A no deal Brexit is the wake-up call needed for Britain

Richard Herlihy

A no deal Brexit would be a catastrophe, but it might be the wake-up call Britain needs

Let’s face it: a no deal Brexit will be awful. An entire country is on the verge of committing economic suicide.

Even before a messy no deal occurs – where Britain fails to get a deal agreed with the EU in time for March 29th – businesses are already stealing a march on the exit. From Honda to Nissan, Dyson to Pfizer, companies are fleeing the game of Russian roulette unfolding on our television screens.

Last month, a survey by the Institute of Directors suggested that almost one third of British businesses polled are preparing to move operations overseas to mitigate the impact of a hard Brexit.

Ireland won’t be left unscathed. We have almost as much to lose – our agricultural sector is terribly reliant on the British market (and we may even run out of bread again).

And yet despite this, a no deal is Britain’s best hope. It is the only way to make the consequences of Brexit real and wake the British public up from the never-ending fever dream of Brexit.

For two years, Brexit has become the ultimate game of kick the can down the road.

Remember not long after the vote when May said: “no deal is better than a bad deal?” Remember when she proudly promised “strong and stable” government, calling a snap election – only to lose her majority.

That defeat made the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) kingmakers, rendering a soft Brexit impossible. The DUP will never accept a customs border in the Irish sea, while the Irish government will never accept one with the six counties.

What’s more, May’s deal (or any other under a Soft Brexit) – were it to be accepted by parliament – is untenable. It will mean the British public voting themselves into a significantly weaker position than they held with EU membership. A fork in the path where the UK still has to follow rules and regulations dictated by Europe – but without any ability to vote on those rules themselves.

And now, following multiple humiliating defeats in Westminster and a failure to close her impossible deal, Theresa May’s hard line stance has begun to crumble. People have long since stopped believing her. How many times since December has she rushed back to the EU promising that this time once and for all she will wrangle a concession that will unlock the magic pixie Brexit that satisfies everyone?

And there lies the danger.

Last week, sources in the EU Commission and within Theresa May’s own government suggested Article 50 will be extended. We are now facing the slow clown-car disintegration of the UK through a never-ending Brexit negotiation that stretches into the next decade. When Britain finally does leave the EU, no one will be happy – least of all Brexiteers.

At this point, one option offers hope: a People’s Vote. A second referendum. Some have suggested a two-stage pre-referendum which offers a public vote on May’s deal, and then defaults to a choice between a Hard Brexit or a ‘cancel Brexit and renegotiate membership’ option.

You might, like me, think this is sensible.

You might point to the fact that surveys show the British public now regret their vote, with a 9-point majority (according to YouGov) now saying they wished they had voted differently.

But beware.

That 9-point swing is razor thin given the current political climate. After all, we’ve had six months of humiliating blow after blow to Theresa May’s deal – support for Brexit has never been weaker. Many who regret their Leave vote also still believe that the government needs to get on with it regardless to uphold democracy.

If a second referendum is called, it will be a tremendous coup for Brexiteers and demagogues alike to begin reversing public opinion again. That 9-point margin may quickly return to a 50/50 split, particularly when the likes of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson cry betrayal, using the cover of May’s failure to deliver their fairytale, no-consequence version of Brexit.

That’s why the only thing that will move the British public is the reality of a no deal. A messy two or three week period when lorries pile up at ferry ports, when supermarket prices jump 10-15 per cent, when millions are told to stay home from work – followed by an extension and the offer of a referendum on May’s deal.

Mark my words: this will be terrible for everyone, not least Ireland which – ten years on – is still bearing the scars of the recession. More than anything, it will hit the poor the hardest.

But it is undeniably the only way back from the brink.

Until a Hard Brexit becomes real, until the public can face up to the actual reality of it in their daily lives, it will continue to be a myth. Negotiations and trade deals will drag on for a generation. Hardliners will continue to pine for an imaginary Brexit without ever being called on their bluff.

Richard Herlihy 

Image credit: Start Up Donut