre – or the opportunity – of a “no deal” Brexit, with the UK leaving the EU in March 2019 and operating under World Trade Organisation rules.
But that’s not what people voted for…
No, most people who voted Leave – if anecdotal evidence is any guide – voted to be as close to the EU as we are to Tunisia or Turkmenistan. I very much doubt that they voted for the European Court of Justice to still be making our laws, or for the EU to be involved in UK legislation in any way. So these are dangerous waters for democracy – but you suspect that the politicians will muddle through and, sadly, the population will simply become yet more disillusioned with the politicians.
Will Theresa May be replaced as Tory leader?
Before the next election? Almost certainly. Before the UK leaves the EU? I tend to doubt it. Backbench Tory MPs need to hand 48 letters to the Chairman of the 1922 Committee saying they have ‘no confidence’ in the PM to trigger a leadership election. Even if they do that, May could win the ballot and remain as PM. My guess is that despite the dark mutterings May will find a way to win a Commons vote on her proposals and find a way to cling on to power until we have left the EU.
Will there be another referendum?
There have been plenty of calls for one, and the EU does have a history of getting countries to keep voting until they come to the “right” decision. But again, I doubt it. 16.1m people probably would want another referendum, 17.4m would not. But I doubt that the politicians would want to go down that route, especially given the unpredictable nature of recent election results.
What does business want?
Inevitably, there is a wide variety of opinions. Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England echoed the views of many – including the CBI – when he expressed a strong preference for the UK to remain in the EU. Businessmen – and bankers – who voted Remain almost certainly now favour the softest of soft Brexits.
Others – Tim Martin, boss of Weatherspoon’s, would be a good example – have been consistently outspoken in their support for Leave, arguing that we simply do not need to make deals with unelected EU officials.
But what business wants more than anything is certainty. No business could take a major decision that would impact existing trading relationships but also open up potentially huge new markets – and then not have done anything about it two years later.
As Tony Soprano famously said, “A wrong decision is better than indecision.” And you suspect that business would now settle for any firm decision from the government, rather than the current chaos.
So is that it?
Far from it. The White Paper sets out the UK’s “preferred way forward.” The problem is that everyone else – from the lowest Tory MP to the highest-ranking EU official – also has their ‘preferred way forward.’ The muddle and indecision looks set to continue through the summer, as our politicians depart for their well-deserved summer recess – leaving the rest of us to wonder what our country will look like come March of next year.