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12 October 2017

Theresa May needs to break our Brexit deadlock – but she can’t

It's tricky to work out how the current British government can get from here to a deal.

By Stephen Bush

What’s that coming over the hill? It’s unlikely to be what the British government so craves: sufficient progress on the first stage of EU-UK talks.

“There was nothing, zero, no progress,” is how one diplomat describes the last week of negotiations to the FT’s Alex Barker.

There’s another neglected deadline for the UK: reaching the end of 2017 without clarity about what the transition looks like will spur the activation of post-Brexit contingency plans by big multinational companies headquartered in the UK, Bloomberg reports.

The unresolved issues before talks on future relationship can start? The creditor nations of the EU want a stronger commitment on the divorce bill before they will allow Michel Barnier to begin the next stage of talks. There is still divergence over the mechanism for protecting citizens’ rights after Brexit. And beyond using the word “creativity” a lot, the British government is no closer to a coherent plan for what happens to the Irish border. (To reiterate: either the United Kingdom doesn’t leave the customs union, or you have a hard border somewhere, either on the island of Ireland or in the Irish Sea. There are no other options.)

How to break the deadlock? Well, short of inventing a time machine and not triggering Article 50 when we did, the Brexit timetable means that it’s difficult for the United Kingdom to do anything other than concede or crash out without a deal – an outcome that Rabobank estimates would cost $15,000 per person.

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But May’s problem is that she can’t concede without creating potentially fatal problems for herself in the Conservative Party. Nor does that difficulty go away if she does – whoever is prime minister, they still face a parliamentary situation where they have no room for manoeuvre that doesn’t cost them votes from either within the Tory party or the DUP. And it’s in the interest of the opposition parties to find an excuse to vote against the government wherever possible.

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So while it’s not impossible, it’s tricky to work out how the British government, at least as it is currently constituted, can get from here to a Brexit deal.

Is it too soon for me to welcome our new Marxist overlords?

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Now listen to Stephen discussing Brexit on the NS podcast.