Brexit brinkman­ship: play­ing chicken over Theresa May’s deal

Fail­ure to win Com­mons ap­proval will in­ten­sify the brinkman­ship that has left all sides be­liev­ing they can se­cure their own out­come


Theresa May has warned that Britain will en­ter “un­charted ter­ri­tory” if, as ex­pected, MPS re­ject her Brexit deal on Tues­day. But al­ready the con­tours of this bleak new ter­rain have been com­ing into view in the first two weeks of 2019.

As MPS pre­pare for the vote on the terms of Britain’s exit from the EU — seen by some as the biggest de­ci­sion fac­ing par­lia­ment since the early days of the sec­ond world war — the Bri­tish po­lit­i­cal sys­tem is paral­ysed. And the coun­try re­mains an­gry and deeply di­vided.

Po­lice have been called in to pro­tect MPS from pro­test­ers camped out­side par­lia­ment. “We are pre­par­ing for all sce­nar­ios, and deal or no-deal the po­lice will be here,” Metropoli­tan Po­lice chief Cres­sida Dick said in De­cem­ber. “We will do our level best to keep ev­ery­body safe.” In­side par­lia­ment, the at­mos­phere is no less febrile. Last week it re­sem­bled a bear pit as the House of Com­mons Speaker, John Ber­cow, was ac­cused of rip­ping up the par­lia­men­tary rule book to help op­po­nents of Brexit.

Mean­while, near Dover, Britain’s main en­try point for fresh food, medicines and other goods, min­is­ters or­dered a trial to see what would hap­pen if — as some gov­ern­ment fore­casts sug­gest — cus­toms and reg­u­la­tory checks in a no-deal Brexit cause a col­lapse in trade at the port. About 80 lor­ries took part in a mock traf­fic jam, some­what fewer than the 10,000 trucks the Kent port han­dles on busy days.

Gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials say an un­pub­lished gov­ern­ment re­port in­sists Bri­tons will have “enough calo­ries” to sur­vive such dis­rup­tion, but some fresh foods would quickly run out. A freight com­pany hired by the gov­ern­ment to bring in emer­gency sup­plies turned out to have no fer­ries. And health sec­re­tary Matt Han­cock has boasted that he is now the biggest sin­gle pur­chaser of fridges in the world, in or­der to store medicines, while busi­ness sec­re­tary Greg Clark has warned of the “mount­ing alarm” at what is seen in global board­rooms as the UK’S col­lec­tive out­break of mad­ness.

Mrs May in­sists that the only way to avoid tum­bling out of the EU with­out an agree­ment — un­less the law is changed, Britain will leave by de­fault on March 29 — is for MPS to sup­port her deal, a com­pro­mise plan ham­mered out with Brus­sels over al­most two years.

Mrs May’s aides say they are bor­row­ing from the “win­ning ugly” strate­gies of Amer­i­can foot­ball teams, which slowly work their way down­field with a run­ning game that me­thod­i­cally grinds down the op­po­si­tion’s de­fen­sive line play af­ter play, rather than the style of more Tv-friendly flair teams that make dra­matic progress through long, spec­tac­u­lar for­ward passes.

“The sec­ond op­tion isn’t avail­able to us,” ad­mits one May aide.

That at­tri­tional push will, over the com­ing weeks, face two re­morse­less and linked facts: Brexit day is less than 80 days away and while Mrs May tries to sell the deal at West­min­ster, in the real world com­pa­nies and in­di­vid­u­als are pre­par­ing for a dis­or­derly and po­ten­tially chaotic no-deal exit.

“The prob­lem is that ev­ery­body has an in­ter­est in tak­ing this to the wire,” says one pro-brexit min­is­ter. “The PM thinks the closer we get to March 29, the more likely it is that peo­ple will step back from the cliff-edge and back her deal. The Re­main­ers think that if there’s a stand-off, in the end we’ll have to de­lay Brexit and have a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum. And the Brex­iters think if they can just keep go­ing, we’ll even­tu­ally leave with­out a deal be­cause that’s the de­fault set­ting.”

The next phase in this game of chicken will be played out in par­lia­ment on Tues­day. Mrs May’s deal sets out the terms of an or­derly with­drawal, in­clud­ing a £39bn exit bill, pro­tec­tion of cit­i­zens’ rights, a stand­still tran­si­tion pe­riod last­ing un­til at least De­cem­ber 2020, and a con­tentious guar­an­tee against a hard bor­der in Ire­land. It also gives a vague out­line of fu­ture re­la­tions be­tween the EU and UK, with de­tails to be filled in later.

