The White Walkers of Brexit Ride Again
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It was the moment businesses exhaled and viewers switched the channel. On April 4, the U.K. parliament voted, by a margin of one, to ensure that the country wouldn’t leave the European Union without a deal. Brexit may or may not happen – but there would be no chaotic crashing out because parliament had vetoed it.
Except, like a White Walker, the death-defying creature in Game of Thrones, the threat of No Deal keeps coming back. Because it thrives in a leadership vacuum, it is only growing in strength.
Nigel Farage’s upstart Brexit Party, which will almost certainly win the most support in the May 23 European parliamentary elections, is campaigning in favor of such an outcome. The former commodities broker has been ubiquitous in the U.K. media; it’s left to trade experts like Peter Ungphakorn to pick through the factual inaccuracies later on Twitter.
Never mind that Farage used to be full of praise for staying in the single market, or a close relationship with the EU like the one Norway enjoys. He has, just as in the 2016 referendum campaign, made a no-deal Brexit a lightning-rod for popular discontent with the entire political establishment. He has even given it an attractive new name: a clean-break Brexit.
His popularity poses, I have argued, a real threat to the Conservative party. Indeed, it’s hard to find a Tory Brexit-supporter who plans to vote Conservative rather than for Farage’s crew. May’s party isn’t even bothering to campaign or release a manifesto. What would it say anyhow? We pledge to support a deal most of the party hates, which parliament has refused, the EU won’t renegotiate, and to which no alternative has been agreed? Better to hide under a table and hope this goes away.
Prominent Conservatives in the media have also thrown their weight behind No Deal. Fraser Nelson, editor of the Tory-leaning Spectator magazine, argued in a recent column in the Daily Telegraph that the “the civil service did wonders with their no-deal planning,” so the disaster scenarios of a few months ago are moot.
These arguments have a deeply flawed, but seductive, logic. Their premise – that Theresa May’s negotiated deal and pretty much any other potential deal are worse than the status quo – is absolutely correct. The conclusion, that a no-deal exit would be an improvement, could not be more wrong.
While medicine shortages and gargantuan traffic-jams were alarming possibilities, they were never the main reason a no-deal Brexit was a reckless option to be avoided at all cost. Even if the civil service managed to ensure relative calm the immediate aftermath, the real trouble would only come later – a tsunami of regulatory and non-tariff trade barriers that would threaten U.K. businesses and their suppliers.
When pressed, proponents of No Deal argue that these costs are irrelevant because the EU would quickly move its red lines and negotiations would end up where Brexiters wanted them all along – with a free-trade agreement and the U.K. at liberty to strike trade deals with other countries, having left the EU’s customs union. May’s mistake, they argue, was not playing hard-ball.
You have to squint hard (and perhaps have downed a few shots of something strong) to find a glimmer of hope in that. The EU’s conditions for starting trade talks in a No Deal scenario bear a striking resemblance to what is in the divorce deal: payments into the bloc’s budget, secured rights for EU citizens and, crucially, a guarantee that the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland will remain open and free from any encumbrances no matter what happens.
Even so, the pathway to a No Deal exit isn’t hard to imagine. Talks between the government and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party seem to have run aground, not surprisingly given that many Tories say that giving in to the opposition’s demands for a permanent customs union would split the Conservative Party.
A breakdown would leave this parliament deadlocked again. May could try to force through another round of voting, or compel MPs to rank their preferred visions of Brexit. But if the cross-party talks fail, it’s hard to see lawmakers having any confidence in that process. A resounding defeat for the Tories at the European elections – as the opinion polls suggest is increasingly likely – will just compound calls for the prime minister to go.
So far, the 1922 Committee of backbench Tory MPs has resisted calls to change its rules to allow a second challenge to May within a calendar year of the last attempted putsch. It wouldn’t take much to change that. Indeed, the prime minister is expected to meet the group this week. The field of candidates vying to replace her is growing by the day. Alongside Boris Johnson, it includes former Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab, as well as remainers and pragmatists like Rory Stewart. If the parliamentary party can’t rally behind a single candidate, two are then put to party members. Given that group is squarely in favor of leaving without a deal, it is clear what faction the likely winner would come from.
So far, the EU has preferred repeated delay to forcing Britain out with no deal. Who knows how long that will remain the case? A strong anti-EU showing at the parliamentary elections, a changing of the guard at the European Commission, and continued pressure from French President Emmanuel Macron to cauterize the Brexit wound could change that when the current extension expires on Oct. 31.
It’s possible, as Bloomberg News’s Robert Hutton lays out, that parliament will accept a second referendum long before that happens. Or else there will be a general election.
But nobody should feel confident that just because it’s a horrible idea with grave consequences, a No Deal Brexit will go away. That’s not what happens with the White Walkers of populism. You can destroy a flawed premise, shoot holes in all the factual mistakes, vote the thing down (as parliament did), and yet the idea snaps back to life and charges ahead again. No Deal, like Brexit itself in 2016, has become the lightening rod for voters’ unhappiness with British politics.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Therese Raphael writes editorials on European politics and economics for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.
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