Why it’s wildly optimistic to think Brexit will be over by March 2019

Anyone believing we are more than “half way” to the end of it all is kidding themselves.

NS

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Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: the cabinet is irreconcilably divided, this time over customs. The way out? An extended period of transitional customs arrangements after we Brexit. Elsewhere, the House of Lords has inflicted another defeat – its 15th – on the government's Brexit plans, this time over environmental protection after we leave.

I went away last week – you can read my reflections on my trip to Israel in this week’s NS – and as far as I can tell, the only change in the Brexit debate is a new piece of jargon: “max fac”, the latest abbreviation for some half-baked scheme of the government's that won't work and can't be reconciled with its own red lines.

And the bad news is anyone thinking we are more than “half way there” to the end of it all is kidding themselves. The United Kingdom took the best part of a decade to fully join the European Communities after 1973 and will be lucky not to take a decade or more to leave it. That's long been the view of most people on the other side of the negotiating table and Ivan Rogers was effectively forced out of his job by Theresa May's chiefs of staff for telling them the same thing. Now May has essentially become the advocate for the Rogers approach.

The complexity of exiting the bloc is only part of the problem: adding to the the difficulty of negotiating Brexit is the fraught parliamentary arithmetic. And while most people aren't basing their voting intention on their referendum vote, enough are that it is hard to see how another election – which increasing numbers of people at Westminster think is inevitable – will resolve that question. If anything, it may deepen the deadlock, as if the Conservatives lose one or two of their tally and the DUP fall back from their astonishingly strong performance in 2017, but neither Labour nor the Liberal Democrats make great strides forward, then you simply end up with no viable government at all.

But regardless, it shows that the idea, still commonly aired by Conservative MPs, that Brexit will be “over” in March 2019 and they can get back to other things is wildly optimistic. Brexit is the United Kingdom’s national project for the foreseeable future.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.