Cabinet rows over prospect of unending Brexit limbo

by Luke Lythgoe | 24.10.2018

Reports from yesterday’s Cabinet meeting expose Theresa May’s preferred Brexit as a very miserable beast indeed.

The most striking admission in leaked papers, seen by The Times, was the prospect of a “long-running” multi-year transition period on a “rolling” basis with an “annual decision point” where any transition extension is reviewed. This is quite different from the few months of transition May has previously promised, and could see years of the UK following EU rules without a say on them and likely paying billions for the privilege. Even more worryingly, Michael Gove and other Brexiters have repeatedly made clear their intention to tear up any such deal as soon as we’re out.

While Number 10 “does not believe” any extension of the transition period “will be necessary”, examples from previous negotiations elsewhere suggest the kind of ambitious future relationship May wants will require a long and complicated process.

There is also no guarantee of a deal ever being reached after we’ve left the EU. The prime minister insists the UK cannot be “indefinitely locked” in a backstop arrangement with the EU. She was also under pressure yesterday from at least half a dozen ministers, including Jeremy Hunt and Liz Truss, to find a unilateral mechanism to escape the backstop – meaning we could pitch out of transition negotiations and into a no-deal scenario at any point. That pressure will no doubt be intensified during a planned meeting with her backbench MPs at the 1922 Committee today.

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This means the grim possibility of crashing out with no deal would hang over us for years. The consequences of this for businesses and ordinary citizens are being reported widely today: stockpiling drugs; scrabbling to find routes other than Dover for bringing goods into the country; security risks at the border. No wonder investment has dried up and the firms that are able to do so have been looking to relocate elsewhere.

May has been trying to convince MPs and voters that Brexit is a straight choice between her deal or no deal. The choice she actually seems to be offering is either no deal now, or years of continued uncertainty with the possibility of no deal at the end of it.

There is, of course, a third option. If the public don’t like these choices they should be allowed to say so in a People’s Vote. That’s why it’s imperative that MPs vote down May’s miserable deal and give the final say on Brexit back to the public.

Whether it’s May’s bad deal or an immediate no-deal Brexit, it’s clear the UK is headed for a disorderly departure from the EU that no one voted for. An extended period of limbo half-in and half-out of the EU will satisfy no one, including businesses who desperately need to plan ahead – or anyone worried such a blindfold Brexit would just be cover for Brexiters to push a harder Brexit through in future.

Edited by Quentin Peel