THE BLOG

If Brexit Can Be Stopped, Why Won't The PM Consider It?

10/10/2017 17:14 BST | Updated 10/10/2017 17:14 BST
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Yesterday, Prime Minister Theresa May updated Parliament on her Government's Brexit negotiations as the next round begins shortly in Brussels.

By all accounts, talks have not gone well. While May has been desperate to begin discussions on a future trade deal, the European Union has stood firm on wanting agreement on the divorce bill and rights for EU citizens.

Each day marks a slow march off the cliff's edge of no deal and land's end is nearly in sight. Brexit's champions like Liam Fox claimed a deal with EU would be "one of the easiest in human history" - and completed by this month. What a difference a year makes: instead, we're nearly halfway to exiting the European Union without either a deal or an alternative to fall back on. It's like jumping out of an airplane without a parachute.

The current impasse should make Remain and Leave supporters alike very nervous. Neither side argued for a result that would leave Britain worse off.

Evidence is growing that the public doesn't approve of Brexit talks are going with increasing support for changing course. So if Brexit can be stopped, why won't the PM consider it?

It's not too late to hit the brakes before sending the country off the tracks. When the Prime Minister triggered Article 50, the UK sent notification to the EU of our intention to leave - which we can withdraw at any time before March 2019.

In fact, there are reports that this is the legal advice that May received with an attempt to get this information in the public domain.

May can halt Britain's exit for now by withdrawing notification of the UK's intention to leave. No doubt some Leavers would see this as betrayal, but they would be wrong.

May's team has been hopelessly outflanked by the EU. The government needs time to get the details of our future strategy right - hitting the brakes now with a view to restarting the engine later does not disrespect the EU Referendum result. Voters were not promised Brexit at any cost, but a deal that would benefit Britain. The more this seems unlikely to be achieved, the more May's government should rethink their plans to respect the Referendum result more, not less.

Whatever 'Brexit' people voter for, they will get something very different. To that effect, Brexit looks increasingly unlikely to happen. (I'm not the only one who thinks this.) No £350 million per week for the NHS, no end to free movement from Brexit day, no new points based immigration system -- the list grows of promises made to win votes broken from within hours of the referendum result.

But I doubt the PM will give this option much thought. After starting talks by clearing the table of most options for negotiating, May has left little to bargain with - and so finds her ministers walking around Brussels empty-handed with little to show for nearly a year of their efforts. To change course now would be yet another u-turn undermining once more her claim to offer 'strong and stable' leadership that looks more weak and wobbly by the day.

After trying to blame the judiciary for delaying the start of Brexit talks, her ministers blame the EU for not caving into any of her minority's government's demands. Her Brexit strategy seems little more than hoping we retain full benefits of EU membership without paying the club's fee - and if we don't have any clear contingency plan the EU won't let a departing member feel much pain. In other words, a game of political chicken that could leave a lot of broken eggs on our shores.

Brexit also gives May a sense of purpose. She can and does continually refer to keeping her Cabinet and backbenchers united on delivering Brexit whatever else their many deep divisions might be.

Being on side with an idea is easier when we don't know exactly what it means - and as the details of what Brexit really will deliver versus what was promised becomes clearer we can expect any veneer of unity to come away. We see it now as the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and chief Brexiteer has gone to some lengths to dictate to the Prime Minister what the terms of Brexit should be. May is too weak to sack her senior minister who is popular among backbenchers needing their support - and if she acts now only after increasingly vocal calls for Boris to go, she would show her leadership as weak as well in a class Catch-22.

So we have a Prime Minister on a slow march to Brexit and off a cliff edge without a deal who is able to hit the brakes, but either too politically weak or naïve to call for time and get the best deal for Britain's EU exit by delaying the date we leave. The simple explanation for this is she must not see her having a genuine political future after year's end - and so giving little thought to the UK's thus far non-existent deal with the EU she doesn't expect to see and leaving for her successor.

But as the Tories return to Westminster with WhatsApp coup plans and secretive leadership plots underway, it is increasingly clear that Conservative Party divisions over Europe that led to the referendum are damaging Britain's opportunities for making a success from the referendum result.