Article 50, Backstop, Brexit, UK Labour Party

May’s #Brexit Express is now the little engine that can’t

This blog was written on Sunday April 28th, 2019

Brexit engine

Just over two weeks ago, UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, went to the European Council to ask if the UK’s departure date from the EU could be pushed back again, one more time. We’ll be ready to go by the end of May, she said, though no one was quite sure if she was talking about herself or the month of May. Maybe both.

Reports from the European Council suggest that the French President, Emmanuel Macron, was none too happy with any extension, while others wanted to give the UK another year to agree on what Brexit meant. In the end, an extension to the end of October was offered. There were conditions. The UK would have to hold elections for the European Parliament on May 23rd, and, as a continuing member of the EU, would have to behave itself when it came to EU decision making.

The President of the EU Council, Donald Tusk, warned the UK not to waste the extra time it had been granted. Make the most of it, he said. With that, the UK Parliament went on holidays the week before Easter.

So, nothing has happened in the past two weeks to bring the Brexit process to any sort of conclusion.

Actually, that may not be quite true. Since she became Prime Minister in 2016, Theresa May told the House of Commons over 100 times that the UK would leave the EU on March 29th, 2019, no ifs or buts. This hasn’t happened. The UK is still an EU member. In all likelihood, it will still be an EU member at the beginning of the coming October.

Brexiteers had pushed hard for the Article 50 two-year notice period to be triggered. Once triggered in March 2017 it created a sense of inevitability. The UK was on the way out. Nothing could stop it.

That the March 29th deadline has passed without the UK being out of the EU is important. There is no longer an inevitability about Brexit. It is not some sacred event. It is a political choice. But had the train not already left the station?

Yes, it had. There was just one problem. Initially, Brexiteers such as David Davis and Liam Fox behaved as if it were a single-line, straight-run from the station to the final, post-Brexit destination. It would be so easy that they would invite the EU on board for an afternoon cup of tea and everything would be sorted out before they offered a second cup.

Except it wasn’t. There were junctions where the line branched off in several different directions. Choices had to be made.

In the early days the driver, Theresa May, was clearly in charge. She decided that the destination was out of the customs union, out of the single market, out of the jurisdiction of the European Court and an end to “massive” payments into the EU budget. “Hard Brexit” was to be the final destination.

How the passengers cheered. At the same time, May announced that she wanted a “deep and special” relationship with the EU which would give the UK almost all of the benefits of EU membership with none of the obligations. Boris Johnson decided to serve everyone on the Brexit Special some cake. It was magic cake. The could eat it and yet still have it.

The whole package would be wrapped up before March 29, 2019, though perhaps an “implementation period” would be necessary to allow arrangement to be put in place to enable the Brexit train to reach its destination safely.

Now, the mistake that the UK made was to assume that it had the track all to itself, that it alone would decide what Brexit meant and how it would be delivered. It forgot that there was another train on the track, the EU, that this train was some seven times bigger than the UK, had its own direction of travel and saw Brexit as an unwelcome distraction.

The first thing the EU did was to determine that, when the UK came to junction one, the Brexit train could not be split in two, with one part travelling towards “Withdrawal Agreement” while the other part was speeding to “Future Relationship”. After a brief stop at “Future Relationship”, the UK had hoped to push on to “Comprehensive Trade Deal”, getting there before 2019.

That was not going to happen, said the EU. Only after “Withdrawal Agreement” had been reached could the train move on to “Future Relationship” and that would be the end of the line. Then the UK would have to change trains, and only when it was on the new train, “Third Party”, could future travel plans be negotiated in detail with the EU.

With the big EU train sat there in front of it, what choice did the Brexit Special have? It was the EU’s way or no way.

Even before the UK could reach “Withdrawal Agreement” a very tricky bit of track known as “Backstop” had to be crossed and while many of the passengers on the Brexit train were certain that “alternative routes” were available, the EU said that these routes were still very much at the design stage and could take many years to complete, if ever. In the meantime, “Backstop” was the only way forward. The passengers grumbled, and then grumbled again. Some even got out their Lego trainsets to try and build “alternative routes” but kept finding that there were just not enough blocks in the box.

And… so it went. The shiny, Brexit high-speed train that had left the station on March 29, 2017 had slowed to become little more than “Brexit, The Tank Engine”, rolling along at ever decreasing speeds.

