There is palpable sense of panic slowly developing in London. Each Brit consumes 110 toilet rolls a year—two and half time the European average. The United Kingdom is Europe’s biggest importer of loo paper and it is said that only one day’s supply of toilet paper exists in stock. If Britain leaves the EU Customs Union and Single Market in five months’ time and the trucks transporting toilet paper are held up at Calais or Dover, British bottoms will have to be wiped with torn-up newspapers as in bygone days.
Some 1,300 trucks carrying goods from the continent arrive every day just for the giant German-owned low-cost supermarket chain Lidl. Airbus imports a million components on a just-in-time basis, as do all U.K. automobile manufacturers.
Britain’s economy is now completely integrated in terms of supply and transport into the rest of Europe. There are no more checks and controls on goods, people, toilet rolls, or components going between the continent and Britain than there are on goods or people moving from California to Oregon.
The handling of Brexit by Prime Minister Theresa May has been such a disaster that the chances of a major economic crash are now high. A number of ministries have made very clear that preparations have to start now to deal with the possibility of a no-deal crash-out Brexit.
This sense of panic—the highways of Kent in southern England becoming parking lots for trucks with toilets and canteens, manufacturing firms told to stockpile food, medicine, or components, and Eurotunnel slowing to snail’s pace for the 4,500 trucks using it every day as each fills in customs forms—helps to persuade public opinion and MPs that a no-deal Brexit would be very bad indeed.
The German auto firm BMW is very frightened of losing just-in-time trucks coming in to British BMW plants through the tunnel without any checks, as if they were driving from Munich to Hamburg.
Another aspect is that if any made-in-U.K. components (car engines) are shipped to Bavaria to be put into BMW cars, then the total value of the EU content in the finished car will be quite low. So the cars could not be exported outside Europe on the current basis of existing trade agreements that the European Union has with 70 countries, and could face extra tariffs.
So every day there is more pressure from business to avoid a no-deal Brexit. But this business pressure is not making front-page news, nor is it on TV—it is conversations with ministers and inside business-page stories.
The Labour opposition is out of the game. Their main demand is for a new general election. But Labour only has 257 of the 650 MPs in the House of Commons. After the disaster for Tory MPs of the 2017 general election, when 30 seats were lost, the chances of Tory turkey MPs voting for Thanksgiving are not high. The big voice of the pro-Europe Liberal Democrats, Sir Nick Clegg, has gone to be lobbyist-in-chief for Facebook on a $4 million annual salary package. There is simply no serious opposition to Prime Minister May. Economic Britain moans but does not mobilize, complains but does not campaign.
But this absence of effective opposition to Brexit does not liberate May. On the contrary, because the political opposition is so weak this allows an exaggerated profile for a handful of loud-mouth Europhobe MPs who in normal times everyone could ignore. May thus remains prisoner of a small number of hardline ultra-MPs—many full of hate for the European Union and ambitious to become prime minister, like former foreign minister Boris Johnson or former Brexit negotiator David Davis and the Northern Irish DUP (Democratic Unionist Party), on which the Tories depend. May is an extremely cautious woman who has avoided risk and leadership all her life.
May’s cautious, low-risk conservatism means she does not want to lead the nation over the cliff with the risk of major economic crisis. The damage to the Conservative Party would be very great. But neither does she find a way out.
So the question for her is how to orchestrate the timing of showing she is fighting and being tough, but in the end MPs will vote for first the Withdrawal Agreement, which has legal force, and secondly a political declaration about what happens after March 29, 2019, when withdrawal takes effect.
The goal would be that the United Kingdom stays in the European Union de facto, obeying all its laws and rules, but is not a full signatory of the EU Treaty and loses all voice or vote in the decision-making bodies that decide EU policy and rule.
So at some stage, May will have to say that even if the United Kingdom has left the political institutions of the European Union, it will remain obedient to all economic laws and regulations, including staying in the Customs Union and Single Market until such time as a final new treaty is written.
In theory, the U.K.-EU negotiations should have finished in October to allow enough time for the 27 other EU-member governments, the European Parliament, and the House of Commons to accept and ratify an agreement that will be the biggest upheaval in European politics since the end of Cold War. But the politics in London are not ready yet.
May can wait at least until December with some pressure to complete a deal by Christmas as a natural break moment. The EU leaders are due to meet in November, but the U.K. is seen as making a November council meeting pointless, since she still wants to posture tough with the EU and be seen as controlling the timetable. She may try and leave it to the New Year and even up to March so as to increase the sense of pressure and drama and force MPs into accepting that they cannot play games with the income and jobs of the country.
A key player will be an utterly unknown House of Commons official, the secretary to the government chief whip. You don’t see her in House of Cards, but she is responsible for ensuring that the business of the government gets through the Commons.
Most probably there will be a sequencing of votes in the House of that allows different groups to try to win a majority (hard Brexiters, Labour, the DUP), and when they all fail then the only alternative—unless the MPs want to sign a death sentence for the U.K. economy—is to declare a big victory, as now the House of Commons will be the only source of law in the United Kingdom (taking back control, no more Brussels deciding U.K. laws) and a major compromise of maintaining economic links for the next period.
There is an alternative view. This is that MPs should indeed repudiate the Withdrawal Agreement and other joint declarations made with the European Union. The theory is that this would provoke a crisis of un-governability under May and lead to a general election or a new referendum to keep the United Kingdom fully in the EU.
This is was that French call la politique du pire, the worse the better, as MPs and the population rises up to repudiate anti-EU political leadership on offer from the Tory government, the Murdoch press, Nigel Farage, and UKIP.
The over-excited Sunday papers in London are full of headlines saying May was “entering her killing field” and has “72 hours left.” The one thing about Brexit is that nearly all newspaper coverage of it has been close to worthless.
There are 315 Tory MPs and about ten, maybe 20 of them make all the headlines and media interventions. The other 290 are fed up with these vain, arrogant, rent-a-quote ideological Tories. Most MPs do not want to see their party destroyed and do not want to see a UKIP-Murdoch triumph over Brexit.
The European question is shaking up British politics. Labour’s anti-Europeanism from 1950 to 1990 was one factor in keeping the party out of power. When a new generation of younger Labour leaders like Tony Blair and Gordon Brown took over after 1990 and said Labour should join other progressive parties in Europe in seeking to make the EU work, Labour surged in the polls and dominated British politics until 2010.
Even when Labour lost power, the Tories could not win a majority, and May threw away the small majority won in 2015 with her opportunistic general election in 2017, and the question of Europe rose up to divide and demoralize the party.
So whether there is a crash-out economic disaster of a no deal, or Britain limps out of full EU membership but still accepts to be subservient to all EU rules in order to preserve the economy, the question of Britain and Europe is far from settled. A Brexeternity looms ahead as the question of Europe will poison British politics for years to come.