Crossing Brexit Creek

Alexander Phillips wonders whether it’s possible to push Brexit analogies so far that reality falls in on itself and we create a singularity of perplexity.

Over the course of the last year there has barely been a day where the headlines haven’t been dominated by some aspect of Brexit. Questions have been asked over the extent of Theresa May’s mandate, and media outlets have been reduced to trying to explain the various workings of the Single Market and the Customs Union through the medium of cheese.

Given that we’ve descended to a point of befuddlement where such analogies are now acceptable, we might as well look to the end of the Temple of Doom as a way of trying to understand the path next week’s negotiations are likely to put us on. Let’s face it, it can’t make any less sense than half the stuff written about the whole mess. Indeed, we might end up accidently pushing the whole debate through into some kind of post-farcical stage.

Of course last week’s election was supposed to prevent the need for all of this. Instead it was meant give the Prime Minister the power to get Britain safely to the other side of the chasm ahead of us. In other words it was supposed to give the Conservatives a mandate to pursue a vaguely Canada like free-trade deal ambition, via a ‘hard-Brexit’ intermediary stage sort of thingy, which may or may not have had a short ‘implementation’ period [see rope bridge] which aspired to prevent the reality of that ‘hard-Brexit’ stage [see crocodile infested river bed] ever coming into force. Failing that, they would be happy for us to crash to the bottom of the creek’s cliff in March 2019, and look for a way out afterwards. Sadly we never really got much in the way of specifics on that. Instead, we’ve had to piece it together from various, often conflicting and factually nonsensical, statements about cakes and flag colours.

Instead, 57.6% of the voting public (otherwise known these days as a decisive majority that must be respected at all costs) said that sounds as ridiculous as the analogy you’ve just read, and that perhaps you need to take this a bit more seriously. Especially when it’s looking increasingly likely that we’ll all have to endure further austerity; slower growth; rising inflation and a substantially weaker currency in order to get to this ill-defined Brexit nirvana on the other side of the creek. The PM has responded by making a deal with the DUP – a party whom many would argue are well used to taking ridiculous things seriously.

Yet the rejection of the Conservatives’ plans should not be mis-interpreted as a rejection of Brexit. As many were reminded on Friday morning – Labour’s plans weren’t that dissimilar to the Tories; Jeremy Corbyn has easily been the most euro-sceptic of the major party leaders over the past few years; and if Britain had gone all ‘Remainey’, they would have voted for the Liberal Democrats or the Greens instead.

This continued ambiguity has emboldened many, including our own Welsh Government, to suggest that the final destination, and the means by which we are getting there, is still all to be played for, and that we need to adopt a more consensual, cross-party approach to getting to the other side of Brexit Creek without ending up stuck at the bottom.

Given this, it now appears that options that up until last week were only spoke of in whispers – such as a five year or more implementation/transition period; continued payment for #unfettered access to the Single Market; bespoke Northern Ireland arrangements; and making things a bit more like Norway, are now being treated with a lot more credence and are likely to form substantial parts of a cross-party negotiating position.

Naturally the idea of being able to share the responsibility from this point on seems rather attractive to the Prime Minister. Especially given her existing commitment to give the House of Commons a final say on whatever deal ends up being put before them. This would be particularly beneficial in overcoming those on her own backbenches who give the distinct impression that little short of a return to a 19th Century style of geopolitics would be satisfactory.  

Taking the positive view, this shift appears to make the Brexit proposition far more palatable to the world of business. The harder question to answer is whether it can be sold to the most strident of Brexiteers on the basis that given we have chosen to enter into any new arrangements, we can then also leave them at any time should the sky fall in.

Time will tell on that one. After all, we might end up finding ourselves forced into a position where the only option is to cut the ropes and scramble back to where we started, and in the process learn something important about our own hubris. At least I think that’s how that movie ended…



Alexander Phillips is a Public Affairs Consultant

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