Six impossible things

21 April 2018

In their final shot at derailing Brexit, Remainers are quietly deserting the cause of a new referendum. Instead they are rallying to the campaign to cleave unto the EU Customs Union, the most recent manifestation of “Brexit In Name Only”. As it happens, each of these courses rests upon three shaky premises, irresistibly bringing to mind the six impossible things which Alice’s White Queen managed to believe before breakfast. On a more serious note, the reasons for the collapse of the first course foreshadow the shipwreck of the second. Let’s take a look.

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In the last week or so, Remainers have pretty much given up their hopes of action in the courts or parliament to introduce a second referendum which would lead the EU27 to permit the UK to abandon the Article 50 process. This is because the three impossible things underpinning this scheme have proved beyond credit.

  • First, the courts have not been sufficiently supportive. The Scottish judge who heard the preliminary action dismissed it; the appeal is not till 21 May so time is running out.
  • Second, there is no Commons majority for a second referendum, given the reluctance to eat further into the principle of parliamentary sovereignty, not to say the plain unpleasantness of the 2016 campaign. It’s also a shade bonkers to argue that although the electorate didn’t get what the original vote meant, they’ll do so next time.
  • Third, senior European politicians are cutting the ground from under the feet of the argument, saying that they now regard Brexit as inevitable. For example on 18 April, former French President Francois Hollande said “[The door to Europe] is shut. The vote has taken place and nobody can question it.”

All of this takes place amid polling this week, showing no appetite to reverse Brexit and greater commitment by Leavers.

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With the first three impossible beliefs underpinning a second referendum proving - well, impossible, Remainers are settling on their last throw. This is to stay in the Customs Union, as (they argue), no-one voted to get out of it; there is no other solution to the Irish border; and it may well command a parliamentary majority. Those of a conspiratorial temperament go further to have it that this is what the PM - originally a lukewarm Remainer - secretly wants. Once again, however, this calls for us to believe three impossible things.

  • First, it’s just a fib to say that no-one voted to get out of the Customs Union. The Leave campaign made much of negotiating Free Trade Agreements, which can only occur if we are out. Meanwhile, the Remain campaign made no secret of its worries about leaving the Customs Union, with the options set out in George Osborne’s famous analysis all based on doing so.
  • Second, we know of no reason to see reports of this week’s stagey rejection of the UK’s proposals for the Irish border as more than the status quo ante. It’s a negotiation, remember?
  • Third, Parliamentary support for this course is conjectural: this weeks’ Lords vote binds the government only to report by the end of October, “…the steps they have taken to negotiate the UK's continued participation in a customs union with the European Union.” As it stands, this is as weak as water and I’m guessing that the Whips will break no sweat seeing that the Lower House takes it no further.

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Let’s take a step back. So far from having a secret plan, May has consistently said she expects the UK to leave the Customs Union. She knows as well as anyone else that there is no point in leaving the EU, if we can’t set our own external tariff or negotiate our own trade deals. Nor is there any need to revisit the matter: it was ventilated in full during the referendum campaign. Finally the polls reinforce that such a course would be politically poisonous. It’s true that one should never say “never”, but doesn’t it seem wiser to treat this whole Customs Union malarkey as the final round of the Remainers’ denial? It’s certainly capturing this weekend’s headlines, but I’d be moving on from the illumination offered by the White Queen’s “…six impossible things…” to the Lord of Dunsinane’s “…sound and fury…” Anyone remember what that signified?