In so far as Theresa May has a Brexit strategy left, it appears to be her Chicken Game – that’s to say, pushing a vote on her deal back until as late into the New Year as possible, in order to present MPs with a stark choice as Brexit Day looms: my deal or no deal. Conservative opposition to it, spooked by the prospect of leaving the EU with no arrangements in place at all, would then crumble and the deal would pass the Commons. Evidently, Downing Street still hopes against hope that the EU will make concessions on the backstop sufficient to speed this outcome.
The Prime Minister is therefore likely to resist the pincer movement on her tomorrow from two groups in the Cabinet. The first is prepared to tolerate if not welcome No Brexit, via the means of a second referendum: an indicative Commons vote on options might pave the way for that. The second is in the same position about No Deal, and wants planning for it stepped up.
Our hearts are not warmed by the prospect of No Deal. There are potential medium-term upsides to it, in economic terms, but considerable short-term downsides. Leaving the EU with no political or economic arrangements in place at all – trading on WTO terms is usually conducted with side-deals that would presumably be absent in this case – would obviously be a step into unknown country.
But while the short-term economic consequences of No Deal might be hazardous, the medium-term political ones of No Brexit could be disastrous. There is little enough faith in our political system as it is. The spectacle of Britain’s pro-EU ascendancy, Tony Blair and all, colluding to frustrate the biggest vote in Britain’s electoral history might kill what trust remains off altogether. Be in no doubt that, in any second vote, the question, the campaigns, and the electorate would be rigged. To take one example almost at random, the losers of 2016 wouldn’t dare face Dominic Cummings and his Vote Leave team again.
There is another reason why the Cabinet should reject an indicative vote and go for full no deal planning tomorrow. No deal is the default. The Prime Minister has reaffirmed that Britain will leave the EU on March 29. But even if she folds, it could happen – given the Parliamentary and legal difficulties integral to any attempted reverse.
So it is simple prudence to prepare fully. The key element is to write to firms advising them not merely to prepare No Deal plans, but to put them into effect. This should have been done by November 27. Some Cabinet members are aghast at the irresponsibility of delay, with one describing it to ConservativeHome as a “dereliction of duty”. Matt Hancock is reported today to have taken matters into his own hands, given the irresolution at the top of government, and pushed the button on full NHS no deal preparations.
The longer full planning is delayed, the more severe the treatment of the Prime Minister, in particular, by the inevitable inquiry into the handling of Brexit will be. She would also be well advised to take up the idea, now being punted by Penny Mordaunt, of a managed no deal. It may well not fly but, if No Deal happens, the Government must make every attempt it can to minimise the difficulties.