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Feeling blue about Brexit

by Ellie Hopgood

I have been an optimist about Brexit since the original referendum. Or at least, since it became clear the actually leaving the EU was going to be almost impossible and that the Remain movement had a very real leg to stand on. I feel the same way about climate change; I do know that there’s a real chance that we won’t change in time, and that any hope that we’ll be able to alter the basis of modern human society and the economy enough to curb catastrophic warming in the time frame we have left could be considered naïve. But what’s the point of believing that there’s nothing that can be done, especially when it’s not true? Yes, the chance of avoiding Brexit is slim. It was always slim. But there was a chance – and that’s what I, like so many people, was holding onto.

In fact, my hope that we would revoke Article 50 or have a second referendum that went the other way has only grown over the past couple of years, simply because we could not come up with a Brexit deal than anyone wanted. None of the deals put forward placated the Remainers or the hard line Tory Brexiteers. As we had meaningful vote after meaningful vote, all unsuccessful, to the point that Theresa May resigned because she was unable to get Brexit done, the childishly optimistic feeling grew within me that maybe Brexit was impossible, and maybe everyone would realise that and eventually decide not to do it. It didn’t matter what the PM was able to agree with the EU; if it couldn’t get through Parliament, all the deals were stopped in their tracks. And no deals were getting through.

I suppose most of my optimism came from this repeating pattern. The Prime Minister could talk all they wanted about their great new deal but if Parliament wasn’t buying it, it didn’t matter. I watched our MPs vote down deal after deal after deal, introducing amendments to block no deal and force extensions (because it really is only a tiny majority of the Tory party who are happy with a true no deal Brexit), and thought that if this was the barrier any Brexit deal to pass, we were clearly never going to pass a Brexit deal at all. And as long as no deal was off the table – that only left us with one option: no Brexit. My feelings of hope grew.

But then last week, amidst a sea of other Brexit news so disparate that it obscured what feels like the most significant news, Boris Johnson’s deal was, ostensibly, approved by Parliament, 329 votes to 299. Yes, his timeline was immediately shot down, legally forcing him to ask for another extension so that MPs would have time to actually read and submit amendments to the deal before it was officially passed. But they agreed to pass it. A deal that is, by all accounts, much worse that Theresa May’s deal from earlier this year.

The deal that Parliament has now agreed to pass is strikingly similar to May’s deal, except for a new take on the Irish backstop. Instead of a hard border, which everyone remains keen to avoid, Johnson has now suggested that the customs union will effectively be between Great Britain and the whole island that makes up Ireland, so checks will happen in the sea or on the British coast or wherever, with some checks happening at as yet uncertain points of entry in Northern Ireland too. How exactly this will work – with NI being in some sort of in-between customs zone, not quite the same as the UK or the same as Ireland – is not clear, nor is it clear what effect this will have on peace with Ireland. Yes, it might be less fractious than a hard border, but it may still cause more tension than the setup already in use. There is some talk of taxes being paid by Northern Irish firms on ‘at risk’ goods – though what constitutes at risk is still to be determined – which will then be refunded later if the goods stay in NI and don’t end up snuck into Ireland. It sounds like a headache that will require complex changes in logistics, infrastructure and regulation, and be a lot less simple than the plan we have now.

This new deal still has all the same elements regarding the customs union, tariffs, the end of freedom of movement, the ‘divorce bill’ and the transition period, many sections that MPs were up in arms about in the spring but now appear to no longer have an issue with. Boris Johnson’s deal is uniformly considered to be worse than Theresa May’s deal, with projections suggesting that it will reduce GDP per capita by 6.4%, as opposed to 4.9%. The National Institute of Economic and Social Research has even said that the UK would be better off continuing with the uncertainty around the Brexit negotiations, because the economic impact is smaller than the projected figures for when we actually leave. God, it is so shit. I’m so upset about it.

I held onto hope that none of these deals would ever get through Parliament because they voted down May’s deal so many times and this one is demonstrably worse. But now Parliament has suggested that actually, this’ll do, I assume out of exhaustion or fear or boredom. It can’t be that they now believe this deal is a good idea – because it is pretty much the same as a deal they all spent weeks saying was a very bad idea. To have turned down one deal repeatedly only to accept a worse deal six months later because you just want it over with is a total disaster. I’m so mad about it all! It’s so stupid and awful and destructive and that fucking 2016 vote didn’t capture any of this. That vote has very, very little to do with what is happening with Brexit now and I cannot believe we are going to give up now, leave the EU, damage the economy and fracture the country to appease a small group of rich Tories who will get even richer from their speculative bets on sterling paying out because our MPs are fed up? We’re fed up too! But I wouldn’t have capitulated to a crappy deal just because I wanted to talk about something else.

Now there’s a general election, which could be the biggest upset to the Brexit negotiations we’ve seen yet if a pro-Remain party gets in. But of course, our two main parties are both headed by pro-Brexit politicians, the Lib Dems shout about Remain but were the co-architects of much of the last decade’s austerity and the Greens are never going to win more than a handful of seats, if not just their one safe seat in Brighton. There are few good options (though there are definitely worse options). Boris Johnson, inexplicably, still leads in the polls, which is perhaps the most profoundly depressing aspect of this whole drama. He lied to the Queen to illegally to prorogue Parliament to push through a no deal Brexit, he talks about keeping the NHS off the table in trade talks while preparing to sell it off behind our backs and his own brother quit rather than continuing to serve beneath him. He’s a disaster, he’s a bigot and he wants to privatise everything to make a tidy profit for him and his friends while almost everyone else suffers. And somehow, the nation still believes he is our best option for leadership. It is so depressing. What a sad indictment of this country. I hope so deeply that the polls are proven wrong in December.

My constituency is a safe Labour seat, so other than voting to keep it that way, there’s not a lot to be done to stop the Tories close to home. I will write more about the election over the next few weeks, because there is work to be done by all of us to encourage tactical voting to kick out the Conservatives (for now, please, register to vote). Right now I’m just nervous about it, because if the Tories win again (and projections suggest they will), let alone increase their majority, it’s all over. If the election goes another way then it’s all to play for, and that would be a tremendously exciting day. Of course I wish Labour had taken a strong Remain position over the past couple of years, but I do believe that the main persuasions of the party might be enough to pivot Jeremy Corbyn, regardless of his personal beliefs. All we want is another vote. But if all this election does is renew the Conservatives’ power – not to mention their election term – then all we have is a deal that Parliament has agreed to pass and flexible Brexit deadline. And I imagine that that will be the end of it.

I am very sad and mad about it all.

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