Ben Lowry: An uncertain end to latest chapter in the highly complex Brexit saga

As of late Friday night there were no resignations. Above, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson leaves Chequers, the Prime Minister's official country residence in Buckinghamshire, following the cabinet meeting to discuss Brexit. Photo: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire
As of late Friday night there were no resignations. Above, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson leaves Chequers, the Prime Minister's official country residence in Buckinghamshire, following the cabinet meeting to discuss Brexit. Photo: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

At the time of this newspaper going to press late this evening, no-one had resigned from the Cabinet over Theresa May’s UK-EU proposal.

That position might have changed by tomorrow.

If not, it is a remarkable turnaround and a dramatic victory for Mrs May, but it is far from clear whether or not it is a good result for the United Kingdom.

There has been an unreal quality to much of the last two years, after the June 2016 In-Out Brexit referendum.

The arguments in favour of such a plebiscite were strong, perhaps even overwhelming: the European Union had evolved slowly but remorselessly from the European Economic Community that Britain joined in 1973.

The public had never given explicit approval to the changes, unlike other EU nations that held referendums on the big treaty changes (albeit sometimes more than once, until their publics voted the ‘right’ way).

But the arguments against a referendum were also strong.

First of all, running governments by referendums is a potential recipe for instability and incoherence, as people vote for one popular measure and then perhaps at a later date for another, that has contradictory implications.

Some countries such as Switzerland and some US states seem to manage regular referendums well, but there is much to be said for electing a government and then letting its ministers get on with things until the next election.

Via the latter system, of representative democracy, the UK governments of Labour and Conservative complexions colluded in the expansion of the European experiment.

The second main argument against a referendum is that it was a massively complex matter — far too complex for the public to decide.

For example, I have been following Europe since the 1980s, and remember well Margaret Thatcher’s eurosceptic Bruges speech of 1988. I was at Westminster the night of one of the key Maastricht votes in the early 1990s, that John Major’s government narrowly won, paving the way for the change of the EEC (by then the EC) to the EU.

As part of my degree I did an EU law course.

And ever since then, I have monitored what was happening with regard to the European debate.

But even though that background means that my knowledge of EU matters is probably well ahead of most voters, I came to see how little I knew as the referendum approached.

For much of the last year of that debate, I tried to interview everyone of note who came into Northern Ireland during the campaign, including George Osborne and Nigel Farage and Peter Mandelson and David Cameron (Theresa May was one of the big names I missed, on her visit to Bangor).

Since then, I have been reporting on Brexit regularly yet I find it ever more mind bogglingly complex.

Whole new labyrinths of EU-related information and practices and implications seem to keep coming into view.

It was this very complexity that caused me to move from being a supporter of Brexit some years before the referendum (on the grounds that the EU was hopelessly dysfunctional and Britain was too culturally removed from its ambitions) to, ultimately, pro Remain.

In fact, the more that I examined the matter the more worried I became that Brexit would lead to the break-up of the UK.

I hope that I was wrong about that (and there is some solid evidence to suggest that I was indeed wrong).

But I remained eurosceptic in my Remain allegiance and concluded that the best compromise was the so-called Norway model in which the UK would stay in the single market but not the customs union.

That would allow us to do our own trade, but would still tie us into the nuisance of EU regulations.

However, it would remove us entirely from any move towards further EU integration and would be a good place to park ourselves for, say, 20 years until we could reassess the matter.

The government never felt able to make this case because staying in the single market would mean ongoing free movement of people, because the EU says that it is a non negotiable part of the single market.

But I wonder, with hindsight, what would have happened if Britain had charged ahead with this as its clear goal, and making clear that it was simultaneously preparing for No Deal (as it said last night it belatedly now was preparing).

Given that migration is such a contentious issue across the EU that it might yet cause the bloc to collapse, I suspect a deal would have been done.

Even those countries in Europe that have passport-free travel are quietly abandoning it. My brother recently drove from Italy to France and was stopped and his car carefully searched at the border. A bus beside him was also stopped and searched.

Even the europhile Nick Clegg recently wrote an article urging the EU to make compromises to alleviate continent-wide fears about migration, which could yet bring down even Germany’s Angela Merkel.

But London never showed such confidence in its negotiating strategy. It never acknowledged that the 52% initial vote for Brexit was so narrow that some major compromise was likely.

And it could not acknowledge that last year’s general election disaster made the hardest possible Brexit even more unlikely.

One thing I will be doing in the coming days is listening to and reading the experts and trying to ascertain whether or not this proposed deal is actually worse than the Norway model (in that we are unable to do any meaningful independent trade).

It does seem, however, that unionists can still take comfort from something that Dominic Grieve said to this newspaper a few weeks ago: that his colleagues are determined to protect the Union of the UK first and foremost.

However, it is hard to be optimistic about the overall course of events.

Even if the EU accepts this deal, two things will happen: a new campaign for a harder Brexit and a new campaign to rejoin the EU (on the basis that this new arrangement is the worst of all worlds).

It is very hard to envisage those campaigns being anything other than bitter. It is also hard to see anyone winning.

Thus decades of uncertainty are on the horizon.