OIA Update: Brexit – An Uncivil Opinion

I watched ‘Brexit – An Uncivil War’ earlier this week, the Channel 4 TV film that stars Benedict Cumberbatch. If you’ve not seen it yet I urge you to download it (it’s still available online) – not only is it an entertaining drama, but it also gives a lot of insight to how we got into this chaos.

Also this week, I was in the House of Commons, and was fortunate enough to have lunch with an environment minister at DEFRA (talking about the plans of transferring 42 years of environmental law), followed by afternoon tea with Tom Watson, deputy leader of the Labour Party. In between, I briefly met Jacob Rees-Mogg of the ERG. One would imagine with that mix of people, in the heart of parliament, I might come away with more insight into exactly what’s going to happen – alas no, there seems so little consensus, and so many assumptions from each side of ‘what the people want’ that the very idea of a clear way forward seems impossible.

I was a firm ‘remainer’ at the referendum, yet I know leave voters and I was talking to a friend this week – his opinion is that two and a half years ago the vote was simply on whether to leave or stay. There was no ‘leave with the May deal’ or ‘leave with the Norway deal/Canada Plus’, or other variations – he simply voted to leave the EU. He firmly believes that the UK as an independent trading nation can flourish outside the EU, free from trading constraints and European law. It would certainly be the clearest expression of the Brexit vote – his belief is that we should just leave after 29th March and make it work.

The issue though, is that despite the lip service to that referendum vote, the vast majority of MPs, economists and businesses think that to leave would be an economic disaster. Listen to Jeremy Corbyn condemn ‘no deal’ at Prime Minister’s Questions and you’d think him the most fervent remain campaigner, yet it seems his only clear plan is to force a general election – everything else is secondary.

So we are stuck – Theresa May and a majority in parliament think they have a duty of care to the economy that precludes a clean, walk away Brexit. And yet on the other hand they have an equally clear duty to deliver the people’s referendum decision to leave – hence the attempts to cobble together ‘BINO’ (Brexit in Name Only).

So what is the likely scenario? For a start, a number of constraints are in place. The European parliament faces elections this summer and if we’ve not left by then, then the 27 becomes 28 again and we will need to elect MEPs for the UK – hardly a career choice many people would make right now! Jean-Claude Juncker and Michel Barnier are both moving on as well this summer, so there is a real need to get this sorted, or scrapped, ASAP. On the other side, with only 70 days to go, there seems almost no hope of getting a withdrawal deal through the UK parliament, so departure immediately after 29th March is looking increasingly unlikely.

Don’t forget as well that we are not actually talking about the trading future of the UK and EU now – that comes in the next two to three years. This deal is the bare bones of withdrawal – it lays out the divorce bill (£39bn) and effectively kicks the can down the road a few years through the transition.

The steer that I get from the City, the House and others is that the likely scenario is an extension of the withdrawal deadline until the summer, but not a cancellation of Article 50. In line with that, expect some frantic negotiations on the wording of May’s deal and the ‘Irish Backstop’ (the main sticking point), and then a return to parliament with a very clear choice – no deal, May’s deal or a general election (which would probably mean a reversal of Article 50 – i.e. a ‘start again’ option with the new government).

If this happens, we may get the soft Brexit (May’s deal version ‘X’) which while no one on either side will like, may get over the line as the best compromise, and offer some certainty for business, which will help sterling and therefore our industry.

Frankly, it’s hard to see any other sensible way forward, but then as ‘Brexit – The Uncivil War’ proved, this whole thing has been anything but sensible!

Andrew Denton,

CEO,

Outdoor Industries Association.


Note: This article was also published in Outdoor i Vol. 24 No. 6 on 21st January 2019.