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Nicholas Guyatt @NicholasGuyatt
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As promised, the Apocalypse Update of my Brexit-for-Americans thread: everything you need to know about the slow unravelling of the United Kingdom.
Last time on Brexit: Theresa May had negotiated a deal so bad that even her lead negotiator chose to resign from her government. Here’s how the options looked a few weeks back.
To sell her withdrawal agreement to the public, Mrs May decided to embark on a promotional tour of Britain which mostly involved photos of her holding an umbrella while listening to people shouting at her.
And her government admitted that Britain would be worse off after Brexit, but with the benefit of “controlling immigration”. In other words, we will be poorer as a nation but at least we'll keep the foreigners out.
Two core problems remain. First, the Tory government’s entire strategy on Brexit is based on the idea that other countries will just do what we tell them to do. This strategy sometimes works with cats but (as we’ll see) almost never with member states of the European Union.
Second, after so much lying by (mostly) Conservatives about the Unicorn Brexit we’re destined to enjoy — frictionless trade with Europe AND chlorinated US chickens! Higher wages AND freedom from Europe’s tyrannical labour laws! — Britain is still divided on what happens next.
This polling gives some idea of the mess we’re in.
The divisions even among Brexit supporters are so huge that any deal always looked unlikely to win a majority in Parliament: ‘Hard’ Brexit, soft Brexit — it’s a giant mess.
But the immediate problem with Theresa May's withdrawal agreement concerns something called the ‘backstop’. I talked about this in the last thread but a quick reminder.
One of the many reasons leaving the EU was always a bad idea is that the Irish peace process depends on no border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. When the UK and Ireland are both EU states, this is straightforward. The moment the UK leaves, it's much harder.
'Hard' Brexiters, the guys who love top hats, chlorinated chickens and a return to the financial regulations that brought you the 2008 meltdown, want the UK to be out of the EU’s single market & customs union so they can tear up EU environmental, labour and consumer laws.
But that would mean we’d need a hard border in Ireland, which would threaten the peace process. Some Tories have had the temerity to blame Ireland for all of this and to tell Irish politicians that they should "know their place" and cave to whatever the UK demands.
Others have suggested the UK should throttle food exports to Ireland in an attempt to force the Irish government to be less stubborn about, uh, its own vital national interests. You don’t need to be much of an historian to find this offensive.
May’s 600 page deal affects the ‘withdrawal’ period, March 2019 until December 2020. It keeps us in a customs union with the EU until 2021, but also says that the UK will remain in that customs union indefinitely unless an agreement can be reached on an open border in Ireland.
In other words, if we haven’t agreed a deal by December 2020, or by 2120, we can't get out of the customs union: our chickens will remain stubbornly unchlorinated, and you'll still have to visit the US to get Lucky Charms with authentically carcinogenic colouring.
(For the theory that we can do a trade deal which gives us cheaper food in the UK AND high quality food standards, here’s my favourite Brexit article ever from the self-proclaimed “World’s Greatest Newspaper”, the Daily Express.)
Since it’s hard to imagine a trade deal which allows us to diverge from EU environmental/food safety/labour law without imposing a hard border with Ireland, the Brexiters worry that the backstop will scupper their plans to ‘liberate’ Britain from basic EU rights & protections.
But most of the centre and left of UK politics also hate May’s deal: it doesn’t keep the UK in the single market and it means the UK loses any say over what happens in Europe. In other words, it's a way worse deal than staying in the EU. (Duh!)
Oh, and the Ulster unionists — these guys — think that May could eventually screw them over by having a hard border not between Northern Ireland and Ireland, but between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. (i.e., down the Irish Sea.) If that happens, they will not be happy.
The Ulster unionists have propped up May’s government since her disastrous election result in 2017. The moment they’re ready to ditch her, the Labour Party could call for a vote of no confidence in the government and move towards a general election.…
Tonight was supposed to be the parliamentary vote on May’s plan. Everyone assumed that May would lose heavily, then be forced to go back to Europe and beg EU leaders for some kind of concession on the backstop. (Which everyone also assumes she won’t get.)
In fact, yesterday May suddenly postponed the vote, after four days of debate and after assuring everyone it would happen. This prompted outrage in the Commons. One Labour MP actually ran off with the ceremonial mace, a move which will soon be available to download in Fortnite.
Rather than facing the Commons, May dashed to meet European leaders who all said the same thing: the EU won’t budge. By the time she got to Germany, May had abandoned diplomacy and started creating memes to distract the press pack. (“The PM can’t even leave a car”, etc. )
And the chaos created by May’s postponement prompted more members of her own party to ask for another kind of no-confidence vote — in her as leader. So Tory MPs are about to vote on whether Theresa May should continue as party leader and Prime Minister.…
The fall of a prime minister should be a huge event, but the Brexit apocalypse is much bigger than Theresa May. Whatever happens tonight, we’ll still have a giant mess to sort out in the coming weeks and months./
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