Brexit ‘chicken’ is a risky game for all of us – Tommy Sheppard

Tuesday. Another day spent discussing Brexit. Another day of my life I’m not getting back. We are no further forward. As the clock ticks down to exit it’s only fair to ask: What the hell is Theresa May playing at?

Thursday, 31st January 2019, 5:00 am
People celebrate the 71 per cent vote in favour of the Good Friday agreement in a referendum held in Northern Ireland on May 22, 1998. Picture: PA

Two weeks ago her proposals for leaving the EU were rejected in parliament with a history-making 230 vote majority. You’d have thought that might have led the person in charge to think again. Maybe to reach out to those who opposed her and see if a new compromise is possible. Not our Theresa.

The Prime Minister has been consistent if nothing else. From day one she has focused on how the keep the Tory party together rather than trying to unite a divided electorate. So it’s no real surprise that rather than reach out to opposition parties she is concentrating on getting tweaks to the deal she has already done which will satisfy her own hardliners.

And the thing they are most upset about is the so-called backstop. This is an agreement that if a future trading deal cannot be done in time which keeps an open border in Ireland (the UK’s only land border with the EU) then temporary customs arrangements will be put in place to make sure this happens.

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Tommy Sheppard is the SNP MP for Edinburgh East

It’s necessary because otherwise the UK would be breaking the Good Friday Agreement which brought an end to The Troubles. The hardliners are livid – saying it keeps UK trade under EU control indefinitely.

The alternative, just allowing Northern Ireland to align with the Republic, drives them wild too because that, they say, would break up the union and lead to a united Ireland. And they’re really not keen on that.

So what’s the PM’s game plan? It’s this. She let it be known that she wanted an amendment to pass which called for an alternative to the backstop – even though that’s what she has negotiated with EU. It did pass, allowing her to argue that if she can get the EU to change their position then she is in sight of a deal that she can get through the Commons. Next she goes to Brussels and demands a quick renegotiation. They will look at her with disbelief. But as the clock counts down she will insist that it’s either agree to her changes (which she hasn’t specified, by the way) or no deal. She calculates that the EU want to avoid no deal, and they certainly want to avoid being blamed for it. So they’ll blink first.

This is a very high stakes game of chicken. If it goes wrong a lot of people are going to get hurt – but Tory MPs won’t be among them. And by blaming everything on the EU the Tories will crank up xenophobia and the far right.

MPs from all parties are trying to stop this madness by ruling out a no deal approach – but it’s not enough just to pass a resolution to that effect, we have to pass a law.

The SNP and others have been arguing that it is time to let the people decide if they really want to go through with this. This is not to disrespect the 2016 referendum result, or ignore it, or over-turn it. But simply to allow people to confirm whether they agree with what is being proposed. Without a “People’s Vote” we are stuck in a perma-crisis, even if there is no deal on Brexit and the UK crashes out of the EU on March 29 for a long time.

Thankfully, in Scotland, we have an alternative. We can decide to take control ourselves. An independent Scotland could determine its own relationship with the European mainland, developing trade, encouraging investment, and attracting people to live here. I hope we’ll move in that direction soon.

Tommy Sheppard is the SNP MP for Edinburgh East