A game of ‘Brexit Chicken’

Count­down con­tin­ues to­ward un­charted ter­ri­tory

Lethbridge Herald - - READER’S FORUM - Gwynne Dyer’s new book is “Grow­ing Pains: The Fu­ture of Democ­racy (and Work).” Gwynne Dyer Gwynne Dyer is an in­de­pen­dent London-based jour­nal­ist whose ar­ti­cles are pub­lished in 45 coun­tries.

There’s no need to prac­tise bleed­ing, as the sol­diers say, but the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment didn’t get the mes­sage. On Mon­day, it paid 89 truck driv­ers £550 each ($930) to sim­u­late the im­mense traf­fic jam that will hap­pen in Kent if Bri­tain crashes out of the Euro­pean Union with­out a deal at the end of March.

The driv­ers had to bring their ve­hi­cles to Manston, a dis­used Second World War-vin­tage air­field in Kent, where the gov­ern­ment is plan­ning to park 4,000 big trucks if a “no-deal Brexit” on March 29 leads to new cus­toms checks on trucks head­ing for Europe. Ev­ery ex­tra two min­utes’ de­lay at cus­toms, say the ex­perts, would mean an­other 15 kilo­me­tres of trucks backed up on the roads lead­ing to the cross-Chan­nel ter­mi­nals.

So the driv­ers parked their trucks on the air­field, then drove down to the port in con­voy while the traf­fic-con­trol ex­perts mea­sured ... what? This wasn’t the 10,000-truck grid­lock jam­ming the roads that might hap­pen in late March. It was a sin­gle file of 89 trucks driv­ing se­dately along an un­crowded road. It looked like an ex­er­cise in pure fu­til­ity, a Potemkin traf­fic jam.

Yet it did have a ra­tio­nal pur­pose — a po­lit­i­cal pur­pose. It was be­ing staged to per­suade the Bri­tish pub­lic, and es­pe­cially the Bri­tish Par­lia­ment, that Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May’s Con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ment re­ally will take the United King­dom out of the EU with­out ANY deal if Par­lia­ment does not ac­cept HER deal.

May’s deal is al­most uni­ver­sally dis­liked. The Re­main­ers hate it be­cause they don’t want to leave the EU at all, and the Brexit hard-lin­ers in her own party hate it be­cause it keeps Bri­tain too closely tied to the EU.

Never mind the de­tails — they are al­most the­o­log­i­cal — but the up­shot is that May can­not get Par­lia­ment to pass the exit deal she made with the EU, which would at least keep the trade flow­ing. She just doesn’t have the votes. And she can’t get the EU to amend the deal ei­ther.

The opposition to her deal in Par­lia­ment is so strong that she can­celled a sched­uled vote on it a month ago be­cause she was bound to lose it. She is now com­mit­ted to hold­ing the vote on Jan. 15 — but she still doesn’t have the votes. So she is threat­en­ing to jump off a bridge, and take ev­ery­body else with her, if they don’t back her deal. It has be­come a game of Chicken.

The cha­rade in Kent is part of a gov­ern­ment show-and-tell cam­paign to prove that she re­ally means it. So are the pre­dic­tions that the chaos at the Chan­nel ports will be so bad that Bri­tain will have to char­ter planes to bring scarce medicines in, and that su­per­mar­ket shelves will be bare (Bri­tain im­ports 30 per cent of its food from the EU), and that zom­bies will rule the streets. (I made that one up, but you get the picture.)

The prob­lem is that no­body be­lieves her. May has ma­nip­u­lated the par­lia­men­tary rules and sched­ules to make it ap­pear that there are no le­gal al­ter­na­tives ex­cept her deal or a cat­a­strophic no-deal Brexit, but she just doesn’t con­vince as a sui­cide bomber. In­deed, there was a vote in Par­lia­ment on Mon­day night that blocked the gov­ern­ment’s abil­ity to make tax changes con­nected with a no-deal Brexit with­out Par­lia­ment’s “ex­plicit con­sent.”

That doesn’t ac­tu­ally mean that it can­not hap­pen, un­for­tu­nately. Par­lia­ment can block her deal, but un­less it can agree on some other course of ac­tion, Brexit hap­pens au­to­mat­i­cally on March 29 — with­out a deal. And that re­ally would be nasty.

How nasty? Wil­liam Hague, a for­mer leader of the Con­ser­va­tive Party, summed it up well in the Daily Tele­graph: “I don’t know what will fol­low a re­jec­tion of [May’s] deal ... a con­sti­tu­tional sham­bles, a second ref­er­en­dum sham­bles, a no-deal exit sham­bles, a Cor­byn [Labour gov­ern­ment] sham­bles. I just know that it will be an abysmal sham­bles.

“Peo­ple who say that the deal is the worst of all worlds haven’t un­der­stood how bad things might get,” Hague con­cluded. As May her­self ad­mits, a nodeal Brexit is “un­charted ter­ri­tory.”

So what will re­ally hap­pen when Par­lia­ment starts vot­ing later this month? There will al­most cer­tainly be more than one vote, as the 650 mem­bers of the House of Com­mons, no longer con­strained by party loy­alty — it’s too im­por­tant for that — swing this way and that. But there may not be a ma­jor­ity for any spe­cific course of ac­tion, in which case Par­lia­ment will prob­a­bly end up vot­ing for a second ref­er­en­dum.

May has sworn that she will never al­low that, be­cause it would be a be­trayal of the 52 per cent who voted “Leave” in the first ref­er­en­dum in June 2016. But in the end she prob­a­bly will al­low it, be­cause she is not a sui­cide bomber.

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