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Brexit – where are we?

The EU Parliamentary Elections revealed two things. The nation continues to be deeply divided on whether or not to leave the EU, and is frustrated with the politicians for not resolving the issue one way or the other. The government did so badly, winning only 9% of the votes and just four of the 73 MEPs elected. The potential deal with the EU has been rejected by a majority of MPs three times and talks with the Labour opposition to find a way forward ended in failure.

The Prime Minister has accepted the inevitable calls for her resignation but her successor will not be chosen until mid-July, shortly before Parliament recesses for its six-week summer break, leaving two months to resolve the Brexit conundrum by 31st October. Of course that recess could be shortened -but how likely is it that a majority of MPs can agree a deal by that date?

The default position is that if no deal is agreed by 31st October we will leave the EU without a deal. The hard-line Brexiteers see no harm in that, and some of those seeking to be the new party leader and Prime Minister are saying they are relaxed about it. Others, including the Chancellor and Business Secretary, warn that it would have damaging consequences for the UK economy. Moreover MPs have twice voted against this option and can be expected to do so again if it were put to them as the only way forward.

It has been suggested that in such a situation the Prime Minister might prorogue Parliament and go ahead with a ‘no-deal’ Brexit, claiming that s/he are merely fulfilling the democratically expressed will of the people. That is so contrary to the normal constitutional practises of our system of parliamentary government that it is most unlikely. Moreover, the Speaker, John Bercow, in a speech in America, has said that ”The House will want to have its say, and the idea that the House won’t have its say is just for the birds”. It is also an open question as to whether the Queen would approve prorogation in this situation.

So what are the alternatives? First, MPs could legislate to prevent a no-deal Brexit. The simplest way to do that would be to pass a single clause Bill revoking Article 50. Most MPs would be reluctant to do that because of the damage it would do to British democracy. An alternative would be a vote of no confidence in the Government, which if passed would lead to a General Election, allowing the voters to decide between the manifestos before them. A third and least likely option would be to adopt Theresa May’s deal that has already been agreed with the EU.

What is not an option would be for potential candidates in the leadership election to promise to go back to the EU to renegotiate for a better deal to the one they agreed with Mrs May. The EU has already said emphatically that they will not renegotiate. The deal they have already agreed is the best and only one on offer. Moreover, there is unlikely to be anyone senior enough in the European Commission to conduct such a re-negotiation anyway. The senior people in all the EU institutions will stand down following the EU Parliamentary elections and their replacements have to be agreed by the Council of Ministers, which is unlikely to be completed before 31st October.

Thus, whatever the contenders for the leadership of Conservative party might say in their election statements, there is no quick and easy fix to deliver Brexit. It is time for them and all of us to stop pretending there is, and to start working cross party to find a way forward that commands majority support in Parliament and acceptance, however reluctant, in the nation.

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