There has never been a good moment for Brexit. The United Kingdom, which sensibly avoided membership of the single currency, has long benefited from the economic prosperity and global influence that membership of the EU delivers. But if Brexit is an ill-conceived project then 2019 is a particularly poor time to enact it.
The US, with which Leavers boasted the UK would forge closer ties, is led by Donald Trump, the most reckless and disruptive president in postwar history. As Professor John Bew writes, the resignation on 20 December of former defence secretary James Mattis, who warned President Trump was undermining allies and empowering enemies, confirmed the administration’s grim trajectory. The US, which acted as the guarantor of the post-1945 international order, is performing what the historian Nigel Hamilton has called an “Amerexit”. Two of the traditional pillars of British foreign policy are crumbling simultaneously.
The 2016 Brexit vote did not result in the economic recession that some unwisely forecast (though it did turn the UK from the fastest-growing G7 country into the slowest one). But a mere three months before Britain’s scheduled departure from the EU on 29 March, the threat of a new crisis is rising. After nearly a decade of consistent, if sometimes anaemic, economic growth, both the UK and the world are overdue a new recession, one which a full-scale trade war between the US and China could yet precipitate.
Even before Brexit, an era of high debt and ultra-loose monetary policy meant the United Kingdom had little ammunition with which to confront a slowdown. The threat posed to economic relations with the EU – the UK’s largest trading partner – merely heightens the risk.
In an unsightly attempt to bribe Conservative MPs into backing Theresa May’s Brexit deal, Downing Street has spent recent weeks doling out knighthoods and other state honours. But the Prime Minister still lacks the votes needed to pass her agreement. As numerous Brexiteers have conceded, Mrs May’s deal is far inferior to EU membership. In order to prevent a hard Irish border and preserve essential economic ties, the UK would sacrifice national sovereignty by becoming a rule-taker, rather than a rule-maker. The mistake is to suggest that this outcome was not inevitable. Britain was always destined to face an unpalatable choice between prioritising prosperity and prioritising sovereignty.
Faced with the likely defeat of Mrs May’s agreement in the Commons, some Leavers now openly advocate no-deal – a calamitous outcome for which the UK is unprepared. But there are alternatives to this chaotic fate. The extension of Article 50, to permit time for a new general election or a second referendum, must now be considered. Democracy did not end on 23 June 2016 and much has changed since then: Mr Trump is in the White House and the folly of Brexit has been exposed. Faced with this forbidding prospectus, it would be careless for the UK to relinquish the right to think again.
This article appears in the 02 Jan 2019 issue of the New Statesman, 2019: The big questions