It was a long, repetitive exercise that kept the British establishment waiting; some of them willing it on, some of them concealing distaste. Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon at the Royal wedding was a truer metaphor for Brexit than any journalist has coined these past two years.
As the second anniversary of the referendum nears, there is more exasperated checking of watches left to go. A transition period from membership to non-membership will run until the end of 2020. The latest answer to the customs impasse is continuation of the status quo until 2022, when new technologies might fix the problem. By then, the process of exit will rival the second world war in length. If a technical solution does not emerge, Britain’s holding pen could become a permanent home.
There is also a new immigration system to decide, as well as the UK’s freedom of manoeuvre on state aid and other regulatory matters. Whatever Britain does in these areas could affect the terms it secures in the trade talks that constitute yet another avenue of negotiation with the EU. In all likelihood, London will be haggling with Brussels over one thing or another indefinitely, much like the Swiss. Ivan Rogers predicted this future when he quit as Britain’s diplomatic emissary to the EU after the referendum.
It is not clear that Britain will turn on Brexit as young voters replace old. Demography is not destiny. Even if it were, it is slow to work. All the same, Leavers should worry about the passage of time. The drop in European immigration that is already showing up in data could blunt the public’s main grievance against the EU. Endless negotiations could themselves accustom voters to a kind of rolling semi-membership. If a clean exit is to happen, it has to happen before long.
At the risk of riling Brenda of Bristol, the voter whose fatigue at hearing the news of last year’s general election became a viral hit, the best hope for Tory Leavers is another election, and soon. A plan leaked over the weekend envisages a vote of no-confidence in prime minister Theresa May, before an autumn date with the electorate, perhaps under the leadership of Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary and committed Leaver.
A new election is not certain to fix the Leavers’ central problem, which is the shortage of parliamentary numbers for their preferred exit. But the potential is there. Two favourable circumstances obtain right now that might not in a few years. One is material. The economy is still growing, with wages rising ahead of inflation. If the business cycle turns before Britain leaves, the animal spirits behind Brexit could weaken. A downturn has the power to frustrate Brexit in a way no human factor can. It is one thing to vote Leave, and another to leave while the economy is fragile.
The other tailwind is political. The opposition Labour party still wants to leave the single market. As stable as this seems, Leavers cannot treat it as an immovable fact of politics. They are in parliamentary trouble because the opposition line is already softer than it was at the turn of the year. If it softens much more, a hard exit becomes a fringe prospect.
In other words, this apparent rough patch for Leavers is, on second glance, much better than things might be in the near future. The Conservatives are in reasonable shape after the local elections this month. Some voting-intention polls have them ahead. Other surveys show that voters trust them over other parties to negotiate exit.
Most Tories dismiss the weekend speculation out of hand. A snap election seems implausible. But the same was true five minutes before Mrs May called one last spring, at which point such insurmountable barriers as the Fixed Term Parliaments Act were breezily surmounted. Given the delicate balance of forces in the House of Commons right now, it would take a small shift in their favour to smooth the way to a clean exit.
The Eurosceptic dread was never a formal annulment of the decision to leave. No government could do such a thing without inciting half the nation. Their real nightmare is a prolonged exit that ultimately obscures the difference between leaving and staying. This explains their impatience to leave now, and to elect a parliament to that end.
On the balance of probabilities, they will fail. Mrs May should see out the year, and the process of exit. But that balance is finer than generally believed, and liable to change with events. The parliamentary deadlock is real. The answer is the long grass or to consult the country. Voters who were not exasperated by last year’s election might yet have their patience tested with a fifth major democratic event in as many years. We are all Brenda now.
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