To pass her Brexit deal through the House of Commons, Theresa May needs a balance of terror among those who favour rival outcomes. She needs hardline Brexiteers to worry that if they don’t vote with her, Brexit won’t happen at all, and some ardent Remainers to think that unless they support her, Britain will “crash out” of the European Union (EU) without a deal.
Her problem is that, far from such a balance of terror existing, the very opposite prevails — a kind of equilibrium of complacency. Each set of opponents is smugly confident that, once her deal is voted down, their own view will prevail. The New Year has been marked by all of them claiming fresh support and optimism.
Advocates of a second referendum have released a poll showing ever more people demanding one. Those who want the “Norway option” claim momentum behind them. And some who are relaxed about a no-deal outcome say the support for it is growing. With all groups, except the Cabinet, believing they are in a stronger position, it is no wonder that the parliamentary numbers have shown little sign so far of shifting.
While there is indeed enthusiasm for each of these options, it cannot be true that all of them are simultaneously improving their chances of getting what they want. Somebody, somewhere, is obviously making a big mistake, but who is it? In particular I worry that my former colleagues on the Conservative benches, and many activists in their constituencies, are misjudging both the consequences of a no-deal Brexit and the chances of bringing it about.
The readiness to embrace this is understandable. Two years of maddening negotiations gives rise to a feeling of “let’s just go!” The apparent refusal of the EU to give legally binding assurances on the use of the Irish backstop reinforces the desire to walk away from it. The idea of telling Brussels we will not give them any money or obey any of their rules after March 29 is no small attraction. Since our referendum in 2016, the Italians have lurched to populism, the French have taken to the barricades, the Germans entered a political paralysis and Jean-Claude Juncker has become even more the caricature of an out-of-touch Commission.
Dire forecasts are easy to greet with mirth, as my old friend Boris [Johnson] did very effectively. Shortages of Mars bars are not frightening to the electorate. The Bank of England has foretold a deep recession, but suffers from previous inaccurate warnings, and its assumption that it would raise interest rates sharply, which no one believes, however true it might be.
In the meantime, many financial firms have already prepared for a no-deal outcome, and the EU has started to announce measures it would take to keep flights in the air and the access of its banks to City markets.
So it’s not surprising that many patriotic people think leaving without a deal wouldn’t turn out badly after all. And if it becomes a choice between this and the long, divisive and interminable nightmare of a second referendum, perhaps this would be a risk worth taking.
Yet a risk it remains, and a very serious one. The truth must be that no one really knows what would happen, and we should have sufficient humility and realism to acknowledge that. Tariffs would be applied immediately to goods traded between the United Kingdom and the EU, and a common-sense assumption would be that this would mean many higher prices or less business. The car industry relies on its components moving seamlessly across the Channel. The supermarkets only have one and a half days’ supply in stock at any time. Millions of people on both sides would have their legal status and health care thrown into jeopardy. We would lose the ability to track criminals into the rest of Europe, and so on — a list like this soon becomes a long one.
The National Farmers Union, business leaders, the people who run universities and many more all say it would be something between a disaster and a catastrophe. They could all be wrong, of course, but what if they’re right? You don’t have to study this for many minutes to think that, whoever is right, it would be a very big risk for the livelihoods of a huge number of people, and if you’re in government you don’t subject those people to such a risk unless all the alternatives are truly terrible.
Here I respectfully disagree with Boris, who recently wrote that a no-deal outcome most closely corresponds to what people voted for in the referendum. I seem to remember many assurances at that time that it would not be too difficult to reach a deal with the EU, and even that a trade deal with them would be the easiest ever negotiated. Major risks and uncertainty for businesses and families were not part of the promises presented to them.
The biggest problem in hoping for this type of Brexit, however, is that there appears to be a majority in the Commons against it. If we were going to leave with no deal, then the best chance of mitigating the many risks would be to do so with a clear plan of our own, backed by a parliamentary majority ready to take all the necessary measures — which include many new laws that would be urgently required covering customs and immigration checks, suspending many others and spending a lot of money on solving problems where they emerged.
There clearly is no chance of that with this House of Commons. Nor would there be with any new House likely to emerge from a fresh election. The efforts being made this week to amend the Finance Bill to restrict the government’s power to spend or raise money in the event of no deal are the start of parliament trying to take control of Brexit. It will have many more ways of doing so if the deal on the table doesn’t get through, meaning that a no-deal Brexit, if it did happen by default, would be a particularly chaotic one.
So while I can sympathise with the frustration of those who say “no deal” is not the end of the world, I think they are miscalculating the risks and their chances of success. They should hope that May can obtain the assurances she seeks from Brussels, or help her to get them, and then vote to deliver Brexit while they still can.
William Hague is the former foreign secretary of the UK.