Britain leaving the EU will close a chapter, not the book
Whether the UK leaves the EU is still just about a question of ‘if’ as well as (or instead of) ‘when’, although of course ‘if’, being open-ended, isn’t of itself very meaningful. Suffice to say that the not-very-liquid Betfair market on Brexit date has ‘not before 2022’ at 4.2 – or, in percentage terms, a 24% chance. This is now slightly shorter than the 4.4 best price on 2019Q1: odds only justified by the chance of a No Deal Brexit occurring without an Article 50 extension.
The reality – as Andrea Leadsom implicitly acknowledged, despite her other assertions to the contrary – is that there simply isn’t time now before March 29 for parliament to sign off a deal and to pass the necessary legislation to implement it, even before we get to parliamentary motions demanding that the government seek an extension. There is only one deal on the table and parliament doesn’t like it. The chances of a vote on any Withdrawal Agreement before late February are surely slim.
The value in the market to my mind is with 2019Q2, with a best price of 3.35 (or about 30%). That period almost exactly defines the gap between the current A50 deadline and the new European Parliament taking their seats. Three months should also be long enough to pass the legislation to implement a deal, assuming one has been agreed before March 29.
By contrast, there are three realistic paths to Remain. The first is via a referendum which parliament might force on the government as the price of agreeing to ratify the (or a) Withdrawal Agreement. Current polling suggests that Remain might well win a new vote – though it’d need a better campaign than last time and better campaigners, whoever they might be. The second is if the Tory government falls, Labour takes over and U-turns on its previous pledge to honour the referendum. This is unlikely on both counts but not out of the question. And the third is that the can gets kicked repeatedly so far down the road that the government feels able to call it off in the hope that the majority of the public has become bored. These are not mutually exclusive alternatives.
However, as well as Remain, there’s one campaign which has not yet raised its voice, presumably because it feels that it’s still very much a second-best option: namely Rejoin.
The prospect of a new round of Britain’s interminable EU story is not something that many voters will rejoice at but public fatigue never stopped a European zealot, of either a Eurosceptic or Europhile bent. Once out, the battle will begin immediately to get back in.
This isn’t the place to explore the probability of that campaign’s success but it is worth looking at how it will impact the main parties.
For the Tories, Rejoin would unite the great majority of MPs, members and activists in opposition. Even those (like me) who would be temperamentally inclined to agree with it are likely to feel it’s started way too soon. Give it a rest. (Advocates would no doubt say that it would have to begin as soon as possible so as to enable re-entry while alignment remains close and hence easy.) Not that this will unite the Tories on European policy: there’d still be plenty of arguments about the post-transition arrangements but that’s a different thing. And if they can make it through to 2022 and past the end of the transition period, there’ll still be arguments as to how far to diverge from the EU in practice.
For the Lib Dems and SNP, Rejoin comes naturally and could easily form a major plank of their next manifesto, not least because it helps to differentiate themselves in a positive way from Labour on the left-of-centre, where most Remainers are.
Labour, by contrast, will have a big question to answer for its election manifesto as to whether to commit to apply to new membership, and if so, on what terms. Most of the membership, voters and MPs will want it in; the leadership – if still Corbyn – not so much.
Right now, 2022 seems a long way away. Heck, April seems a long way away. But assuming that Brexit does occur, whether managed or chaotic, the vocal and committed current Remainers will not simply pack up, accept their defeat and move on. Britain will remain deeply conflicted on many levels about its relationship with Europe (arguably, this should read ‘England and Wales will remain deeply conflicted’, although that’s mainly because Scotland and N Ireland have even bigger issues to settle, and Europe is seen there through those lenses). Until those conflicts are resolved, the In-Out debate of the last seventy years will not end.