Tuesday, March 26, 2019 | ePaper

Brexit has no winners, only losers

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Denis MacShane :
In June 2016, the gilets jaunes  - Yellow Vests - of England voted to take the United Kingdom out of Europe. Today, according to the latest opinion poll 49% think that decision was wrong and 38% think it was right. Britain neither wants Brexit nor knows how to escape from Brexit. There was great excitement at Mrs May being forced in a Commons vote to publish the confidential advice of her Attorney General -  a minister who is the UK government's chief lawyer - on her Brexit deal.
But it contained nothing that was new and the supporters or opponents of Brexit are no further forward with its publication. Brexit is more than ever the politics of losers. Mrs May is Loser No 1. She has never found the words or the policies to find a solution to the outcome of the plebiscite dumped in her lap by her predecessor, David Cameron.
With three days of Commons debate left, she persuades no-one that her proposals contained in the agreement with Brussels are workable or to Britain's benefit.
The Leavers are losers. 30 months ago, they promised Brexit would release Britain from the iron cage of European Union membership and launch the nation on a new trajectory of growth and return to global status.
The reality is the report that if a hard Brexit - now a distinct possibility - happens 87% of perishable British food - salads, soft fruits, tomatoes - will rot in queues at Dover or Calais, waiting for customs checks.
The man warning about this is not some swivel-eyed pro-European trying to frighten the Brits into staying in the EU but the hard-line right-wing pro-Brexit Transport Minister, Chris Grayling. He circulated a paper describing what the return of customs controls would do to just-in-time British food supplies. Like in the USSR, it will be hard to get fresh fruit and vegetables.
The Leaver-in-Chief, Nigel Farage, has now quit UKIP because he says it has become too xenophobic. When Farage complains of his party's xenophobia you can see how off the wall the anti-Europeans have become. He is now a Loser-in-Chief.
Their champion in the Conservative Party, Boris Johnson, was jeered by fellow Tory MPs when he made one of his demagogic attacks on Europe in the Commons debate. Johnson is another loser as Tory MPs tire of his windbag demagogy and just tune out when he speaks.
The Labour opposition is also in the loser camp, as are other Tories who voted against Mrs May.
Labour united with Scottish separatist MPs, Welsh nationalists, and Britain's single Green MP to vote against the Government.
But they have no alternative policy to put in place of Brexit. Labour and Tory rebels talk of a Norway option - Britain becoming part of the European Economic Area plus staying in the EU Customs Union.
But that means accepting freedom of movement for European workers and Labour insists along with Mrs May that hard immigration controls must be placed on EU citizens hired by British firms.
Some hope for a referendum to reverse the decision of June 2016. But so far there are only nine Tory MPs and 65 Labour MPs supporting the idea of a new consultation. There are 650 MPs in the Commons. Unless Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn suddenly embrace the idea of a new referendum, which is opposed by many in the political and media elites, it won't happen.
The latest opinion poll shows a 49-38 majority saying the June 2016 Brexit decision was wrong. Yet the leader of Britain's biggest union with major influence on Corbyn attacks the idea of a new vote.
Another loser is business. The CBI, British Chambers of Commerce, major foreign firms in the UK like Siemens, Japanese auto companies and Airbus all urged MPs to support the prime minister. But business has never managed to get a coherent communications strategy on Brexit together and once again business's tin ear on Brexit had been exposed.
The British economy is also a loser. Almost every economic index, from the strength of the pound sterling to every business confidence and invest survey, shows British capitalism getting weaker by the day.
Paris, Dublin, Amsterdam and Frankfurt are making serious efforts to get City firms to relocate out of a Britain that will soon be amputated from today's automatic access to the 450 million strong EU market.
So what happens now? Enough Tory MPs may vote against the deal but Labour's hopes of converting that into a motion of confidence to force the resignation of Mrs May, a new election and the installation of Jeremy Corbyn as  the Hugo Chavez type prime minister of Britain won't happen
The coalition of MPs who defeated Mrs May this week are united in disliking her but disunited on the way forward. Mrs May will accept defeat and return to Brussels to see if the wordsmiths of Brussels who are geniuses in finding formulae bridging irreconcilable positions can once again do their magic.
Many hard-line anti-EU Tory MPs say that they will hold their noses and vote for the deal, get rid of Mrs May, get out of the political EU, elect a new anti-EU leader and prime minister and move forward to detach Britain from Europe. Pro-Europeans are hoping that the idea of a new people's vote will take off. Unless that happens, the Brexit agony will go on for years and years as tense, tetchy talks over hundreds of aspects of the relationship between the UK and 27 governments continue into the next decade.
The message from the Commons is No to Theresa May's Brexit but not Yes to any alternative.  The camp of Losers just gets bigger and bigger.

(Denis MacShane is the UK's former minister of Europe and author of two books on Brexit).

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