The passengers were getting more and more disgruntled and many began to say that they weren’t sure that they were going in the right direction. Some say they should be going to Canada, others Norway, maybe even Switzerland. Others, a growing number, began to suggest that the journey wasn’t worth it at all. Should they think about going back to where they came from. Maybe it wasn’t so bad back there after all.

Matters had not been helped when Theresa the driver had decided to make an unscheduled stop at “General Election” in 2017, hoping to pick up more crew members to help her out. But when the train left the station not only had she not picked up extra crew, but some members of the old crew failed to make it back. The rest of the crew began to openly question her judgement and insisted on lengthy meetings to decide which track to take when it came to critical junctions.

Unfortunately, the crew could not agree among themselves which was the right way to go and so the train just trundled on, going ever slower. It became so slow it failed to get to “Brexit” on time and it is now just crawling and may never get to Brexit al all.

That is where we now are. Some say that they can see Brexit just down the track and Theresa the driver is convinced that with just a little bit more effort she can get the train over the line. Others are shouting that the train is on the wrong track altogether and that Brexit is “this way”, not “that way”. Meanwhile, more and more people are getting completely fed up and think the whole this was a terrible mistake.

The Brexit Special has now pulled into a siding and all the passengers are getting off to have a big vote. Now, the vote is not actually about Brexit per se. It is about elections for the European Parliament. Theresa the driver, and most of her crew, are very cross about this.

They don’t think the UK should be involved in these elections. Theresa has already shown that she is not very good at elections. She is trying to see if there is a way she can get everyone back on board and get the train moving again towards Brexit. That way, she would not have to have elections for the European Parliament. You see, if you don’t have an election you can’t lose an election.

She is currently talking with Jeremy, who drives another train called “Old Labour” (repainted). Jeremy’s train is currently out of service but he keeps saying that it is in tip-top shape and ready to go. Jeremy would very much like to get to Brexit because he has always thought that Brexit was a great place where he would be free to do what he wanted.

All his life he has wanted to go to Brexit, and whenever he got the chance he always voted to go there. For him the road to Brexit was the Yellowbrick Road of politics. Ever since he was young he believed in the Wizard of Brexit. Brexit was a much better place than neo-liberal, imperialist Brussels.

However, he has a big problem. While a few of his immediate crew agree with him about the wonders of Brexit, nearly all the rest of his comrades – that is what they are called on Jeremy’s train – think it is an evil place and that no good can come of going there.

Theresa would like Jeremy’s train to shunt her train along and get it going again towards Brexit. Now, a lot of train spotters think that Jeremy would like to be able to do that, but he is not sure that his comrades would be very happy to help Theresa out.

In fact, many of them are telling him that a lot of passengers who would be like to get on the Labour train in the future won’t do so if he helps out Theresa. Further, they say, why should we help her out when members of her own crew continue to threaten (£) mutiny? They have mutinied before and they will do it again.

Theresa is also worried about the Farage Express, a new train but with an old driver, Nige. Nige loves Brexit, though he has never been there and can’t tell you what it is like. But he has convinced a lot of people that it is a Magical Mystery Tour worth taking. Theresa is worried that a lot off her passengers will get off her Brexit train and get on Nige’s train instead. She and her crew would definitely not like that. They might never get those passengers back again.

So, what will happen next? We don’t know. Jeremy and his comrades are meeting on Tuesday to decide on their manifesto for the European Parliament elections. Jeremy would like to say that he can take the train to Brexit in a much safer manner than Theresa, that everyone can feel safe and secure and need not worry about the future. There will be seats for everyone on Jeremy’s train. No one will have to sit on the ground in a corridor like Jeremy once did.

But lots of Jeremy’s comrades would like to go back and ask the passengers if they still want to go to Brexit. Now that they have come some of the way on the journey and seen how dangerous it has been maybe they might like to think again? After all, nearly half of them never wanted to go in the first place. And those who did want to go never did know exactly where it was they were going. It might not be a bad idea to ask everyone again.

In the meantime, all the passengers are getting very frustrated. This is especially true of business passengers who have deadlines to keep and payrolls to meet. Maybe, the business passengers say, it would be better for us to move elsewhere where the trains run on time and seem to know where they are going.

Join us next week to find out if Theresa and Jeremy agreed to help one another, how Jeremy got on with his comrades and what Nige did next.