Why Brexit will never end

Why Brexit will never end

   June 13, 2018  
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Why Brexit will never end

I hate to take issue with a fellow Spectator writer, but Robert Peston’s revelation that a “no deal” Brexit is now off the table strikes me as a prime example of Westminster’s ability to ignore the bleeding obvious for months on end then talk cobblers in an authoritative voice when finally forced to confront reality.

Robert is far from alone in his conclusion about last night’s Commons vote. To be honest, I’m just taking issue with his post because the spectacle of Spectator writers disagreeing seems to interest some people, probably because they struggle with the idea of one publication publishing multiple and contradictory viewpoints. I’m happy to oblige that taste, on condition that it’s noted that I think Robert is ten times the journalist I’ll ever be and a very nice man too.

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The point I’m getting to is that “no deal” Brexit has been dead for a long time — just over a year, in fact. It died on election night last year. You remember the election? The one Theresa May called because she said she needed a clear mandate for her chosen approach to Brexit. The one where the electorate denied her that mandate. That election.

No-deal Brexit

I mention it because a lot of people seem to have forgotten it, or chosen to ignore it. To her credit, Mrs May has not. Within a few hours of the result last year, she had accepted that Brexit must take a course different to the one she had set before the election. She even told us so, not least in her Florence speech and then very clearly in her December deal.

As for “no deal is better than a bad deal”, ask yourself when you last heard Mrs May say the words. I repeat: no-deal Brexit died not last night but on election night in June 2017. Mrs May knows that, and the EU27 know that and have known that since last June too. The idea that yesterday’s Commons drama revealed some new truth about Brexit is for the birds.

Just in case you think I’m being either deliberately contrarian or wise after the fact, allow me a self-indulgent reference, to something I wrote here in August 2017:

Theresa May has come a long way from the days of “no deal is better than a bad deal”. The clear message from the UK government positions sketched out this summer is this: we want a deal. We really want a deal. We want a deal so much that we’re prepared to walk back from our previous rhetoric and posturing. Let’s talk.

What next? Well, I expect Mrs May will continue on the course she has followed with largely unremarked consistency since last June, a course that tacitly accepts that the only form of Brexit that stands a chance of winning parliamentary and public acceptance is one that continues many of our current relationships and arrangements for quite some time to come.

Does that mean “kicking the can down the road”? You betcha. But so what? Did you really think that Brexit would be “over” by some particular date? That there would be a clear end-point to the process of rewriting and rewiring institutional and economic relations that have taken four decades to construct? If so, you really haven’t been paying attention, so let me spell it out for you: Brexit will never end. Brexit will never be over. There will be never be a time “after Brexit”. Because “Brexit” doesn’t mean leaving the EU. It means ending our current EU membership and defining a new relationship with the EU, and that relationship, like all our international partnerships, isn’t static but constantly evolves. Have you ever heard anyone talking about our relationship with the US being “settled” or “over”? Does anyone think Britain’s dealings with China will ever be fixed and concluded, a matter for no further debate? Brexit won’t be “over” any more than politics will “end”. This is life, chums, and kicking the can is not just fine, it’s normal business.

On the EU side, Mrs May’s approach will continue to be accepted and embraced. Yes, the EU will seek a price: no rights without responsibilities and all that. But the rest, all that stuff about “no cherrypicking” and so on? Ignore it. There’s a deal to be done, and ideally with Mrs May: the EU27, like the Conservative Party, know that whatever her flaws, Mrs May is the least bad option under the current circumstances.

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