Business, like the general public, is divided on their Brexit best case scenario. Most would prefer as much continuity as possible – no Brexit, or a common market 2.0 –, some see it as an opportunity to go full-free-trade and rebuild the economy around exports. What unites them is a demand for certainty, which is precisely what our political institutions are failing to deliver.
What could break the impasse, before our new exit day of 31 October, or even the 23 May European elections?
Neither the Prime Minister nor Labour is actually serious about making a deal with the other, though an indicative vote on a preferences basis could show support for a customs union. In that case, the question May faces is one of legacy: does she want to be the leader who split the Conservative Party with a customs union or the PM who didn’t deliver Brexit? Both options point to a general election.
If May leaves without passing the withdrawal agreement (she elects to save her party), then a Brexiter PM looks inevitable, but they would need a mandate in Parliament for a harder Brexit, hence the election.
Alternatively, May tries to meet Labour in a customs union, gambling (perhaps unwisely) that Tory MPs would back her in a confidence vote, now that Labour leads in the polls. Let’s say she gets it through the House, and then resigns. It’s the same problem – with their hands tied, the new Brexiter leader would need to call an election, ironically with Labour campaigning on a Brexit deal authored by May, and the Tories, having purged and deselected sitting Remainer MPs, going on a harder free market platform.
Neither of these options guarantees certainty (we could have another hung Parliament, for example), but there is another scenario that’s much worse, where there is no election: the Jarndyce vs Jarndyce option, the legal case from Bleak House which could never be ended, in other words an ongoing cycle of extensions and delays, not leaving but not abandoning the Brexit process either.
In this scenario, May might stumble on until Christmas, but any new Brexiter PM would still have their hands tied by Parliament, legally preventing them with leaving without a deal. Perhaps the impasse could carry on for years, until the EU itself pulled the plug or we somehow made it to the 2022 general election.
In the background, Hansard Society polling shows the public is losing faith in democracy and a majority favour a strong man leader, while a new English Civil War is being fought on social media, with a danger of it spilling onto the streets.
The analogy with the Civil War is surprisingly apt, with decades of built-up resentment, a stubborn leader and a polarised society, erupting into conflict before eventually going back to the old ways once they realised that the new order wasn’t any better.
In 1648, Thomas Pride purged the Long Parliament, removing those opposed to the trial of Charles I for treason. This new Parliament lived on into the Commonwealth and eventually brought about the return of the monarchy. Could we imagine a modern day Pride’s purge, by a strong man leader intent on delivering the will of the people? It may sound far-fetched, but the longer the impasse remains, the more the tension grows - eventually something has to give.
Image credit: Rene Asmussen/Pexels