UK: Paying for poor leadership

A day after suffering a historic defeat, with her Brexit deal rejected with a margin of record 230 members, including 118 of her own party, British Prime Minster Theresa May narrowly survived the no-trust motion sponsored by the Opposition Labour Party. For now, her job is safe, while her terms for leaving the European Union are not. The rejection of the Brexit deal on Tuesday was widely expected, though the margin of rejection was not. Clearly, the greatest challenge to Britain since more than half a century ago is to settle the terms of divorce with the EU of which it has been a member since 1993.

But it is now riven into two rival camps, Leavers and Remainers, with a smaller section sitting on the fence. The EU was not expected to make it easy for Britain to leave, fearing it would instigate others in the 27-nation grouping to follow the British lead. The deal May came up with satisfied none, though she insisted it was the best the EU was willing to concede. The sticking point was the Irish backstop, which virtually allows a continuing customs union should things not fall in place at the end of the transition period. The Republic of Ireland threatened to reopen the peace agreement should the EU boundary crawl up bang on its borders.

The backstop provision proved so contentious that neither side was willing to relent, despite May’s assurances that the emergency provision was hardly likely to be enforced. Britain has until March 29 to ratify the deal, or a modified one if the EU agrees. On March 29, its quit notice would come into force. A no-deal Brexit is the nightmare of all, especially business and industry as it would generate chaos at the ports and borders because overnight Britain would have to conduct business with EU countries on WTO terms. However, a simple option is available: Britain could revoke the quit notice under Article 50 of the EU Treaty.

Voluntary withdrawal of the withdrawal notice served by Britain is legally feasible. Given that May herself was a Remainer, she should take this easy way out. But her contention is that it would violate the democratic spirit since the referendum of June 2016 mandated her to leave, though by a 52:48 margin. A section of the MPs have demanded a second referendum in the hope that ordinary people, having learnt the pain of a messy divorce, will most likely decide to stay put in the Union. Scotland, which had overwhelmingly voted Remain, opposes the present deal, insisting that a second referendum is the only way out. But the demand has not found traction with a vast majority of MPs.

They want May to renegotiate softer terms with Brussels. Yet, May has no Plan B, aside from making yet another attempt to persuade the nay-sayers to come round to her view. On the other hand, there are others who argue that as the scheduled date of exit on 29th March nears, enough Brexiteers might be persuaded to endorse the same deal, especially if the option is to extend the period of separation further or a straightforward revocation of the quit notice.

Meanwhile, confusion and uncertainty has spooked the British trade and industry. Several major industries have planned to move out of Britain; quite a few have announced job cuts. London’s numero uno position as the global financial hub is under pressure. Ideally, big business would have Britain drop the idea of leaving the EU. But in case it has to, it wants a soft Brexit. Even the ardour of the hard Brexiteers may have cooled substantially. It was at its height in 2016 when the threat of unchecked flow of illegal immigrants was at its peak due to the war in the Middle East and uncertain conditions in North Africa. Germany taking in a million refugees also unnerved a lot of people in Britain.

Thus, rural communities and small towns voted overwhelmingly for leaving, while London voted massively for remaining in the EU. That divide is certain to have narrowed upon the Brexiteers learning that far from good things flowing from the divorce, it entails huge pain and great uncertainty — besides a hefty payment of over dollars seventy billion. A suicidal move, this idea of Brexit.

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