May’s game of Brexit Chicken

The Press - - Opinion - Gwynne Dyer

There’s no need to prac­tice bleed­ing, as the sol­diers say, but the Bri­tish Gov­ern­ment didn’t get the mes­sage. Last week, it paid 89 truck-driv­ers £550 each 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 a dis­used air­field where the gov­ern­ment is plan­ning to park 4000 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 Chan­nel ports.

So the driv­ers as­sem­bled, then drove in con­voy to Dover 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 pub­lic, and es­pe­cially Par­lia­ment, that Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May’s Con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ment re­ally will take Bri­tain 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 hard­lin­ers 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 her exit deal, which would at least keep the trade flow­ing. She just doesn’t have the votes.

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 Wed­nes­day morn­ing, NZ time – but she still doesn’t have the votes. So she is threat­en­ing to jump off a bridge and take every­body else with her if MPs 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 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 in scarce medicines, that su­per­mar­ket shelves will be bare, and that zom­bies will rule the streets. I made that last one up, but you get the pic­ture.

The prob­lem is no­body be­lieves her. May has ma­nip­u­lated the par­lia­men­tary rules and sched­ules to make it ap­pear there are no le­gal al­ter­na­tives ex­cept her deal or a cat­a­strophic nodeal Brexit, but she just doesn’t con­vince as a sui­cide bomber.

That doesn’t ac­tu­ally mean a no-deal 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 – with or with­out a deal. And that re­ally would be nasty.

So what will re­ally hap­pen when Par­lia­ment starts vot­ing on Wed­nes­day? 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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