By Arab News
By Chris Doyle*
One thing and one thing alone unites British people on Brexit. It unites Parliament and even the punditocracy. Brexit is a national humiliation.
A poll for Sky News indicated that 90 percent of the British public believed this. Just quite what has to happen for the other 10 percent to change their view is anybody’s guess.
The million or more protesters in London on Saturday were demanding a second referendum. Chatting to them and the language was unprintable, even within earshot of children. They are definitely part of the 90 percent. The 5 million-plus signatories to an online petition demanding Article 50 be revoked no doubt feel the same. This is the largest parliamentary petition on record.
This being politics, nobody wants to hold their hand up and take the blame. Prime Minister Theresa May made a jaw-dropping speech in Downing Street last Wednesday. Still needing to win Parliament over, she poured the blame on MPs whilst proclaiming she was on the side of the people. This was not her finest moment and it may be one of her last as prime minister because, if there is a second Brexit issue upon which the British people are beginning to agree, it is that she has to go. She has very little authority left. She later claimed she was speaking out of frustration, but did not apologize. The few political friends she has left are abandoning her. The Sunday papers were overloaded with stories of coup plots within the Cabinet.
Her Cabinet is tribal. The Brexiteer tribe threatened to resign if May agreed to a long extension — the code word in their world for canceling Brexit. The members of the Remainer tribe have their resignation letters at the ready every time a no-deal Brexit is under consideration.
The speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, is another dodging hellfire arrows. Bercow unites Conservative MPs, whose opprobrium is no longer undisguised. His decision to rule out a third vote on May’s withdrawal deal unless it is meaningfully changed earnt him death stares galore. The speaker merely called time on the flogging of a dead horse. The government might argue that the change in dates constitutes a “substantial” change, but it could well be that May does not even risk having another vote, knowing she will lose yet again.
The can-kicking exercise has pretty much run out of road, with only a few days to go. The EU acted rationally and swiftly at a Brussels summit — a welcome contrast to the shenanigans in Westminster. It did make a concession on the timetable. Until the summit, the EU position was that there could be a short extension conditional on the approval of the withdrawal agreement, otherwise it would have to be a longer extension. The EU rejected May’s timetable and acquiesced to a May 22 deadline, not June 30 as she had sought, if her deal passes, or April 12 if it does not. The challenge for the EU is that the European Parliament elections are to be held on May 23-26 and, if Britain is still a member, by law it must participate. For those who argued that Britain should take back control, it was a bitter pill to find the country on bended knee to Brussels.
Most observers do not believe May can procure parliamentary support for her deal. She tried twice and lost by historic margins on both occasions. It might be tighter but the gap is too large.
Parliament is likely to seize control, winning the next stage in the increasingly testy government versus Parliament contest. The government this week looks likely to accede to a series of indicative votes, with maybe as many as seven to try to determine what form of deal might carry parliamentary support. However, Parliament could find itself not agreeing to any option, whether it is no deal, the May deal, a second referendum, a Norway-style deal, a Canada-style free trade agreement or even the revocation of Article 50. Consensual politics has hardly had a look-in during the Brexit process.
Should Parliament not pass May’s deal, then it has two weeks to formulate a new plan. The EU did hold out an olive branch. Donald Tusk, the President of the EU Council, said that options could be available even in April, including a much longer extension or canceling Brexit. “It means that, until April 12, anything is possible: A deal, a long extension if the UK decided to rethink its strategy, or revoking Article 50, which is a prerogative of the UK government. The fate of Brexit is in the hands of our British friends,” he said.
The possibility, therefore, of an April 12 no-deal Brexit is very much alive. Neither the EU nor Britain are truly prepared for this and it is why the EU was willing to grant additional time.
To rule out a March 29 no-deal Brexit, Parliament must pass a statutory instrument. It has to go through both houses of Parliament.
Certainties are few. The increasing likelihood is that Brexit will be delayed, possibly for a longer period or a softer Brexit. The probability is that May will step down as a price for the one thing the country agrees upon — the total shambles of Brexit. It could even be that March will be the end of May.
• Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). Twitter: @Doylech