WHEN I first read a commentator in a serious newspaper saying, in the early summer, that the UK was heading towards a potential political and constitutional crisis, of the sort that we have not faced for a century, I thought that was an exaggeration.
Now I’m not so sure. In the course of the next few days and weeks, if the Prime Minister’s attempts to achieve a deal to leave the EU which will – at once – satisfy enough members of her party, appeal to a number of Labour MPs as well, keep the DUP on board, and not provoke a run on the pound and a slump in business confidence, falls by the wayside, British politics – and the British economy – will be in unknown territory.
The atmosphere in Westminster is surreal. I ran into two senior Conservatives with whom I have worked. Both remarked bitterly to me about the behaviour of colleagues within their own party. Confusion, bitter rivalries and, for some, despair grip many MPs – and within Labour as well.
Neither House is busy; legislation is thin, while we all wait for the Government to send us the weight of bills and statutory instruments needed to arrive at an orderly transition at the end of March. It’s now almost too late to manage that without emergency sessions and extended sittings. Even the Trade Bill, which has been through the Commons and had its Second Reading in the Lords, is now stalled until some clarity emerges on what sort of future relationship it needs to cover.
The Government statement as Parliament returned did talk of a possible “delay between the end of the implementation period and the entry into force of the treaty on our future relationship”. This suggests that the current uncertainty, which is leading banks and companies to start moving investment and staff out of Britain, could lead after the 21-month transition period, to a void without an agreed framework.
Meanwhile, panic preparations are underway to prepare for a no deal outcome, which is beginning to look quite possible. You will have heard of the start of work on lorry parks stretching back for Dover – for up to 10,000 lorries, potentially tying up a significant part of the freight transport fleet. Stories from Whitehall say that officials are being pulled out of their regular duties into emergency teams to prepare for a no deal scenario.
Across the water, the DUP is threatening to bring down the Government, while the SNP is preparing to campaign for a second independence referendum if the UK crashes out of the EU – which they would probably win.
The possibility that the UK might break up, with Northern Ireland opinion moving towards favouring unification with Dublin, and Scotland going it alone, looks real.
Liberal Democrats have very little purchase on this drama while we are sidelined as the fourth party within Parliament, but we will be actively intervening however and whenever we can.
We’ve reached this point because the Government triggered Article 50 without any agreed plan for how we would leave or what our future relationship would be. The Prime Minister has survived by putting off many of the most difficult choices, while giving in to hard Brexiteers and English nationalists on her backbenches.
The Labour leadership’s silence on this fundamental issue has allowed the Government to drift on. The UK could have achieved a well-managed exit if we had opted for the Norwegian model of the European Economic Area, but the hard-liners vetoed that and it’s now almost too late to rescue a satisfactory deal.
This is not just the wrong outcome; it’s the outcome of deep incompetence, weak leadership of both major parties, and prejudice and disregard for evidence on both sides. Tell your MP that, whatever their party; phone in to your local radio, write to the paper, tweet as much as you can. This is not just an outcome that could well be a historic disaster for England, and for the UK as a whole; it’s a disaster which ought to sink the Conservative Party for a generation, and shake Labour to its core.
I’m torn. I want to stop Brexit. But I fear that a disastrous ill-managed Brexit would do immense damage to our economy, society and political life so half-hope that some patched-up deal might save us from that. I hope I’m exaggerating, in my turn – but I worry that my fears might come true.
Lord Wallace of Saltaire is a Lib Dem peer. He was a Minister in the 2010-15 coalition government.