We’ll obsess about Brexit for ages unless we stay in EU

by Luke Lythgoe | 07.02.2019

The people want to get Brexit over with. But any form of Brexit means years of wrangling by MPs followed by years of negotiations with the EU as the government tries to nail down a trade deal. That’s years of political infighting during which politicians won’t be able to focus on our real priorities: supporting the NHS, building more houses, tackling inequality and so forth.

The “Political Declaration” that accompanies the government’s divorce deal is a vaguely worded wishlist. Everything from financial services to fishing, immigration to agriculture, remains to be fleshed out. Agreement needs to be reached in each area. This would take years even if we had a prime minister who had realistic expectations and who was supported by a solid majority in Parliament.

But we don’t…

Who is PM?

Theresa May has said she’ll go before the next election, scheduled for 2022. But she might not last that long. Rivals in the Tory party will be sharpening their knives as soon as we quit the EU. As they fight for the crown, they will squabble over what form of trade deal they want.

Minority government

Any prime minister will head a minority government dependent on a “confidence and supply” arrangement with the DUP. That means a small group of Tories – or the 10 DUP MPs – can hold the prime minister to ransom over any aspect of the putative trade deal they don’t like. And they’ll have lots of opportunities, with plenty of votes on Brexit-related legislation.

EU leaders will be wary of negotiating seriously unless there is a stable UK government with a healthy majority. Otherwise any deal struck with the prime minister could face the same deadlock in Parliament as the Withdrawal Agreement faces today. So maybe the EU will wait for a general election before getting stuck into talks.

UK elections

Such an election could bring in a new government with a radically different vision for post-Brexit Britain. It could be called early by a weak minority government trying to bolster its numbers. But even if it isn’t held until 2022, we will probably still then be negotiating with the EU. Everything could be upended and sent back to the drawing board.

And, of course, a new election may not produce a stable government which has a majority and is realistic about what’s achievable in the negotiations. If not, the trade talks may struggle to get off the ground even after an election.

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EU elections

Elections for the European Parliament are scheduled for May 2019. Afterwards, the different political blocs will thrash out the new shape of the parliament. The EU will also choose a new president of the European Commission – who may well appoint a new negotiator to take over from Michel Barnier. That won’t be done until September or even later. Don’t expect any substantive movement on the new UK-EU relationship while all this is being sorted out.

And that’s not all. Many of big EU countries will have their own elections before the trade negotiations are finished. Angela Merkel may no longer be Germany’s Chancellor. Emmanuel Macron may not be sitting in the Elysee Palace. If the key national leaders change, the EU’s own negotiating position may change too.

Horse trading with the EU

Expect endless horse trading. A better deal for UK services companies in return for preferential treatment of EU migrants, perhaps? Or access to UK waters for Spanish trawlers if Madrid drops its claims to Gibraltar? There are a shedload of emotive and economically vital areas which both sides will have to prioritise then negotiate.

Decision time for the backstop

Hardly any expert thinks it’s possible to cut a UK-EU trade deal within the 21-month “transition” period that kicks in after we quit the EU. Ambitious complex trade deals usually take five to 10 years. That means the government, and probably also MPs, will have to decide whether to ask for an extension of the transition or fall into the notorious “backstop” arrangement designed to keep the Irish border open. Both options are controversial, and any extension would need to be agreed by all 27 EU member states and cost extra money.


Finally, even if we cut a deal with the EU, the tensions of Brexit will persist. Especially if we end up closely following EU rules with no say at its top table. Eurosceptic politicians will react badly to becoming rule-takers with no say. So will patriotic pro-Europeans.

We could see MPs rebelling against the government of the day over the enforcement of new EU regulations. Or the government itself in dispute with the EU about the manner in which new rules are to be implemented. If you thought the tensions over EU rules was bad before the referendum, it will be far worse when we’re a ruletaker.

There is one way to prevent years of Brexit uncertainty – staying in the EU. MPs must back a People’s Vote and give the public the final say, now they know what an endless Brexit future looks like.

Edited by Hugo Dixon

5 Responses to “We’ll obsess about Brexit for ages unless we stay in EU”

  • Dear Hugo, Luke and co.
    Credit where it’s due your articles are fine. However I’m looking farther afield on other media and found there are some very good remain stories. Just a couple of observations.
    Not everyone who reads this site reads the Guardian therefore please highlight what I’ve read in this paper just now. The article is called “Four men with a ladder” creating billboard messages with earlier quotations from Brexit politicians which are clearly now , in retrospect, blatantly dishonest, disingenuous, etc. Terrific to see this. Now funded through a crowdfunding campaign.
    Another story which caught my eye was about Labour MP’s forming a breakaway group. Not new but I believe that media highlighting this would help people see that this may be an important last throw of the dice for MP’s of all colours to create a type of Rainbow Coalition in parliament and at 5 minutes to midnight create the impact needed to opose the lunatics in Westminster.
    Have I got you thinking? I hope so. All forms of anti-Brexit media need to be getting a bit more savvy with sharing stories and information. Time’s running out.

  • Whether the UK stays in or out of the UK, there will always be an obsession about the neighbouring EU. The main failing of logic of this article is that a referendum in 1975 with 65% voting to stay in did nothting to stem the obsession in the UK, first with the Labour party (leading to the creation of the SDP) and the Tory party (leading to Mrs Thatcher’s ejection from power). How will a 3rd referendum sort out a 41 year old obsession? What the UK needs is orderly exit from the EU and maybe, just maybe, re-apply when it has put its own house in order (a written consitution? long term solution to Northern Ireland?) And reassurances for the 5 million caught in the middle, either in the UK or in the EU. We need guarantees not more instability. And yes if anyone has bothered to read the Withdrawal Agreement, the negotiations will continue. That was the point of the WA. The EU had always stated, Brexit and then trade deals can be discussed. It’s really quite simple to understand.

  • Yes, the billboard article in the Guardian was great – simple ideas always the best. Can In Facts/People’s Vote persuade these heroes to supply laminated mini posters with same messages for people’s windows . We need some hope – am trying not to lose it!

  • No. A deal is a deal. If it’s awful, so be it. Lay in the bed we asked for. Have some integrity and hold you head up high and do what we said we would, for better or worse. The only thing worse than a bad deal would be a sniveling, back tracking, turn coat.

  • What rubbish staying in the EU will cause an explosion of anger it won’t stop the endless debate it will make divisions worse as leave supporters will despise remain voters for stealing Brexit from them. Staying in the EU is the obe thing that will make divisions between remainers and leavers worse ensuring this endless argument never ends!