May’s game of Brexit Chicken
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 the 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.