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Who can save us from this crisis?

Britain is in the worst political crisis for at least a generation, certainly more serious than the so-called Suez crisis. 

The publication of the draft Withdrawal Agreement has made this obvious but the 2016 Referendum was the real trigger. That vote, with a small majority for leaving the EU, following campaigns that failed to make the likely consequences transparently clear for the voters, created unrealistic expectations that cannot be delivered.

These expectations included an end to the free movement of EU labour into the UK, the end of the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, restoring sovereignty to our Parliament, and freedom to trade with countries outside the EU. The draft Withdrawal Agreement has aroused such hostility because those expectations cannot be met by next March as those wanting a quick and clear break with the EU want.

The principal reason for that is our single land border with the EU in Ireland. Logically, the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic should be a hard border but the Republic, the UK and the EU all want to avoid that because it could lead to fresh conflict between Unionists and Republicans that the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 brought to an end. Because of that the EU proposed a border down the Irish Sea and regularity alignment between Northern Ireland and the Republic. This was unacceptable to Northern Ireland or the UK because it threatened the breakup of UK.

Various ways of solving this problem with technology have been proposed but so far unsuccessfully. This creates real problems for those who want a clean, total break with the EU next March because that would inevitably mean a hard border.  So far advocates of a hard Brexit have failed to offer a credible solution and seem to be indifferent to the consequences. Fortunately, they do not command a majority in Parliament but that does not prevent them from confusing the debate about Brexit and attempting to depose Theresa May from her leadership of the Conservative Party and the Government.

They are not the only ones opposed to the draft Withdrawal Agreement. A second group of MPs oppose it because they want the UK to remain in the EU. They argue that Europe needs to stay together in the face of Russian aggression and the unreliability of US support under President Trump’s leadership. They point to the fact that the EU is our largest market and will not be replaced as easily as Brexiteers suppose. They are concerned about how our departure from Europol and ECRIS could weaken our capacity to deal with international crime gangs and terrorists. They also recognise the continuing need for the recruitment of skilled labour for the NHS, the construction industry and agriculture.

The problem Remainers face is that the nation voted to leave as Theresa May regularly reminds them. Their response is to call for another referendum or a People’s Vote – the difference being the questions that would be put to the voters. Their hope is that younger voters who could not or did not vote in 2016 could swing the result in favour of remaining in the EU and avoiding the damage to the UK economy they think leaving the EU will do.

The depth of the current crisis is that there is no clear majority for the Withdrawal Agreement or a hard Brexit or no Brexit at all. Theresa May has acted with incredible dignity and perseverance but has failed to persuade the nation to accept the deal she has negotiated and there are no grounds for thinking that the EU is open to radically revise that deal. The nation is deeply divided and there is an absence of leadership that is not already committed to one of these minority positions. People of faith will call for prayer but it has to be for healing the divisions, not just for the success of one of these positions.

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