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12 October 2018

Is there a way out of the Brexit mess?

The odd thing about the Brexit crisis is all the possible resolutions feel impossible. 

By Stephen Bush

What’s the way out for the government of its Brexit mess? Downing Street is rapidly running out of politically viable ways to resolve the Brexit talks. Here are some ways that won’t work.

Throw the DUP under a bus

There is an argument being made with growing force in Conservative circles that there is already a border for agriculture in the Irish Sea and that if checking Northern Irish cows at ports isn’t an existential threat to the Union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, checking electrical goods isn’t either.

The difficulty is that the DUP – without whose support the Conservatives cannot remain in office – do regard this as an existential threat to the Union and they cannot allow their political project to go up in flames. If ushering in a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn is the price of avoiding that, it’s one they’ll pay willingly.

So the government can’t agree to a deal in which, in the absence of agreed solutions, Northern Ireland remains within the regulatory orbit of the European Union while Great Britain does.

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The whole of the United Kingdom stays in the single market and customs union for an indefinite period

The other way to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland is for the whole of the United Kingdom to remain within the regulatory and customs orbit of the European Union or, in other words, for the United Kingdom to remain in the single market and customs union.

In terms of the DUP’s 30 priorities for Brexit in their 2017 manifesto, they presuppose a high level of continued and enduring alignment with the EU, particularly as far as trade is concerned. (You cannot maintain the current state of Northern Irish farming and strike a deep and significant trade deal with the United States, regardless of who is in the White House.)

There are definitely enough Labour MPs who are willing to vote for a Brexit deal that secures this. So it can pass the Commons.

But I cannot conceive of how this deal wouldn’t tear the Conservatives in two, so I cannot imagine any Tory prime minister willingly doing this.

Another election

This parliament is almost impossibly deadlocked over Brexit: why not get a new one?

I think the answer to why we won’t end up with another election, as one Conservative MP put it me recently, is: “because it would be the end of the Conservative Party”.

An election would be a perfect storm: a Conservative manifesto would have to include some kind of Brexit policy and of course, the Conservative Party cannot agree on a Brexit policy. You would have at least three separate Brexit policies being offered by Conservative MPs: something more distant from the European Union than Theresa May’s Chequers proposals, something closer and Chequers itself. You would have Tory MPs arguing for a second referendum and Tory MPs arguing against one.

You would have MPs panicking throughout the campaign and trying to triangulate around their own constituency.

Meanwhile although Labour’s six tests are essentially a load of rubbish that you can make say anything you want, from the perspective of an opposition party trying to make its way through an election, that’s great! Everyone in that party will be able to say they agree with the six tests.

There is one route to an election I can see: if the DUP force the Conservatives into one.

Another referendum

Yeah, it’s not gonna happen. A parliament that cannot agree the terms of exit will not be able to agree the terms of a referendum vote. Resolving the Brexit issue with a referendum is a bit like suggesting someone who cannot buy a flat buys a six-bedroom house and sells it to finance their flat purchase: it’s a lovely idea but it doesn’t work, as if they could afford the house they could afford the flat.

The one route to a second referendum I can see is one where there is an election which Labour wins and they throw the issue out to the electorate as a way of disposing of the timebomb they’ve inherited from the Tories, but I think it’s much more likely in that scenario that Labour just slips into the EEA.

Brexit is stopped

Also highly unlikely. The problem is parliament cannot agree on anything: they can’t agree on a flavour of Brexit, they can’t agree on a referendum on Brexit, and they can’t agree to have no Brexit.

But if the government can’t get its act together and the result is a drastic and disorderly Brexit, a reversal of the referendum result might happen sooner rather than later.