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Opinion & Analysis

ANALYSIS: No end in sight to Brexit saga

After months building up to the Brexit deadline, March 29, 2019, came and went and we are still in the EU.

Here’s the good news: Yesterday’s vote in the House of Commons means there is now less chance of Brexit happening than there was three days ago. For most of us, however slim the odds, that’s a welcome turn of events.

Now for the bad news: Without another extension, the default position in law remains that the UK and Gibraltar will leave the EU on April 12.

In the absence of any other development, the departure will be on a ‘no deal’ basis, despite widespread, deep concerns about the economic impact this could have on the UK and Gibraltar, and on the EU itself.

The challenge for MPs now is to come up with a way to avoid that hard Brexit.

The nuclear option is to revoke Article 50 and cancel Brexit altogether, something that the UK is legally allowed to do and which a growing number of people, among them the Chief Minister, are advocating.

Ian Blackford, the leader of the SNP, told Mrs May in the Commons yesterday that it was time to give revocation “serious consideration”.

But revocation, enticing as it sounds to anyone who wants to remain in the EU, is still a minority view in the Commons, and it is hard to see how it could happen. Even so, nothing is certain in Brexitland, where everything seems possible.

On Monday, MPs face another gruelling day of debate in the Commons to see if they can garner enough support around an alternative to Mrs May’s deal.

Thankfully, the one option that does have solid, overwhelming backing is opposition to a ‘no deal’ Brexit. This week, a motion calling for a hard Brexit on April 12 was defeated by 400 votes to 160, the third such defeat.

That does not mean the UK and Gibraltar could not yet crash out of the bloc without an agreement. Political fumbling in Westminster could lead us over the cliff edge by accident.

But given the weight of opposition, one might be forgiven for being quietly optimistic that MPs would halt that prospect, even if it meant revoking Article 50.

Another option that will gain momentum over the coming days is the possibility of putting the decision back in the hands of the people in the form of a second referendum, or perhaps even a general election.

And Prime Minister Theresa May could, of course, seek to try and bring back her deal for a fourth time to the Commons.

She indicated as much yesterday. If Monday’s votes show support for a customs arrangement with the EU, for example, that could be tagged on to her deal in a Frankenstein move to bring it back to MPs yet again.

A key element in all of these scenarios is the EU, which must agree to any long extension beyond April 12.

To obtain that extra time, the UK must do two things.

Firstly, it must present a plan with a purpose.

The EU will grant an extension, but only if there is a clear goal in sight, be it an agreement, a referendum, an election.

EU member states will not simply sign up to another year or two of horse trading and internecine political wrangling in Westminster, not least given the rise in populist parties across the bloc who will feed off this crisis.

And secondly, the UK – and Gibraltar – must participate in EU elections at the end of May.

What all of this means for us is that the Brexit drama is far from over. The chaos in Westminster and the fallout from the UK’s political collapse will linger on like a persistent Levanter.

Anyone who has booked the John Mackintosh Hall for May would be well advised to consider other dates in the diary. Unlikely as it seemed just two days ago, they may have to make way for the ballot boxes.

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