No-deal prospects recede despite official warnings, says Ian Taylor, Travel Weekly executive editor
Theresa May survived the attempt to get rid of her from within her own party in December. But the fact that 200 Tory MPs backed her did nothing to resolve the crisis over Brexit.
It did confirm two things. First, a majority of UK MPs have no stomach for Britain to leave the EU without a deal.
Second, the UK government will do almost anything to avoid a no-deal Brexit. May’s ducking of a Parliamentary vote on her Brexit agreement confirmed that – although no deal remains a possibility.
The prime minister could not countenance handing the initiative to Parliament by losing the vote in December, but she may face no alternative when she returns to put her deal and whatever concessions she gains from EU leaders to a vote by MPs in January.
May survived partly by pledging to go anyway and because her Brexit-supporting opponents had no clear alternative candidate and no coherent alternative proposal. Europhile Conservatives were also divided.
The size of the Tory rebellion meant Labour might win a no-confidence vote in Parliament if only a minority of the Brexiters decided to bring down the government.
The Labour leadership appeared to mess up that possibility in the week before Christmas. But events still tipped the odds more towards a general election or another referendum than towards no deal.
Clarification or chaos
May sought help from EU leaders in winning backing from MPs, but may get very little other than a clarification on the Irish ‘backstop’ which has proved such a sticking point.
This is aimed at avoiding a hard border in Ireland – to square the circle of keeping Northern Ireland in the UK while preventing the re-establishment of border controls and customs between North and South.
As Financial Times columnist Wolfgang Munchau pointed out, triggering the backstop would breach the EU’s own ‘red lines’ by allowing Britain membership of a customs union with none of the EU rules.
He noted: “From the EU’s perspective it is essential the backstop is never triggered or stays as short as possible.”
May hoped to frame the choice for MPs in January as one between her deal and the chaos of no deal.
The Financial Times noted May’s instructions “to ramp up full-scale no-deal planning will have the purpose of conveying a sense of impending chaos”.
She will hope this, and some new form of words on the ‘backstop’, will do the trick. Most likely it will not.
There could be all manner of manoeuvring in that event, but the most likely outcome could be a postponement of the UK’s March 29 departure date while all sides consider the options.
Should an impasse remain in Parliament, a general election appears more likely than a fresh referendum, but the latter is growing in likelihood.
Labour’s shadow chancellor John McDonnell appeared to move towards support for a second referendum when he suggested in early December that Britain would “inevitably end up holding” one.
As events play out, Labour’s shadow Brexit minister Keir Starmer, who seeks another referendum, could emerge as the man of the hour. On the Tory side, home secretary Sajid Javid looks the most likely candidate to succeed May.
Yet a second referendum might prove no more decisive in resolving the crisis than May has been.
Speaking at a Travel Weekly Business Breakfast in December, Simon Wood of consumer research firm Kantar TNS, said a re-run Brexit referendum would be “too close to call”.
Wood said: “If you look at the data, Remain are four or five points ahead. However, we’re hearing a lot about how bad Brexit could be with no deal. The minute we got into a proper campaign you would expect to see Leave improve.”
He said polls showed: “Leavers still want to leave. Remainers want to Remain. It would be very close.”
No deal warning
The worst fears of the travel industry were confirmed by a Sunday Times’ front-page headline on December 16: “No deal warning: don’t go on holiday after March 29.”
The report risked blowing two-and-a-half-years of attempts to reassure consumers they can book post-Brexit holidays with confidence.
It suggested official contingency plans for a no-deal Brexit will include advice to people “not to book holidays after March” because of potential “chaos at airports”.
The newspaper reported government officials had “war-gamed the impact amid fears it might bankrupt” tour operators.
Transport secretary Chris Grayling wrote subsequently to “reassure” the industry, noting “the UK and EU have made clear their desire to ensure flights continue”. It was hardly the rebuttal required.
Downing Street insisted the report was “categorically untrue”, but that will convince no one. The government has shown it can’t be trusted.
Fortunately, industry leaders with contacts not just in Westminster but in Brussels rose above the idiocy of those in government.
EasyJet, TUI, travel association Abta, cruise association Clia and others insist they have confidence beyond March next year.
The EC also stepped in to clarify matters. It confirmed air services currently operated between the UK and EU27 will be maintained for 12 months after March 29.
However, UK airlines will not be allowed to add new routes or increase frequencies during that period. Capacity will be frozen if there is no deal.
This undoubtedly remains a possibility. Were it to happen, ‘chaos’ might well ensue around Dover, disrupting ferry and Channel Tunnel traffic if third-country border and customs controls come in at Calais.
John Keefe, public affairs director at Getlink UK (formerly Eurotunnel), warned a European travel association (ETOA) event in London in November: “Dover is at the forefront.
“Worst case, the UK government says the border could be shut.”
Dover handles 10,000 vehicles a day so the breakdown would be immediate and make the chaos induced by a drone at London Gatwick appear minor.
But the absence of support for no deal in Parliament, which for now is where opinion matters most in the UK, makes it less likely than one of a series of alternatives, including a postponement.
I can’t wait for January.
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