Brexit unpacked: your bullshit-free guide to the current mess

Brexit unpacked: your bullshit-free guide to the current mess

What is happening? — While it’s easy to switch off, Brexit will shape British politics, and our lives, for a generation – so we owe it to ourselves not to clock out. Writer Ben Smoke talks us through the mess.

The season finale of Brexit is almost upon us. Somewhere between a political Battle Royale and a high stakes game of soggy biscuit, the clusterfuckery of it all seems only to be growing. The twists and turns, resignations and coups, deals, no deals and all manner of proposed and imagined Brexits have swallowed British politics for the last two years. In recent weeks, those twists and turns have come at such speed it’s been nearly impossible to keep up.

It’s very easy to brush it all aside. To sit chatting over a pint or dinner and simply replying ‘fuck knows’ when you’re asked what’s going on, because, frankly, no one really knows with any certainty, and most of us can’t bring ourselves to care. The Brexit fatigue is real, and the only ones able to keep any handle on events are those with a seemingly unhealthy obsession with the debacle, or those paid to have one (the two, it should be added, are not mutually exclusive).

In reality though, the parliamentary bungling, the rows and manoeuvring are going to be the thing that continues to shape British politics, and our lives, for a generation – so we owe it to ourselves not to clock out.

So, what is going on?

In brief – we voted to leave the EU on June 26th 2016. Theresa May enacted Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty on March 29th 2017. Since then, we’ve had an election in which no one won a majority. We’ve seen a plan for withdrawing from the EU agreed by cabinet which was then, within days, trashed by members of the same cabinet. We’ve had high profile resignations, and calls for a vote of no confidence. We’ve had a national row about a TV debate, and a row about legal advice which has led to a government being held in contempt of Parliament for the first time in history. We’ve seen a Prime Minister fight for her political life with a deal no one seems to want, and that looks highly unlikely to pass through the commons.

What’s all of this about the government being in contempt of parliament?

In pulling together a deal for leaving the EU, Theresa May sought legal advice from the government’s lawyer, the Attorney General. As with all legal relationships that advice was privileged (meaning it was confidential and to be kept between the client and the lawyer). Things got tricky when an archaic and binding procedural motion called a ‘humble address’ was passed last month, which called for the Government to release the legal advice. 

The government’s refusal to release the full legal advice managed to unite an unlikely coalition in the form of six oppositions parties – including the DUP, who called for a contempt motion against the government. To be in contempt of parliament is to obstruct the legislature (the Commons) in the carrying out of its duties. In this instance, it was argued that the refusal to release the full legal advice stopped the commons from performing its duty to analyse the withdrawal agreement in its entirety.

The vote was eventually won by the opposition and, for the first time in history, a government was held in contempt of parliament. In order to ensure no one was locked in the bell tower or thrown in the river, leader of the house Andrea Leadsom announced shortly after the vote that the legal advice would be released in full.

Upon its release today, Shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer stated that the legal advice “reveals the central weaknesses in the Government’s deal.” Consisting of just 33 paragraphs, the advice reveals that, through the backstop, Northern Ireland would be treated differently to the rest of Great Britain (as was originally feared by the DUP). It warns that the backstop could endure indefinitely, and advises that there would be no way out of the backstop “even if the parties believe that the talks have clearly broken down and there is no prospect of a future relationship agreement.” 

Sorry, but what is a backstop??

The United Kingdom has only one hard border with Europe which runs for 310 miles across the northern part of Ireland. On one side, the Republic of Ireland; on the other, Northern Ireland. Those au faux with contemporary history will know that this border has been the source of much dispute, bloodshed and struggle. During the Troubles, a heavily militarised hard border was in place. In the historic Good Friday agreement, the border was demilitarised, allowing movement of people and goods unimpeded between the two countries. This movement – and to a certain extent the continued stability of the area – is predicated on both jurisdictions being part of the same customs union and marketplace.

When both countries are part of the EU, there are no checks or charges necessary on goods, which means citizens can travel freely between them. The issue comes when there are different charges and tariffs applied on either side of the border. So how does one accommodate that? 

It’s generally accepted that the reinstatement of a hard border is a very bad idea. Once the UK leaves the EU – or more importantly, the single market and the customs union – there will, however, have to be some form of check point between the two economic zones.

After a brief flirtation with the notion that technology could solve it (reader, it cannot), the Government and the EU came up with a plan to solve the problem. During the 20 month transition period, in which the two sides will be negotiating an agreement around future economic partnerships and how that will look, the customs union will stay in effect. After that, if no agreement or solution to the problem of the border has been found, then the backstop will come into effect.

The backstop will consist of Northern Ireland being aligned with the single market, whilst the rest of the UK will become a temporary single custom territory – effectively keeping it partly in the customs union. This has pissed off the DUP because they’re not big on Northern Ireland being separate from the UK (unless it’s to do with gay rights or abortions) as the backstop will draw an economic border down the Irish sea. It’s pissed off Brexiteers, because it effectively keeps the UK in the EU without actually having any say over what’s going on.

Okay… so what about the vote on the withdrawal bill?

In amongst all of this, the withdrawal bill still has to pass through the Commons. The debate, which started yesterday, will continue until Tuesday December 11th when the crucial vote is scheduled.

At the beginning of the debate an amendment tabled by Conservative MP Dominic Grieve – which allows further motions voted on in the commons under the EU withdrawal act to be amended – passed. In a significant defeat for the government, it means that any further deals brought to Parliament can be subject to amendment – something that gives those agitating for a softer or no Brexit reason for hope.

