The road to No Deal: Brexit’s Rubik’s Cube may simply be too difficult

The road to No Deal: Brexit’s Rubik’s Cube may simply be too difficult

There are too many conflicting interests to simultaneously satisfy

Rubik’s cubes were very much a craze when I was at primary school in the early 1980s. I had one, my friends had one and millions of people across the world had them. No-one I know ever solved one though. Sure, you could solve one side easily enough but to solve all six? Certainly it was possible – you saw people on television doing it – but we simply didn’t understand the maths or mechanics necessary, and didn’t have the vision or capacity to try.

That cube could be a metaphor for Brexit (except that the sides all have feelings and have to be coaxed, persuaded and threatened into place rather than simply rotated – if indeed they’ll go at all). Theresa May is the player – and she could be forgiven for feeling not unlike my friends and me so many years ago.

The simple facts are these: to get an Article 50 exit deal, she needs an actual text which can:
Gain the acceptance of enough of the other 27 EU member states to pass the QMV threshold.
Gain the support of the House of Commons.
Gain the support of the European Parliament.
Not provoke a leadership challenge within her party, either directly from her MPs or as a consequence of cabinet / government resignations.
Retain the support of the DUP.

Is there a deal which could satisfy these four groups? We’ve seen these last two weeks how much push back there was from Conservative ministers and MPs – forcefully supported by Party members – against the Chequers Plan. In effect, the PM has found the limit of how far her Party will allow her to go (for now).

Against which, Michel Barnier, on behalf of the Commission and the Council, has rejected the Plan as being incompatible with the customs union and undermining the indivisibility of the four freedoms and the Single Market. You might think that as the UK government wants to leave the Single Market, its indivisibility shouldn’t be in question – the principle that the UK has signed up to is precisely that you can’t expect all the benefits if you don’t accept all the obligations – but apparently not.

The European Parliament is something of the Cinderella in this drama but we shouldn’t entirely ignore it. While I don’t think it’s likely that it would vote down something that the members states and the Commission was prepared to sign off, it shouldn’t be taken entirely for granted – particularly if they perceive a weakening of the Ever Closer Union principles.

How certain is it that there’s no overlap between what Tory MPs will accept and what can be agreed in Brussels? Will pressure of time mean that red lines on both sides are, in fact, not quite so colourful? The signs are not hopeful. The EU has proven flexible on points of detail but on its main negotiating objectives, it has proven granite-like. And while May has extracted considerable movement from her Party, the fact that public opinion, such as has been polled (I don’t entirely trust the public’s self-assessment of their own awareness on the details of the Plan), is heavily against. May has few arguments or weapons to wield to convince MPs to act against their instincts, other than predictions of doom on No Deal. If she were to be toppled, her replacement would have to be either from the Eurosceptic right or having given absolute guarantees to them. Either way, if May falls, a Brexit deal becomes a whole lot harder.

One scenario which seems popular on social media among convinced Remainers is that parliament will somehow force a deal upon the government. But this fails to understand several points. Firstly, parliament can only approve a deal if there is a deal to approve – and for there to be a deal, the government would have had to negotiation one. Unless they simply take the EU’s terms off the peg. In reality, there would be nothing to vote on. Secondly, who is going to lead this uprising? Labour, under Corbyn? He has other priorities. The SNP? They too have other priorities and preserving the Union isn’t among them. Labour backbenchers? It’s almost impossible to see where the numbers come from unless they ally with a sizable number of Tory backbenchers – and there aren’t enough pro-EU Con MPs for that.

In theory, she could ‘do a Peel’ and split her party to deliver a cross-party majority. However, it’d be completely against her nature and she’d be No Confidenced if she brought back – and advocated – a Single Market continuity option. So she wouldn’t just have to suffer a split, she’d have form a new ministry with (brief) Labour support to get her deal through – which would be then immediately withdrawn, leading to a general election which Corbyn would win easily against the wreckage on the right.

Nor can the usual Brussels tricks of fudging the wording or kicking the can work. There could be an extension to the Article 50 process but to what end? Unless one or both sides are prepared to move substantially then buying more time doesn’t achieve anything. (Although the Brexit Date of 29 March is in the EU Withdrawal Act, my reading is that this can be amended under the Henry VIII powers contained within it). And the probability is that one or other side would revolt against the proposal unless agreement was close on acceptable terms.

But this is one of those occasions when fudge is hard. Either there is no customs border between Britain and Ireland, or there is – and if there is, it’s either in the Irish Sea or the Irish border. Either Britain is in the customs union or it isn’t. Either the four freedoms apply or they don’t. At some point in Schroedinger’s Brexit, the box has to be opened.

On Ireland alone, the EU and Dublin say they won’t accept a hard border, nor will Brussels accept a division in customs arrangements between the Republic and N Ireland. But the DUP and Tories won’t accept an internal division within the UK, and government policy is to leave the Customs Union. These are, and always have been, incompatible.

Some have pointed out that while there’s no majority in parliament for any given deal, nor is there one for No Deal either, which must now also be voted on if nothing’s been agreed by 21 January 2019. However, while parliament can vote to reject the principle of no deal, this vote isn’t binding and in any case, while rejecting a given deal gives ‘no deal’ as a definite alternative, rejecting ‘no deal’ doesn’t do the same in reverse.

And that’s why we are where we are. More than two years after the referendum, not only are the two sides still far apart but as soon as you move in one area, it knocks something else out. It is the Brexit Rubik cube in action.

But maybe there is a solution. I did once solve the cube. I peeled off the stickers and put them back so as to form the completed design. Some would argue that this is cheating but that depends on your view of the rules of the game. With Brexit, the result is what matters, not the process.

A genuine No Deal outcome would be disastrous, with immense disruption to movement, supply chains, rights and contracts – not just in Britain but across Europe and particularly in neighbouring countries. Such a situation would surely be unlikely to be allowed to happen for any time and a whole set of emergency agreements based on mutual recognition of standards, licences and so on (which on 29 March 2019 would be identical to both) would develop. That, rather than the formal A50 process, is the likely deal.

David Herdson

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