Anti-Brexit demonstrators wave European Union flags during the vote on a No-Deal Brexit outside Parliament in London. (Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg)

Two Big Brexit Myths Are Slayed at Last

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Remember this? After British Prime Minister Theresa May struck her divorce agreement with the European Union last year, she told lawmakers they had three choices: her deal, no deal, or no Brexit.

On Tuesday, parliament voted against her proposal a second time. On Wednesday night, lawmakers voted for a second (and third) time to take the no-deal option off the table. But make no mistake: this is progress. The House of Commons has finally begun to grasp the realities of leaving the EU. It now needs to drive a solution.

Wednesday’s votes killed off two pernicious fictions. The first is that, as May herself is fond of repeating, “no deal is better than a bad deal.” Perhaps in some parallel universe, had Britain prepared from the very beginning for such an outcome and had the EU demanded terms that included the slaughtering of all first-born children, it might have held true. Of course, neither was the case.

Britain simply isn’t prepared for a no-deal Brexit. The U.K. government’s announcement on Wednesday that it would then unilaterally abolish tariffs on most imports and wave through goods coming across the Irish border underlined the economic, legal and political harm that leaving without an agreement would trigger.

Parliament seems to understand this better than the government. May’s motion was a weirdly worded one in which no-deal was both rejected and then left on the table for the future. A rival amendment, proposed by Tory MP Caroline Spelman and backed by senior MPs from both sides of the Commons, sought to overwrite the government’s motion and kill off the idea under any circumstances. The government ordered its MPs to vote against Spelman’s amendment – but enough of them ignored the whip, or abstained, for it to pass by 312 votes to 308.

Then we got to the Alice in Wonderland moment. Because the government’s own motion then had to include Spelman’s amendment, it was now far more explicit than the government had intended. So May instructed her party to vote her own motion down. This time, lawmakers were even more emphatic: The strengthened no-deal motion passed by 321-278, dealing the government a second defeat. Parliament doesn’t view a no-deal option as a bargaining chip; it regards it as a menace.

The second fiction parliament dispensed with on Wednesday night was the idea that Britain can just leave without an agreement but dictate the terms – the so-called “managed no-deal.” The Malthouse amendment called for a brief extension to the exit date and then a transition period until December 2021, during which time the U.K. would prepare to leave with no deal, but retain the benefits of membership; the EU would be paid for its patience.

This proposal relied on an egregious misreading of World Trade Organization rules, has been debunked by trade experts, and was met with exasperation bordering on derision from the EU side. British lawmakers decisively rejected this fantasy.

After all this, May still wouldn’t take no for an answer and sought to play for time. She reminded lawmakers that no-deal remains the legal default unless parliament legislates for something else. She said she would ask the EU for a short extension of the March 29 exit date if the House approves her deal by March 20; if not, though, the extension may have to be much longer. That would risk Brexit being revoked entirely.

Of course, a delay doesn’t solve anything. It leaves Britain circling around Brexit undecided on where to land. May knows well that most MPs remain reluctant to sanction a second referendum and are unwilling to risk a general election that might put them out of a job and not deliver a majority for anything.

There are other options. She could forge a cross-party compromise around remaining in the EU’s customs union, as Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has called for. There is likely a majority in parliament for that, but her own party is at loggerheads over it.

May seems to be gambling there is still too much road left to run – 16 days – for MPs to feel they are forced to make the choice she laid out last year. Moved closer to the cliff edge, she’s betting her deal will look more attractive.

Such a strategy is, of course, risky. There is a danger, as my colleague Lionel Laurent has noted, that Britain crashes out by accident, not because a majority want it, but because all sides are hell-bent on opposing the alternatives and because May has lost all trust after repeatedly promising what she cannot deliver.  

Wednesday’s votes haven’t narrowed her three original choices down to one. But the country’s democratically elected body has asserted itself and defied the government to reject a no-deal departure, something no executive can ignore. Now lawmakers need to say what they want to happen instead – otherwise the prime minister will just keep plowing on.

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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