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Will Brexit ever happen?

The 2016 Referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union decided we should leave the EU by a relatively narrow margin of 52% to 48%. Theresa May accepted that result and declared “Brexit means Brexit”.  The House of Commons voted to authorise her to trigger Article 50 and begin the divorce proceedings.

Now Sir Vince Cable, the next leader of the Liberal Democrats, tells Andrew Marr that he doubts that Brexit will ever happen. Is that wishful thinking or hard realism?

MPs are sensitive about respecting the Referendum result but remain as divided as the voters were last year. Last week 50 Labour MPs, including three members of the Shadow Cabinet, rebelled against their leader and voted for an amendment to the Loyal Address in favour of Britain remaining in the single market and the customs union. They were concerned that not doing so would lead to major job losses.

Those concerns are shared on the other side of the House and a number of former Ministers, including the former Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, are critical of the Prime Minister’s commitment to completely remove the UK from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.  A cross-party group led by Chuka Umunna MP and Anna Soubry MP has come together in support of remaining in the single market.  MPs in all parties also don’t want us to leave EURATOM, the European Atomic Energy Community.  That would have serious implications for our nuclear industry and research and complicate plans to build a new generation of nuclear power stations.

Michel Barnier, the chief EU negotiator, has also reminded us that ‘frictionless’ trade is only possible if we remain within the customs union and the single market. “One does not go without the other” That is the reason why a majority of MPs across the House want us to remain in the single market and don’t want UK business to be hamstrung by tariffs and border controls. They remind us that 44% of all the goods and services we export go to the EU so a hard Brexit could seriously damage the British economy in the short term.

They challenge those who want us to leave even if there is no deal to recognise that trade negotiations with other non-EU countries cannot begin until after we have left the EU and they warn that those negotiations could take years. They would take place within the framework of the World Trade Organisation rules and the UK is not yet a member of the WTO. In that context President Trump’s statement that he wants a quick deal with post Brexit Britain has to be understood in terms of years not months.

Another tranche of realism relates to crime and policing. 40% of suspects arrested in some parts of London are from overseas. DNA taken from the scenes of 2,513 unsolved crimes in the UK, including murders and rapes, when checked with EU member state databases gave police 73 matches with which to track down the offenders. The importance of UK membership of ECRIS, the European Criminal Records Information Service, is illustrated by the fact that our police forces contact the Service on an average of 307 times a day in separate enquiries. In the first three months of this year they used the service over 29,000 times.

To what extent were these perspectives for UK trade, nuclear energy, justice and crime clearly spelt out in the referendum campaigns so that voters could take account of them when they voted to leave the EU? If we, like Vince Cable, think they were not, we should be praying for wisdom and realism now before unnecessary harm is done.  Democracy matters but the voters need to be properly informed to play our part responsibly.

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