Another fiasco in the Brexit crisis

Britain’s Brexit crisis moves, with each passing week, ever higher up the fiasco index. If it were not so grave for the future of one Europe’s major democracies — and economies — it would be comical.

This week’s chapter — the collapse of the government’s six-week attempt to find a compromise with the Labour opposition — was entirely predictable.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was unprepared to let go of his demand for a post-Brexit customs union, even though that is what is offered, albeit temporarily, in the withdrawal treaty that prime minister Theresa May has negotiated with Brussels, and that, inexplicably, Labour has consistently voted down. 

Every step of the way, Mr Corbyn and most of his MPs have grasped each and every opportunity to put party interest above that of the country. In doing so they have shown their contempt for the many Labour-held constituencies that voted leave in the 2016 referendum.

For her part, Ms May is right to blame the failure of the cross-party talks in part on her government’s inability to see a common Labour position on the UK’s exit from the EU: Does it want to deliver Brexit — the promise in its 2017 election manifesto — or hold a second referendum which could kill it?

Profound divisions in the Conservative Party also limited the government’s scope for compromise on a withdrawal agreement that, in any event, cannot be amended because Brussels has refused to have a word of it changed. 

It cannot, without the EU’s approval, offer improved exit terms, and the party’s hardline leavers would not have accepted any compromise that included a second referendum, known euphemistically as a people’s vote, as the 2016 poll was nothing of the sort.

It is difficult to underestimate the contempt in which Ms May is held not only by a sizeable chunk of the Conservative Party in the House of Commons but also by leave-voting Tory activists. They have forced the PM to give advance notice of her resignation, giving Mr Corbyn another wound at which to gnaw. 

How, he asks — with tears in his eyes and hand on heart — could Labour agree a common policy with the government, only for it to be torn up by a Tory prime minister who actually understood Brexit and was capable of getting the job done? He doesn’t do sincerity that well.

As many predicted, the talks were a waste of time. Britain and its neighbours are back where they were months ago. Brussels waits and watches, and Leo Varadkar’s Government must lift the sofa cushions to find €50m to part-fund an aid package for the Brexit-related losses being suffered by cattle farmers.

Next up is another problem for Ms May: An election in which British voters normally take scant interest but which paradoxically is now of enormous interest because, firstly, it should not be happening, and secondly it will give the country — and its four nations — the chance to return a verdict on the farce so far. 

With the Conservatives and Labour having mounted campaigns that so far can be viewed only with the aid of a telescope, and the Brexit Party surging ahead in polls, it’s likely to be seen — certainly in England as distinct from the rest of the UK — as a second referendum.

If the pro-Brexit vote holds, the issue goes back to a House of Commons still being dominated by remain-inclined MPs and incapable of producing a majority for any way forward. 

A general election, with the Conservatives under a new leader and Labour offering a clear policy, now looks inevitable sooner — much sooner — rather than later.

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