MPs must save the UK from Johnson’s no-deal Brexit folly
Boris Johnson insisted during his Conservative leadership campaign that the UK’s chances of crashing out of the EU without an agreement were a “million to one”. Now he is prime minister, the mask has been tossed aside. A no-deal Brexit is the default option. The government is preparing for it, and making the civil service do the same. Indeed, its unrealistic attitude towards reworking Britain’s withdrawal deal with Brussels makes the dash for no-deal appear less like a negotiating tactic and more like Downing Street’s preferred plan. The UK is careering towards the precipice, with dire implications for its economy, security, and the union of nations it comprises. It is now parliament’s duty to prevent the British government from visiting a calamity on its own country on October 31.
Britain’s MPs must avoid succumbing to the boredom and resignation seeping into the business and financial community and broader population: that it is time to get Brexit done, whatever the consequences. Such fatalism is tempting, but misguided. Leaving the EU with no agreement will do serious damage on all fronts. More importantly, the idea that making a “clean break” puts an end to the Brexit wrangling is a delusion.
To speak of the economic harm of a no-deal Brexit is not to reprise what the Leave campaign in 2016 falsely decried as “Project Fear”. Nearly all reputable forecasters agree Brexit will damage Britain’s economy; only their assessments of the magnitude and timescale differ. Sectors from car making to farming would be hit hard. The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates even a relatively benign no-deal scenario would increase public borrowing by £30bn a year, soon wiping out a decade of austerity.
The blow to Britain’s standing in the world, to its reputation for trust and fair play, would be less quantifiable, but no less real. Its ability to combat cross-border crime and terrorism would be severely undermined by even a temporary break in co-operation with EU partners.
As wiser predecessors of Mr Johnson such as Gordon Brown and John Major have warned, for England to drag an unwilling Scotland and Northern Ireland over the no-deal cliff poses profound risks to the centuries-old union. The drumbeat surrounding a new Scottish independence referendum, and potentially a united Ireland, is growing ever more insistent.
Sooner or later, moreover, Britain would still need a new relationship with its largest trading partner — covering not just economic aspects, but all elements. It would be forced back to the table, but only after having committed a serious act of self-harm and destroying its negotiating hand.
Worst of all, the UK is being led down this path by a minority government propped up by the Democratic Unionist Party — which is even less representative of broader Northern Irish opinion than the hard Brexit wing of the Tory party is of UK-wide sentiment. It is being done, above all, in an effort to bolster the Conservatives against the threat from Nigel Farage’s Brexit party. It is decidedly not what most of the 52 per cent who voted Leave in 2016 thought they were choosing. MPs returning to parliament next month must find a way to halt the march of folly.
The first priority for parliamentarians should be to delay the UK’s legal departure date from October 31 to December 31 or later. This could be achieved by something similar to the Cooper-Letwin amendment, which helped avert a no-deal crash-out in April. While that passed by only one vote, the number of MPs determined to thwart a no-deal has been swelled by resignations from Theresa May’s front bench, such as former chancellor Philip Hammond. While some Brexit Bolsheviks suggest Mr Johnson could advise the Queen not to sign it, for a prime minister to ignore the will of parliament would be constitutionally intolerable.
There has been talk of a no-confidence vote in Mr Johnson’s government. As Downing Street advisers have warned darkly, triggering the ill-designed 2011 Fixed-term Parliaments Act in the current circumstances could lead the UK into a constitutional miasma — which the government could exploit to ensure a no-deal Brexit. It could also, however, provide a window of time and opportunity for MPs to take steps to block such an outcome.
Parliament should instruct the government, too, to resume negotiations on a compromise on the withdrawal agreement — notably the “backstop” designed to avoid a hard border in Ireland — without preconditions. EU leaders have hinted at compromises that might make the agreement palatable to a majority of MPs. Mr Johnson says his no-deal bravado is putting pressure on Brussels to give ground. The EU has signalled it will not negotiate with a prime minister holding a list of unrealisable demands in one hand and a gun to his head with the other.
Should new EU talks fail to break the deadlock, the government must surely call an election — by choice, or because parliament forces its hand. While a new parliamentary ballot seemed unlikely a few months ago to resolve Britain’s relations with the EU, Mr Johnson’s apparent determination to stand on a no-deal ticket would turn the poll into a “Brexit election”. If he won, Britain would have to respect the result and live with the consequences. But such a poll would give opposition parties an opportunity, and an obligation, to work together to prevent a no-deal exit — and potentially offer voters a second EU referendum.
One way or another, giving the public a second chance to weigh the multiple benefits of remaining in the 28-nation bloc on the UK’s existing, highly advantageous terms against the uncertainties of leaving is becoming imperative. It falls to parliament to make sure that the people are not deprived by an unelected prime minister of having the last word.