Brexit: Delay necessary to work through the muddle

Spring might have come but a deep freeze continues in Westminster. With less than a fortnight to go before Britain is slated to leave the European Union, the shape of its arrangements and future relationship with Europe remain perilously hazy.

As an embattled UK government faces up to a continued stalemate in parliament with no option commanding a majority, the need for flexible thinking and compromise have never been greater. In the face of a looming no-deal scenario, an extended delay may be inevitable to allow the country to work through this muddle.

As things stand, Britain will leave the EU on 12 April unless it passes Theresa May’s deal or comes up with an alternative path that is acceptable to the Europeans. If the Prime Minister’s deal were to pass, the exit date will shift to 22 May which falls just before European parliamentary elections.

The truth is that May’s deal is all but dead. After two historic parliamentary defeats, she lost a third vote last week by an appreciable margin. The symbolism of losing a vote on 29 March – the original exit date – cannot be understated.

To get the deal over the line, the PM even promised to resign but that wasn’t enough. Meanwhile, parliament has explored a series of alternative options twice already – most recently on Monday – with no majority found for anything. As May herself put it, “I fear we are reaching the limits of the process in this house”.

How did we get here? In large part, the PM has been the architect of her misfortune. Granted that she was dealt a tough hand but she has played it terribly. First, she chose to deliberately pander to the right wing elements of her party. The concerns of remainers were patronisingly brushed off as the latte-sipping metropolitan views of the ‘citizens of nowhere’.

Rather than building a cross-party coalition on Brexit, she preferred an ultra-narrow sectional lens. This led to drawing redlines in the European negotiations from the start which severely limited her ability to manoeuvre. She fatuously declared ‘no deal is better than a bad one’ even though events have chartered a different path.

Second, she gambled on a general election in 2017 and ended up losing her majority. The dependency on the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) was thus established. From that moment, the erosion of her authority became irreversible. Some might have interpreted the election as a warning to shift course but that was not heeded.

Along the way, the government lost meaningful votes, two Brexit secretaries resigned, umpteen ministers stood down and several MP’s left the party. Party discipline has broken down. The PM is evidently on borrowed time. The Brexit psychodrama has gripped and fatigued a nation in equal measure.

Various proposals have been put forward. Hardliners within the Tory party have favoured a free-trade agreement modelled on the EU-Canadian template. Yet this hasn’t received broad support. The Canadian deal doesn’t cover services. It was not intended to serve as a blueprint for a deeply interconnected relationship such as Britain’s. At the other end of the spectrum, there are some right-wingers who would be ideologically content with a no-deal scenario because it would at least deliver Brexit. Unsurprisingly, this ideological posture doesn’t have a parliamentary majority backing it.

Moderate Tories have been utterly squeezed and isolated. Some have outlined an option modelled on Norway’s status as a member of the European Economic Area with single market membership but not European Union membership. Yet the politically toxic freedom of movement that attaches to the Norway model hasn’t produced voluble parliamentary proponents.

What about the Labour Party then? The principal opposition’s stance is incoherent at best and obfuscation at worst. Labour has opposed the government’s deal without outlining any meaningful alternative. It has danced around the question of a public vote. Corbyn’s Euroscepticism has boxed a party of largely remainers into an appalling corner.

What does this take us then? Put simply, short of a last minute swerve, the odds still point to a parliamentary stalemate. There is a majority against every conceivable solution but none in favor of a tangible one. Against this backdrop, it is clear that the UK needs more time to work through this impasse, lest it stumbles into an accidental no-deal. It also needs fresh leadership that can infuse some optimism to a weary electorate.

Seeking an extended delay from the Europeans may therefore be necessary. The irony is that an exercise in ‘taking back control’ from the EU is now dependent on it. Yet simply seeking a delay without a purpose may not be sufficient. Any solution agreed by parliament should also be subject to a confirmatory public vote with credible leave and remain options.

Far from being a counter-democratic machination, it would put the structural choices to the electorate for resolution. With time running out, the critical onus is on British politicians to demonstrate a spirit of compromise and pragmatism in the national interest. An effort that falls short resulting in a no-deal scenario with harsh consequences for the least well off would be unforgivable.

Rishabh Bhandari is a London based lawyer and political commentator.

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