Paul's Column: will Brexit actually happen?

07 November 2017

"Will Brexit actually happen?” It’s a question I’m often asked and perhaps not surprisingly it is more commonly raised by Remainers who feel increasingly aware of the negative consequences of leaving the EU and are therefore of the view that we should stop it from happening.  Leavers don’t tend to ask this question, they just want and expect the politicians to get on and make it happen.

To answer the ‘Will Brexit actually happen?’ question you have to look at public opinion first. The cold hard facts of a post-Brexit life show the decline of Britain economically and as a world power in the years to come and you could argue that the national interest should be enough in itself to steer us away from this course. But this is to ignore the “will of the people.”  Therefore the primary justification for stopping Brexit would be a clear shift in public opinion in favour of remaining.  This has not yet happened.  Remainers have become increasingly vocal about the negative aspects of Brexit but Leavers, on the other hand, are quieter and are convinced that Brexit will lead us to a prosperous future where we are in charge of our own destiny. We must also acknowledge, that many Leavers feel ‘the system’ doesn’t deliver for them, so why not give ‘the system’ a big kick?

This state of affairs gives the deceptive impression of an increase in support for Remain but the numbers haven’t essentially changed since the Referendum more than a year ago.  Until public opinion shifts, and it might yet, Remain politicians – and the majority of MPs, MEPs and Lords always have been convinced that the UK’s interests are best served by staying in the EU – have little to work with.

The second justification that could be deployed for stopping Brexit would be that that very few Leavers voted for Brexit-at-any-cost.  Brexiteers promised it would mean extra money, which would all go to the NHS, a promise that was overturned the day after the Referendum. Remain politicians could argue Brexit is turning out to be a “pig in a poke” and are moving to stop it on this basis.  Yet, this argument only works if a significant proportion of Leave voters start to complain they were misled. This is not the case.

A change of view by one of the pro Leave newspapers would be significant but it is difficult to see how this would happen as the proprietors, such as Murdoch and Desmond, are Brexit zealots who long for a low tax, low wage, low regulation Capitalist utopia, where all aspects of Socialism, including redistribution of wealth, are banished.

If there was a shift in the public mood, perhaps caused when people get to see the yet to be published impact assessments, could politicians then actually stop Brexit?  In theory a vote in Westminster by MPs and Lords could result in Article 50 being rescinded and the withdrawal process halted.  The context in which such a vote is most likely to happen would be late in 2018 as the chaos surrounding Brexit mounts and the membership end date hoves into stark scary sight.

Another way in which Brexit can be halted is via a general election held before March 2019 in which the winning party’s manifesto makes it clear it would halt Brexit.  We’re not due an election until 2022 but in the current political climate anything could happen. It would be nigh on impossible to see a Conservative manifesto containing such a pledge, highly likely that a LibDem manifesto would, and an interesting debate to be had as to whether Labour’s should.  Labour’s manifesto might contain such a pledge if the polling showed it would win with a clear majority if such a commitment was offered, which takes us back again to the importance of a shift in the public mood.

So to conclude, regardless of the growing body of evidence that leaving the EU will be bad for Britain and especially bad for Northern Ireland, it is difficult to see how we stop the country continuing to march half horrified-half nonchalantly towards the economic Brexit abyss. We can only hope the country doesn’t fall into it.

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