News World Crunch time for Britain as week of votes to decide Brexit future

Crunch time for Britain as week of votes to decide Brexit future

The flags of the united Kingdom and the European Union.
Just 17 days before Brexit, anything could still happen. Photo: AAP
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To say that this week represents a fork in the road for the UK would be to understate the bewildering range of history-making outcomes that could result from the decisions British MPs make in the next three days.

A fork in the road is simple: it can send you in one of just two directions.

Instead Britain is now careening into a roundabout which could see it charging off in almost any direction – perhaps even back where it came from –  with each option carrying enormous political, economic and foreign policy consequences.

A series of votes in the House of Commons in the next three days could send the UK hurtling towards a drastic break with the European Union. Or a much softer exit. Or a general election. Or a new referendum on whether to leave the EU. Or perhaps a vote within the Conservative Party to select a new Prime Minister.

Just 17 days before Britain is due to leave the EU, everything is still up in the air because the remarkable truth is that almost nothing has been settled in the two years and nine months since voters opted in a referendum to leave.

Prime Minister Theresa May flew to Strasbourg on the eve of the vote to meet European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in the hope of winning last-minute concessions by Brussels to win over some of the critics among her own Conservative MPs.

A staggering and sustained lack of leadership and vision by Ms May has left her Cabinet and party as deeply split as the Parliament and the public, while also leaving British and European businesses guessing about what trading rules and other regulations they will be operating under in two and a half week’s time.

There are container ships now on the ocean to Australia and other UK trading partners that will not reach their destinations until after Britain’s scheduled departure from the EU on March 29, so the exporters and importers do not know whether those goods will be landing under EU trade treaties.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has also shown a dire lack of leadership during the whole Brexit fiasco, concentrating on seeking party political advantage rather than trying to shape the Brexit outcome.

Jeremy Corbyn was warned more Labour MPs could resign from the party in frustration with his lack of leadership on Brexit. Photo: Getty

For all Mr Corbyn’s cynicism, it is Ms May who carries most responsibility for the chaos and drift, having run down the clock parroting “Brexit means Brexit” instead of developing and selling a vision of what Brexit should mean that might unite her own Conservative MPs, let alone the rest of the nation.

The result is that this is one of those times in politics when anybody who says they know what will happen is showing they do not understand how many variables are at play.

On Tuesday (local time) the House of Commons will vote on whether to accept the exit and transition deal that the May Government has spent so long negotiating with the EU, a deal that has already been massively rejected by MPs in January and which Ms May has failed to substantially improve.

If her deal is rejected again, as expected, MPs will vote a day later on whether to go ahead and leave the EU as scheduled on March 29 without a deal, a drastic type of split that would magnify the disruption and job losses that would flow from even the softest Brexit.

Most MPs are determined to avoid a no-deal Brexit, and many of Ms May’s own Ministers will quit if they feel she is not doing enough to avoid such an outcome.

If MPs do reject a no-deal Brexit they are then expected to vote on Thursday (local time) on whether to delay the March 29 departure date, knowing that without a time extension the only options are the no-deal departure they rejected on Wednesday or the May deal they rejected on Tuesday.

Theresa May’s brexit deal was defeated by 432 votes to 202 in January. Photo: Getty

That is where things become really unpredictable because it is up to the EU whether to allow such an extension and how long it should be.

And having achieved so little in two years and nine months it is hard to see what Ms May would do during such an extension to unite her warring party behind any plan.

Any changes to her current deal would depend on convincing the EU and its 27 member states to amend what they have already spent two years negotiating, and EU officials said bluntly yesterday that the real “negotiations” now must be between Ms May and her own Parliament.

Some Westminster insiders expect Ms May to resign or to be forced out by her Cabinet. Others think she will call a general election to try to find a mandate for some path ahead.

Another possibility is holding a new referendum on Ms May’s specific Brexit deal, rather than on the vague Brexit notion that was put to voters in 2016 amid a blizzard of misrepresentations and wildly different promises about what form Brexit would take.

The polls suggest that if given the chance, a majority of voters would now opt to cancel Brexit altogether, especially now that Labour has backed the idea of using a second referendum to reject Ms May’s deal.

But millions of Brexit supporters would then be left feeling cheated and blaming the Government for failing to deliver on the first referendum, and that is an outcome that Ms May seems especially desperate to avoid.

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