At this point, it is looking extremely unlikely that the withdrawal bill will pass. With around 90 conservative MPs set to rebel and a seemingly united front from the opposition parties (and the DUP), it’s almost impossible that May will win enough support in the house.

And then?

At this point, it really is anyone’s guess. There are however a few potential options.

1. A second vote on the deal in Parliament. 
If the deal fails to make it through parliament, as is expected, there is the potential that number 10 will seek to gain a swift renegotiation, seeking concessions that could see it taken back to Parliament. Given the need for all 27 constituent states of the EU to agree to any deal, as well as the warnings by European Commission president Juncker that this “is the best deal possible”, it’s hard to see a situation in which this could actually occur. That being said, this is Brexit 2018, so stranger things have definitely happened.

2. May resigns. At this point, it’s very much a when rather than an if with May resigning. It’s hard to see how a Prime Minister who has lost the confidence of swathes of her party, pissed up the alliance that was giving her a working majority, and steered her Government into being the first in history to be found in contempt can hold on for much longer. If she goes, there’s likely to be a swift leadership election which, according to Liz Truss, is (Home Secretary) Sajid Javid’s to lose.

3. Further resignations and a vote no confidence. Instead of jumping, May may finally be pushed. Jacob Rees Mogg’s damp squib of a no confidence challenge might finally come to fruition, again seeing a potential new PM in the shape of Sajid Javid.

4. A general election. The Labour Party is desperate for a general election. Even though it has orchestrated several high profile loses for the Government over the last few days, the parliamentary arithmetic still isn’t in their favour. Each of the votes have been won in slim margins with a handful of votes in it – far below the two thirds majority needed to trigger an early election under the Fixed Term Parliament act. There are a few routes to it gaining one, or at least taking power, but, at this point, you do wonder why anyone would want to be in charge of the good ship Brexit as it continues taking on more and more water.

5. Scrapping Brexit. It is fair to say that quite a lot of people are not in favour of Brexit. Accusations of electoral fraud have seen the legitimacy of the vote called into question, with a number of high profile MPs from across the commons supporting a ‘People’s Vote’ on the deal. There are a number of iterations of this vote floating around; some include an option to revoke Article 50 and remain in the EU, others are simply after a referendum on the deal as it stands. As a deadlock in the commons becomes more and more likely, and the threat of crashing out of the EU with no deal becomes more real, the vote could be thrown back to the public.

6. No deal. We crash out, in a glorious spurt of hell fire. The economy shrinks. There’s chaos at the ports. KFC runs out of chicken again. Everything is fucked. Or not. No one is really sure what would happen. The overwhelming opinion, though, is that it’s probably not the first choice.

How did it all get so complicated?

It turns out that the extrication of a state from a symbiotic, co-dependant economic and political partnership is somewhat tricky. It becomes somewhat more complicated when the state that’s attempting to extricate itself (us) consists of several nations, afforded differing levels of self governance and autonomy. Hence the messy, botched deal we have in front of us. It all makes leaving in a way that doesn’t tank everyone’s economy whilst undoing years of hard fought peace quite difficult.

Beyond that, the notion of what Brexit actually is is a slippery one. Theresa May once said Brexit means Brexit, but the problem is that it’s come to mean so many different things simultaneously. It has become a canvas upon which to paint political ideas, ideals and agendas. The reality is that people voted to leave the EU, but they weren’t asked to attach their reasoning. As such, it was a vote that would come to mean 100 different things.

After six years of brutal Tory austerity, could it simply have been an anti-establishment protest vote? Was it an acknowledgement of the austerity regimes enforced on countries like Greece by the Union? Was it born of genuine (if misplaced) concern about the impact of immigration or inherent racism?

The poster child of a thousand different calls to action, Brexit has become almost unworkable. As such, the creation of a deal that represents what those 52 per cent of people that voted leave actually voted for is impossible, because it simply does not exist.  

Oh, right. So does that mean it’s not actually going to happen?

Oh no, it’ll probably happen. In some form. Or maybe not. Basically, it’s not going away any time soon.

Well should we just crack on and do it then?

Oh god probably not. We live in tumultuous times. The dozens of trade deals Liam Fox promised to have ready to go ‘the second’ we leave the EU don’t seem to be materialising any time soon. With a despotic President on the other side of the pond, the verge of catastrophic climate change, the emergence of new economic superpowers and the fragility of the global financial system it doesn’t feel like the best time to be going it alone.

So do we just give up on it all? Cancel it? Pretend it never happened?

No, that’s also a pretty bad idea. Though it’s true to say that Brexit doesn’t really mean anything because it kind of means everything, there is no doubt that it has been used to mobilise the far right on the streets. Ex-leader of the EDL Tommy Robinson is one of the key organisers of the ‘Brexit Betrayal’ march through London this Sunday. Ignoring the result of the referendum will allow those seeking to stir up the kinds of bigotry and racism that has become so entrenched within the rhetoric of the campaign the ability to frame it as an attack on our democracy and unleash forces of anger and retribution on some of the most vulnerable in our society. Let us not forget that the last referendum seemingly cost an MP their life, and the last five years hate crimes have risen by 123%, with a spike occurring after the referendum.

What should we do then?

Absolutely no idea mate. Probably get another drink in.

Follow Ben Smoke on Twitter.

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