News World Baffled by Brexit? The four key lessons of the UK’s ongoing debacle

Baffled by Brexit? The four key lessons of the UK’s ongoing debacle

It's tough to get your head around the goings-ons with Brexit – even if you're a British politician. Photo: Getty
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Have you been keeping up with Brexit?

If you understand the latest machinations over the UK leaving the European Union you are better informed than most British voters and perhaps even a few MPs, whose Brexit fatigue and confusion has reached a near terminal point.

Britain voted in June 2016 to leave the 28-nation EU and the latest target for doing so was October 31 but this weekend it is still not clear when and how Brexit will happen.

The simple “Yes/No” question the 2016 referendum posed about Brexit was so general and unspecific that there has been endless wrangling about how it should actually be implemented.

With parliament, the ruling Conservative Party and Labour all deeply split the path forward is so confusing that even an early election could fail to clear things up, as the polls suggest it may return another hung parliament.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been forced by parliament to request a three-month extension of the October 31 deadline and the EU has agreed in principle without yet setting the new departure date.

Johnson has managed to reach a last-minute departure deal with the EU but now fears that it will be amended when scrutinised by MPs, so he is vowing not to bring the legislation forward unless Labour agrees in advance to a general election on December 12.

All parties are still considering their options but there are at least four lessons that can be drawn from the latest Brexit shenanigans.

Leaving the EU in an orderly way is more likely than ever

There have always been two other options: the huge disruption of leaving with no withdrawal and transition deal, and calling the whole thing off by staying in the EU.

Hardline Brexiteers would prefer a “no deal” exit and Johnson threatened to take that costly path if the EU did not give him the sort of deal he wanted. The EU has since agreed to a deal but a no-deal outcome is still possible if the UK parliament does not accept the deal, if long-term trade talks fail, or if Johnson goes back to playing hard ball.

The third-party Liberal Democrats would like to revoke Brexit but Labour does not want to openly defy the 2016 verdict, so the only hope for “Remainers” is that the final deal is put to a confirmatory “People’s Vote”. The current parliament does not seem to back a second referendum and it is a long shot that a new general election would deliver support for such a vote.

Brexit has inspired fierce protests, both for and against the deal. Photo: Getty

It is hard to trust Boris Johnson

When parliament formally instructed Johnson to seek an extension in order to avoid a hard Brexit he defiantly vowed dozens of times that Brexit would still happen on October 31 “do or die” and “come what may”. To refuse would mean breaking the law but Johnson warned that he’d “rather be dead in a ditch than delay Brexit.

Yeah, right. He has now fallen into line and the EU says it will grant the extension.

Most Brexit supporters will forgive his broken promise but a big part of the nation’s problem is that other European leaders, Opposition MPs and many of his own MPs already do not trust him to keep his word.

This is a man who was sacked from his first job in journalism for making up quotes and then made his name as a reporter in Brussels by inventing anti-EU stories, earning the lasting scepticism of EU officials and other journalists.

His former editor, Max Hastings, says he is totally unreliable. One Tory leader, Michael Howard, sacked him for lying about an affair, while another ex-leader, David Cameron, calls him the “greased piglet” for his slipperiness, no doubt noting how Johnson refuses even to answer questions about how many children he has.

One of the biggest concerns with Brexit is the man steering the ship, Boris Johnson. Photo: AAP

Australia’s voting system looks better by the day

Johnson and his backers have embarked on a deeply provocative and polarising strategy of pitching “the People versus Parliament” and accusing opponents of “surrender”, treason and betrayal.

This divisive strategy would be considerably less effective under Australia’s system of compulsory voting, as it is aimed at motivating Brexit supporters to turn out and vote, rather than persuading voters to change their minds.

Australia’s preferential voting system would also discourage the unrepresentative results that are likely to come from the UK’s “first past the post” system. If the hardline Brexit Party splits the Brexit support base and pulls votes from the Conservatives, for instance, that could open the way to Remain candidates winning seats that have a majority of Brexit supporters.

Most important difference of all: Australia’s written Constitution clearly sets out the rules of referenda and how they interact with parliament.

The UK relies on conventions and now has a generation of MPs willing to defy those unwritten rules, hence the Supreme Court was forced to intervene last month and decree that Johnson had broken the law when he shut down Parliament to try to stifle it on Brexit.

The 2016 referendum was legally a merely “advisory” vote, but it has been treated as if it binds parliament on how to act.

And a carefully designed system like Australia’s, which requires a clear majority of states to pass a referendum as well as a national majority, sets a higher hurdle – one the UK’s 2016 vote would have failed. Only two of the four parts of the British union, England and Wales, voted yes to Brexit while Scotland  and Northern Ireland voted no.

This is getting ugly

Disturbing research released this week by Cardiff University and the University of Edinburgh found most people on both sides of the Brexit divide think the risk of violence is a price worth paying to get their way.

The Future of England Survey, conducted by YouGov, asked respondents whether various risks were worth taking to either Leave or Remain.

Most voters said they were willing to risk a break-up of the UK and major economic damage if that was the price of having their way on Brexit, but the most worrying results related to physical violence.

Brexit explained
Brexit has heightened tensions domestically. Photo: Getty

Leave voters were most likely to see the risk of violence as tolerable. Some 71 per cent in England, 70 per cent in Wales and 60 per cent in Scotland said violent attacks on MPs were a risk worth taking to achieve a successful Brexit, while Remain voters said the same thing in smaller majorities: 58 per cent in England, 56 per cent in Wales and 53 per cent in Scotland.

Leave voters were also more likely to say that the risk of protests in which members of the public were badly injured was a price worth paying in order to have their way on Brexit. Among Leave voters 69 per cent in England agreed along with 70 per cent in Wales and 62 per cent in Scotland. Similar views were held among Remain voters by 57 per cent in England and Wales and 56 per cent in Scotland.

Those findings are a particularly worrying sign of how deeply Britain is divided amid the rhetoric about treason and betrayal over Brexit. Labour MP Jo Cox was assassinated exactly one week before the 2016 referendum by a right-wing extremist who yelled: “This is for Britain. Britain will always come first.”

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