“What’s going to happen with Brexit? A second referendum? A disorderly hard exit? A new offer from the European Union that isn’t as offensive as the deal that just got rejected? God knows, and even He may be uncertain,” wrote Paul Krugman in the ‘New York Times’.
Observers around the world will share the exasperation of a Conservative Parliamentarian, who asked his colleagues: “What are you playing at? What are you doing? You are not children in the playground. You are legislators, and it is your job. We are playing with people’s lives. Do we opt for order? Or do we choose chaos?” The British Parliament appears to have chosen chaos as it gave the biggest blow in history to Prime Minister May’s Brexit plan and then gave her a lease of life as Prime Minister. Brexit was always going to come down to a choice between two evils: the heroic but catastrophic failure of crashing out; or the unheroic but less damaging failure of swapping first-class for second-class EU membership. Since the first alternative would be suicidal and the second, favoured by Prime Minister May is not acceptable, a third alternative, that of correcting the original sin of Brexit itself should be considered. Instead of taking a choice between shooting oneself in the head or in the foot, why not shoot the problem itself? Brexit was not about the relationship of the UK with the EU, but about a unilateral withdrawal of the UK, without any prompting from the EU. To return to the EU is an option that is not likely to be opposed by anyone except some Britons.
"Hard Brexit" and "soft Brexit" are terms that are used to describe the prospective relationship between the UK and the EU after withdrawal. A hard Brexit (also called a no-deal Brexit) usually refers to the UK leaving the EU and the European Single Market with few or no deals (trade or otherwise) in place, meaning that trade will be conducted under the World Trade Organisation's rules, and services will no longer be provided by EU agencies. Soft Brexit encompasses any deal that involves retaining membership in the European Single Market and at least some free movement of people according to European Economic Area (EEA) rules. PM May's Plan A, including several aspects of Soft Brexit was embraced by the EU, but rejected by the British Parliament.
The Norway model, another option, is synonymous with a model where the United Kingdom leaves the European Union but becomes a member of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) and the European Economic Area. This would allow the UK to remain in the single market but without having to be subject to the Common Fisheries Policy, Common Agricultural Policy, and the European Court of Justice. The UK would be subject to the EFTA court, have to transfer a large amount of EU law into UK law, and have little say on shaping EU rules (some of which the UK will be compelled to take on). The UK would also have to allow freedom of movement between the EU and UK, something that was seen as a key issue of contention in the referendum.
“From David Cameron, who recklessly gambled his country’s future on a referendum in order to isolate some in his Conservative party, to the opportunistic Boris Johnson, who jumped on the Brexit bandwagon to secure the prime ministerial chair....... the British political class has offered to the world an astounding spectacle of mendacious, intellectually limited hustlers,” said Pankaj Mishra in the ‘New York Times’.
All the options have been thrown open with the rejection of the May Plan and continuing her as Prime Minister. PM May is consulting party leaders and talking to MPs about the next steps on Brexit. But she is using the process to trade partisan attacks with Jeremy Corny rather than to start solving problems. PM May seems to be underplaying the enormity of the rejection of her Plan A. She was around 120 votes short of a majority in the House of Commons. She cannot win a majority without major changes in her plan which the EU is likely to accept. She will only get 120 votes by engaging with other parties and agreeing to Brexit policy compromises.
PM May is engaged in a minimalist exercise conducted entirely on her pre-existing terms. For a trust based process, a viable alternative is necessary. Hurrying through multiple meetings to cobble things together at the last minute to prepare her Plan B is doomed. Now it is not only her future that is at stake, there are larger issues of the nation to be safeguarded.
Another problem is that time is running out. There are only 10 weeks to go before a no-deal crash-out on 29 March. There is much to solve and a lot to legislate. The EU also has to agree to any new approach. Though PM May will unveil plan B in a couple of days, the debate on it will not be until 29 January.
PM May’s whole strategy, both on the timing and on talking to opposition MPs, appears to be to use the prospect of no-deal to scare MPs into the government fold and keep her party together. This is the strategy that failed so conclusively in the Parliament. She will do well to play for time by extending the deadline for a crash out. With more time in hand, she will be able to explore all possibilities, including a second referendum. It appears that “Brextinction” through a referendum may be the best in the present circumstances.