The prob­lem is that even the prime min­is­ter ex­pects to lose the vote; Tory Eu­roscep­tics be­lieve it is a messy com­pro­mise that would not rep­re­sent a clean break from the EU; her al­lies in North­ern Ire­land’s Demo­cratic Union­ist party— whose 10 MPS have kept Mrs May’s mi­nor­ity gov­ern­ment in power — be­lieve the plan for the Ir­ish bor­der would im­pose new bar­ri­ers be­tween the re­gion and the rest of Britain; op­po­si­tion par­ties seem de­ter­mined to vote it down. Mrs May has al­ready de­layed the vote to avoid a dam­ag­ing pre-christ­mas de­feat.

“You’re not go­ing to have the com­plete col­lapse in Brex­iter sen­ti­ment which Num­ber 10 seems to be en­vis­ag­ing,” says David Jones, a for­mer Brexit min­is­ter. A cab­i­net min­is­ter con­curs: “I don’t think the vote will go through.” Down­ing Street now openly dis­cusses how Mrs May ex­pects to proceed if, or when, she loses on Tues­day.

The plan is straight­for­ward: she will plough on. Mrs May hopes to peel off some rebels by Tues­day and limit the scale of her de­feat. A loss by 50-80 MPS might look like some­thing of a let-off, given that some se­nior To­ries pre­dict the mar­gin of de­feat could be 200 or more. Then she will go back to Brus­sels, seek some new as­sur­ances that the Ir­ish back­stop — which pro­vides for a “tem­po­rary” UK/EU cus­toms union — will be tem­po­rary and try again.

Var­i­ous amend­ments, of­fer­ing MPS more con­trol over the back­stop and giv­ing op­po­si­tion Labour MPS prom­ises that post-brexit Britain will not un­der­cut EU labour and en­vi­ron­men­tal laws, will be waved through to try to assem­ble what party whips call a cross-party coali­tion “in the na­tional in­ter­est”.

For­eign sec­re­tary Jeremy Hunt warned last Fri­day that the Com­mons faced “paral­y­sis” over Brexit. But sup­port­ers of the May plan be­lieve that in the end at least 30 hard­line Tory Eu­roscep­tics will re­ject her deal and that she will need Labour sup­port to get it through. But if her own pro­posal is de­feated, the prime min­is­ter will be obliged to put for­ward a “Plan B” within days— lim­it­ing her room for ma­noeu­vre.

Per­haps the biggest prob­lem for Mrs May’s strat­egy of try­ing to frighten MPS into sup­port­ing her deal is that all of her crit­ics seem to think if they can just get a bit closer to the March 29 dead­line, their own per­fect Brexit out­come — whether it is a no-deal exit, a Nor­way-style eco­nomic re­la­tion­ship or a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum — will ma­te­ri­alise. That is de­spite there be­ing no ev­i­dence to sug­gest ma­jor­ity par­lia­men­tary sup­port for any par­tic­u­lar Brexit, least of all an un­planned one.

Although Brex­iters in­sist a nodeal exit is noth­ing to be feared, en­vi­ron­ment sec­re­tary Michael Gove — a leader of the Leave cam­paign in 2016 — warned last week that it would hit smaller farm­ers and food busi­nesses, with tar­iffs of up to 40 per cent on beef ex­ports. Mr Clark has said it would mean Britain trad­ing with the EU on the “most rudi­men­tary terms” of world trade. Food queues at su­per­mar­kets would be in­deli­bly linked to this Tory gov­ern­ment in the pub­lic mem­ory.

In cab­i­net last week Mr Gove said those hop­ing for the “per­fect Brexit” were like “swingers in their mid-fifties” hop­ing that Scar­lett Jo­hann­son might turn up at the party. So far there is no sign that the ri­val camps in West­min­ster have given up hope that the Hol­ly­wood star might be a late ar­rival.

Mrs May says the gov­ern­ment is not pur­su­ing a no deal Brexit and a large ma­jor­ity of MPS and some cab­i­net min­is­ters have in­di­cated they will mo­bilise to stop it hap­pen­ing. Yet it re­mains the le­gal de­fault set­ting and Mrs May has not ruled it out. “When you’re play­ing chicken, make sure the other side has an in­cen­tive to back down,” says Tom Tu­gend­hat MP, chair of the House of Com­mons for­eign af­fairs com­mit­tee.

Mr Tu­gend­hat worked as a Bloomberg en­ergy cor­re­spon­dent in 2000 when protests about high fuel prices in Britain led to a block­ade of re­finer­ies and panic buy­ing. He fears the same could hap­pen again if a no-deal Brexit looks im­mi­nent. “Life is a con­fi­dence trick,” he says. “This is not a lo­gis­tics ex­er­cise, it’s an ex­er­cise in psy­chol­ogy.”

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