May’s awful Brexit deal has united the UK in horror

Martin Wolf: Comparisons with the 1956 Suez crisis do not get close to the mark. This is a far more significant mess than that

Congratulations! UK prime minister Theresa May has succeeded in uniting her deeply divided nation. Everybody agrees on one thing: the deal she has come up with is terrible.

For Remainers, it is evident that this quasi-permanent halfway house, which will keep the UK inside the EU’s customs area and divide Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK indefinitely, would be far worse than continued EU membership. For Leavers, it is equally evident that this very same halfway house would be far worse than a clean break.

Unity is achieved at last in the midst of Britain’s civil war over its future relationship with Europe: both sides oppose what has been agreed.

There are two possible reactions to this outcome.


The first is to argue that a deal that unites the country in horror is exactly what should have been expected and is, in fact, the least unsatisfactory imaginable outcome. It allows the UK to leave, without crashing out, and leaves room for subsequent negotiations on the future relations with the EU. The very fact that nobody is satisfied makes it the least unreasonable compromise on how to move forward. Nobody wins completely; and nobody loses completely.

The second reaction is that this deal should not and - more importantly - will not be ratified. It should not be agreed, because everybody agrees it is unsatisfactory. It will not be ratified, for the same reason.

If so, a way will need to be found to move forward that avoids a brutal rupture with the EU, with all the damaging economic and political consequences of that outcome. But that way, whatever it turns out to be, must also preserve the UK as a functioning constitutional democracy.

Squaring that circle would, in the event of a rejection of the deal reached with the EU, necessarily be the dominant focus of British politics. It would also unavoidably reopen the issue of Brexit for the other 27 members of the EU.

This might mean another referendum, a general election, a request for postponement of the departure and an attempt at a renegotiation, or some combination of these. The one certainty is that, one way or the other, Brexit will haunt the UK’s economy and politics for the indefinite future.

Britain cannot at present resolve its relationship with the continent. This is the one clear truth. Comparisons with the 1956 Suez crisis do not get close to the mark. This is a far more significant mess than that.

– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018