May has brought us to a Brexit that throws UK off a cliff

IN one of my speeches on Brexit at SNP Conference last week, I quoted JK Galbraith from his book The Great Crash 1929: “the end had arrived but was not yet visible”.

That is where we are with Brexit, and we all need to keep the heid. The next few weeks will have many bumps in the road and I know from my own daily experience and the emails I am getting on a regular basis there are a lot of people finding this to be a new sort of torture.

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First published in The National, 18 October 2018

Here are a few predictions for the next few weeks. The first thing to remember is that “deal” only covers the withdrawal aspects: citizens’ rights, the financial settlement and Ireland. It staggers me that there is nothing of substance about the future relationship. There may, or indeed may not, be a political declaration which will have some warm words about close and special relationships annexed to the withdrawal agreement, but it will not have legal effect.

We heard this weekend that the deal is, “at technical level” done. The officials have been beavering away to try to square a circle, and have now passed their best efforts up to the political level. That was when it cratered, and the talks were stopped because, as ever, the Tory Party can’t agree among themselves.

The citizens’ rights part of the deal is done, as is the financial settlement. The big sticking point is Northern Ireland.

And it is on Northern Ireland that the UK Government has uniquely hoisted itself on a petard of its own making. In Northern Ireland, the Good Friday Agreement says there will be no border across Ireland. Because May called her election and lost her majority, she is dependent upon the DUP for her government’s existence. The current leaders of the DUP never greatly liked the Good Friday Agreement (which they call the Belfast Agreement) and are holding May and the Tories over a barrel.

May has two choices: respect the Good Friday Agreement, international law, Ireland and the EU; or risk the DUP crashing her government. If the Good Friday Agreement is to be respected then Northern Ireland must remain within the customs union (and

I would say the single market too), which means a border down the Irish Sea; or the whole of the UK must, which means the Brexiteers, will need to accept free movement of workers as well as the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. And instead of the DUP crashing her government, May’s own ultras will.

In the event you are tempted to feel sorry for May, remind yourself that it did not need to be like this. She did not need to call her vainglorious election. She did not need to mouth meaningless platitudes such as “Brexit means Brexit” when it was obvious to the dogs in the street that Brexit means making choices.

Above all, she didn’t need to trigger Article 50, starting a time-limited process when it was obvious to those same dogs in the street that neither she nor her party were ready for the choices they have still not made.

So my prediction is that we’ll see nothing of consequence this week, a summit will be pencilled in for November and at that there will be a mealy-mouthed document that will attempt to please everyone but ultimately please no-one. I think there will be something called a withdrawal agreement – it’s just that it will have nothing of substance in it. Essentially the exit agreement will be a deal to keep talking, and we will still have no clue what the future holds, but we’ll be out.

The ultras will accept anything to – as they see it – get Brexit over the line and call it a success. So long as there is a transition period, the pound will (probably) not collapse and business will (probably) not start leaving in earnest, so they’ll be able to leave the field and retire to their after-dinner-speaker circuit, same as David Davis (remember him?) already has. The provisions on citizens’ rights will be litigated to death because there will be many individual cases as yet unaccounted for; and the financial provisions will be challenged. In Northern Ireland, so long as there is a transition then the sky does not fall immediately, but unless there is a solution then it assuredly will.

This is all, in every possible sense, unacceptable. How could anyone but the worst sort of ideologue accept such a package? This is not ready. If the deal about the future is not ready, why on Earth are we leaving? Any solution to keep us in will necessitate an extension of the Article 50 period.

This might be for an election, or a referendum, or a continuation of the negotiations to avoid a no-deal scenario. Either way, this needs more time. May’s talent for fudge has brought us to this: it cannot be allowed to smooth over the fact that we are throwing ourselves off a cliff and hoping we’ll have time to knit a parachute before we hit the ground.