When I first sat down to write this, I thought I would start by saying ‘by the time you are reading this we will probably have left the EU’. However, the twists and turns of the Brexit experience have left all of us wondering what’s next!
I recently had the pleasure of speaking to a number of trustees and senior leaders at a roundtable hosted by Quilter Cheviot. Something struck me during the conversation, which I had never really thought of before but is quite obvious on reflection, the referendum was not conducted along party lines but the implementation of the decision, by the nature of our party system, had to be. And therein lies the problem.
With such significant constitutional change at stake, the immense challenge of balancing party, constituency, country and personal Brexit/Remain beliefs post referendum rendered MPs’ and the PM’s chances of successfully squaring this particular circle remote. Not least because a significant number, having advocated one position, found themselves being asked to implement the opposite - a notable example being the PM herself.
From the outset, May’s job has been almost impossible. I’m not talking about the inherent difficulties of delivering a single solution to the multiple (and often competing) desires of the plebiscite, but the unsuitability of our democratic system in responding to the outcome of the referendum. Her latest throw of the dice, to pit parliament against the people in her address to the nation, is extraordinary considering the role of the PM to be ‘primus inter pares’ – first amongst equals. Have we heard more divisive rhetoric in recent years? It would appear that desperate times do indeed call for desperate measures, but only time will tell whether her gamble pays off. If the recent past is anything to go on I’m afraid it’s not looking good for Mrs May.
Brexit does not and cannot command consensus. We can say ‘Leave means leave’ and there was a narrow consensus for that position in June 2016, but voters cast their votes in either direction for a multitude of reasons: ideological opposition or support for the EU, economic reasons, because of the origins or determination of human rights or law making, immigration, or as a result of being for or against the closer union of people across Europe. The same variety drives the positions of those who have ‘accepted the outcome of the referendum’ but who do not want to exit without a deal. There is no one single reason, or even condensable themes, that hold different factions together. If you then layer on the different needs of different sectors (private, public and social) is it any surprise that nearly three years on we’re in such a mess?
As a sector I think we can reflect on and learn from the experience.
A major failing of this process has been the inability to listen for the purpose of understanding. Do we do that with sufficient frequency within our sector? The language politicians and the media have used has painted us into the corner. It has dripped with otherism and tribalism - if you’re not for us you’re against us! Do we fall foul to a bit of that in this sector too? The tactics of the PM to adopt a position and doggedly stick to it have illustrated the heightened risks of intransigence. Are we skilled enough in rising above fixed opinions and do we seek out flexible solutions with an open mind, working in partnership with our foes as well as allies?
We all should consider how we can better listen and engage when things don’t go the way we expected and avoid divisive rhetoric and posturing.
So what will happen next?
I ‘called it’ right on both Brexit and Trump in 2016, however past success doesn’t guarantee future glory of course! Having driven the car so close to the edge, May has now truly run out of road. While we didn't crash out on 29 March, I don’t believe the House will permit the UK to leave on WTO terms in the absence of a deal. The risks of a second referendum not giving a conclusive answer either way are too high for anyone to stomach, so I think that’s largely ruled out for now too. Whilst there may be a series of indicative votes on what kind of Brexit the House might get behind we will circle back round, at some point, to my earlier comment that Brexit cannot command a consensus , so I’m not holding my breath on that either.
That leaves May’s deal or a no Brexit. I do not believe that her deal will pass, albeit I think the margins will be narrowed. My best guess therefore is no Brexit - either for an extended period (following the EU granting a much longer delay triggering the UK’s participation in the EU elections) or, as momentum builds to revoke A50 (recognising the historic march and mammoth online petition), we may not exit at all.
This isn’t wishful thinking on my part. MPs will be very concerned about what comes next for them, for party and for country. The stakes are high and MPs cannot see an easy way out. Staying and suffering the back lash of the electorate may prove to be the lesser of the evils in the end.
By the time you’re reading this you may well know the answer to whether my prediction was right or wrong. Irrespective of the outcome, the impact of Brexit will continue and I’m afraid we will be talking about it for some time to come. So strap yourself in, we remain in for a bumpy ride!
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