The parliamentary circus surrounding the “meaningful vote” has confirmed the long-held suspicion that Brexit has become farce. There are fundamental splits between the government and parliament, between the prime minister and her cabinet and, most worrying of all, between the propositions coming from London and Brussels. As Article 50 nears its conclusion this is obviously deeply concerning.
Faced with such confusion I have heard some in Westminster try a new tactic to console themselves. This period of turbulence is grim, their thinking runs, but at least it is temporary. It’s a tempting thought, isn’t it? So long as we hold on just a little longer, grit our teeth and bear it, it will all be over. Britain will leave and there will be a political recalibration. Government attention will gradually refocus on the everyday job of running the country.
Tempting, but naïve. This brings us to the most daunting Brexit problem of all.
I have sympathy with their line of thinking but the truth is that leaving the European Union is a constitutional task so immense, so intricate, that it may never fully draw to a close. It is consoling to think that one day it will end but there is little evidence to support this. It could drag on indefinitely, eating up decades of British political life. This is the consequence of negotiation with a global superpower.
Of course, the timeframe has already slipped. The original plan, as far-fetched as it sounds now, was to have a new arrangement all sewn up by March next year, but in December we struck a deal for a two-year transition because we are not going to be ready. The scheduled end for this transition is the end of 2020 but no one expects the deadline will be met; the Centre for European Reform is among the institutions predicting a far longer holding period.
There is of course no guarantee the end of this transition will be the end of exit proper. If policy blanks remain—and Britain has form on this—then we will enter another halfway house. Discussion over recent days has centred on the “backstop”: alignment with some EU rules until a solution to the Irish border is found. There is no hard time limit on this mechanism, despite the best efforts of the Brexit Secretary.
There is a growing suspicion among some Brexit watchers that Britain could wind up beached in…