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Noel Whelan: Pressing pause on Brexit would be best thing to do

UK is racing chaotically towards March’s exit deadline. Time is needed to find a solution

Britain’s prime minister Theresa May in Brussels: Sane centrist voices in Westminster should focus on getting parliamentary majority for withdrawing the article 50 letter of application. Photograph: John Thys

Watching Britain trying to find a way out of its current constitutional crisis this week, I was reminded of one of my favourite parables, which can often usefully by applied to politics.

The story is told in different versions but essentially it concerns a man who, having been sentenced to death, begged his king to be let live for one more year promising that within that time he could teach the king’s horse to talk. The king, being both entertained and intrigued, granted the reprieve but warned the man that he would indeed be beheaded on the adjourned date if by then the horse wasn’t fully conversant. Later, the condemned man’s friends, finding him surprisingly upbeat, pointed out to that he had merely postponed the fatal day. “But,” said the man, “a year is long. During that time, I might die of natural causes anyway, or the king might die, or the horse might die.” “Who knows?” he added, “the horse might even talk. Either way I got at least another year.”

Fixed positions

Resolving the current Brexit impasse requires more time than is currently available before the end of March. Sometimes in politics things get so overwhelming and potentially so dangerous you just have to press the pause button. There is a need for political time out within which to calm everybody down, reflect on real priorities and get creative about alternative ways of resolving the impasse. It is impossible to do this while everybody is noisily shouting and strutting from their fixed positions.

It’s the equivalent of a need to pull the plug on the music player when something goes wrong at a party. It’s like switching off all microphones in a radio studio when everybody is screaming over each other.


For the first time since the referendum, the notion of reversing Brexit seems a possibility

Speaking to the Institute of International and European Affairs in Dublin on Tuesday morning after the Westminster chaos of the night before, former British prime minister John Major put it well as follows:

“It’s clear we now need the most precious commodity of all: time. Time for serious and profound reflection by both parliament and people. There will be a way through the present morass, there always is.”

The means suggested by Major of achieving that time and space was an immediate revocation of article 50. The European Court had made it clear on Monday that Britain could do this unilaterally and things would stay as is.

The mood against a “no-deal” exit is growing at Westminster but there is no consensus about the current withdrawal deal on offer or any other workable solution. For the first time since the referendum, the notion of reversing Brexit seems a possibility. The timing and nature of any such decision would be crucially important, however. Doing so abruptly at this chaotic point would be incendiary.

On its own, a decision to merely revoke the withdrawal application could precipitate a deeper political crisis. It would be seen as an abandonment of Brexit. It would abruptly expose the deception at the heart of the Brexit offering. Those who have championed the Brexit cause or bought into the notion by voting for it are not ready to accept that it is unworkable – not yet anyway.

I wrote here in the weeks after that Brexit referendum that the most dangerous moment for a democratic polity is not when the voters depart from established patterns and leave the old for something new. The really dangerous moment comes when the new populist political causes which the voters supported let them down. When they feel that the change or new party has failed them, political trust is even more badly fractured and real disenchantment sets in. British politics is now perched on the verge of that dangerous moment.

The instability caused by an abrupt end to Brexit, in order to allow a second referendum or otherwise, could be almost as damaging to Britain’s politics, if not its economy, as a no-deal Brexit might be.

Moderate supporters

A reversal of the Brexit decision seems like the ultimate outcome but, for now, British politics should just focus on giving itself time. That decision could be accompanied perhaps with a political resolution that it would be resubmitted in a year. There may be no reality to a reapplication to withdraw but the notion of it allows time for adjustment of expectations among moderate Brexit supporters.

Taking back the article 50 letter with talk of resubmitting it would irritate Europe but so be it. It’s the lesser of the available evils.

The Brexit equivalent of a talking horse is a withdrawal agreement with no backstop. That’s never going to happen but – who knows? – British politics could take other twists and turns which, with the benefit of time, could resolve the current impasse.