A hard Brexit by accident

Theresa May and Jean-Claude Juncker © Rex Features
Theresa May and Jean-Claude Juncker: not willing to shake hands on the Chequers plan

The risks of leaving the EU with no deal are growing. Matthew Partridge reports.

Up until now the British government’s belief that “no deal is better than a good deal” has always been an “empty threat”, says the Financial Times. This is because “the notion of a no-deal Brexit had little support in parliament beyond an extremist fringe that has scant understanding of legal obligations and international trade rules”.

However, the apparent rejection of Theresa May’s Chequers plan – which would keep Britain close to EU rules on goods but diverge on services – by many in her own party and in Europe means that “the prospect of a no-deal exit, more by accident than design, has returned with a vengeance”. Such a scenario would spell international isolation, as well as a shock to the economy and a political backlash. “No competent government could contemplate such an option.”

Real fears or Project Fear?

Yet many experts warn that the UK is facing a real threat of “looming Brexit Armageddon”, says Polly Toynbee in The Guardian. The head of the civil service, John Manzoni, has said that a failure to reach a deal with the EU “would be almost unimaginable” and have “horrendous consequences”. Dominic Grieve, the former attorney-general, thinks that “basic services we take for granted might not be available”. Importantly, it’s not just politicians who are worried – when non-political figures such as the head of Amazon UK warn about “civil unrest”, “we should all sit up and pay attention”.

All these warnings of doom are “no less than the next phase of Project Fear, which tried, and failed, to scare people into voting Remain”, says Alex Brummer in the Daily Mail. In contrast to their predictions of an immediate post-vote collapse, “there has been no recession, and the British economy has proved a job-creation machine”. Besides, if the UK leaves without a deal it will be the fault of Brussels, says The Sun.

“Every time we are reasonable in our approach, the EU slaps us down.” Since “we can’t just keep giving while the EU arrogantly takes”, Theresa May must call their bluff and “change her approach to Brexit – and fast”. At the minimum “she needs to be true to her words and properly start planning for such a scenario”.

We’d be better off remaining in the EEA

Nonsense, says Christopher Booker in The Daily Telegraph. The fault for Britain’s predicament lies not with the EU, but with our “entire political class”. They have “frittered away 17 months putting forward nothing more than fantasy ‘non-solutions’, not one of which could have worked”. All of this mess could have been avoided if May had not made her “fateful” Lancaster House proclamation in January 2017 in which she said we would have to leave the European Economic Area (EEA).

Staying in the EEA alone can ensure “frictionless trade”, as May claims she wants. The implications of leaving this wider trade bloc “were never, never explained in the referendum campaign” and “have never been understood by our politicians since”. But in eight months, we will begin to understand what the consequences are. “To put it mildly, we will not be happy.”


Tories play a dangerous game with trust

During the political acrimony of the late 1970s, the parliamentary pairing system – under which MPs who are not able to attend a vote are paired up with an MP in the opposing party who deliberately does not vote – broke down. This meant that“sick and dying MPs had to be wheeled through the division lobbies whenever there was a possibility of a government defeat”, says Helen Lewis in The Guardian.

The system is “once again under threat” following the revelation last week that Conservative MP Brandon Lewis twice cast a vote on key measures, despite being paired with the Liberal Democrat MP Jo Swinson, who was absent on maternity leave. The Conservatives’ chief whip, Julian Smith, claims that this was an “honest mistake”, but his story “has now changed so many times it feels like a bad pitch meeting for a soap opera”.

Smith may well survive the chorus of calls for him to resign, not least because the loss of an “effective and businesslike” chief whip “would pitch the government into even deeper turmoil than has become the norm over the past few weeks”, says Isabel Hardman in The Spectator.

The Tories will calculate that the affair has sparked fury in Westminster – including criticism from within their party – but “the impact on the wider public will be far less striking” because “the public has always held politicians in low esteem”. Still, both Smith and the parliamentary system “will have been seriously weakened by this row”. While whipping “is about tricks and arm-twisting and threats”, it is also about maintaining trust both within and between parties. “That relationship of trust is now damaged.”