How the UK can overcome its Brexit impasse

Three steps Britain can take after the defeat of Theresa May’s deal in House of Commons

If we lived in normal political times, UK prime minister Theresa May would already be consigned to history. As PM she lost a 20-seat majority, 13 ministers and a crucial vote in the Commons by a staggering 230 votes. The UK is now in a full-blown political and constitutional crisis. Exiting the EU was always going to be a tremendous challenge, but May, the British government and the wider political elite have simply not been up to the task.

An adversarial winner takes all political culture, and a weak grasp of geopolitics led the UK government to overestimate its capacity to manage the complexities of its chosen path. Underlying this was an extraordinary lack of EU-related knowledge after 45 years of membership, displayed day in, day out across the Commons.

Deep ignorance and toxic politics militated against a measured UK response to the inevitable trade-offs involved in such major regime change.

May carries a heavy responsibility because instead of trying to build a cross-party accommodation around an available Brexit she opted to tack to the right, and gave far too much political space to the hard Brexiteers whose Brexit was always an unattainable fantasy. The fact that she will survive a vote of no confidence is a symptom of the crisis rather than any political competence on her part.


What happens now?

The prime minister will have to come back to the Commons on Monday with an outline of Plan B. She is unlikely to have faced up to the nature of her defeat so she will keep her deal in play.

MPs face a personal and collective dilemma, and will be asked to put country before party during one of those rare times in politics when the hand of history is on their shoulders.

I suggest the following three steps that might alter the political dynamic.

Step one should be to prioritise getting a no-deal off the table. It does not command support in the Commons, although it is the default option. A managed no-deal is not available, and in the event of a crash-out economic and social conditions could quickly spiral out of control. It would solve nothing as the UK would have to come back to the negotiating table because it cannot defy geography.

June 2016 mandate

Step two. Those favouring a second referendum should publicly take it off the table until the end of February, to allow an intensive effort to deliver on the June 2016 mandate. There are good reasons to go back to the people given the gridlock in the Commons, but there are also good reasons against. Although the polls have shifted, they have not shifted by enough to opt immediately for a second vote. Sufficient support does not appear to be available in the Commons in any case.

Step three requires a coalition of cross-party MPs to engage intensively with each other to map out an accommodation. I understand the co-ordination challenges this involves, and also that it would require pro-Remain MPs to move out of their comfort zone, but the search for accommodation cannot be left to either May or Corbyn.

May will, of course, engage with leaders of the other parties, but the search for solutions cannot be left to her. Her management of the Brexit negotiations to date demonstrates that she lacks the necessary political capacity to transform the current impasse.

What are the available options?

Official Labour policy focuses on permanent membership of a customs union. While this would limit border friction it would deprive the UK of the ability to sign independent trade agreements, and the way it has been discussed by Corbyn and John McDonnell suggests that their knowledge of trade is poor.

We will see over the next months if London's political elite has the capacity to regain control of its destiny

The centrality of regulation to cross-border engagement thus brings the Norway option or the European Economic Area (EEA) into play. This would minimise disruption, and would solve a lot if not all of the Irish Border challenges. The UK would pay the price of becoming rule-takers but would be removed from political integration and some policy fields. It would still leave Northern Ireland in a customs relationship with the EU. On the up side it would free the global fantasists to pursue independent trade deals. Could a sufficient number of MPs live with the implications for free movement?

An alternative to EEA is a Canada-style deal which would require extensive special provisions for Northern Ireland. This would give the UK the possibility of independent trade deals and control of migration but at an extraordinary economic cost.

Second vote

If either of these options found a majority in the Commons it would then be possible to ask the Commons if the preferred option should be put to the people, with Remain also on the ballot. If there was no majority for a second vote then the UK exits.

What should the EU do?

For the moment other than signalling that it would be willing to extend article 50 to July 1st to provide the UK with time and space, it should do nothing. The UK has to take ownership of its choices and finally face the costs, consequences and trade-offs involved in its gamble.

The EU should when appropriate reopen the political declaration and be much more specific on the direction of travel based on what emerges from London. The political responsibility lies in London, and we will see over the next months if its political elite has the capacity to regain control of its destiny.

Brigid Laffan is director of the Robert Schuman centre for advanced studies at the European University Institute, Firenze, Italy