Picture: 123RF/DONATO FIORENTINO
Picture: 123RF/DONATO FIORENTINO

It’s hard to credit. The UK, normally so adept, has somehow contrived to make a very poor situation worse.

The nub of the Brexit problem is that Britons voted by a narrow majority against something rather than for something. They made a broad and principled decision about what they didn’t want, ignoring the practical consequences. 

Now, confronted with those concrete consequences, they feel cheated, angry, shortchanged and full of blame.

The decision to leave the EU without deciding what would follow was bad enough, but circumstances have contrived to make things worse. Prime Minister Theresa May’s decision to call a snap election in 2017 unexpectedly weakened her hand so she now runs a minority government propped up by one of the parties from Northern Ireland, with her own party divided.

 To make matters worse, she  has returned from Brussels with an agreement which includes, necessarily and predictably as it happens, an ugly compromise over the trickiest issue: the future of Northern Ireland.

So difficult is this issue that almost half of the 585 pages of Britain’s draft exit treaty are devoted to the status of Northern Ireland. The negotiators tried to conceive a solution that would transpire if they could not agree on trade terms in a way that would keep the island of Ireland without a border. So they inserted a “backstop” in case agreement took longer than expected.

It would only apply “unless and until” a better arrangement could be agreed, but effectively both Irish territories would be part of the EU’s customs union, as well as the rest of the UK. For the most committed supporters of Brexit, this could turn out to be a trap that finds the UK potentially trapped in an EU customs union for perpetuity.  In other words, Brexit only in name.

For remainers, it just demonstrates why leaving is such a ridiculous proposition. In this scenario, the UK gives up all the rights and privileges that come with being one of the biggest and richest members, but only to remain subject to rules set by others, namely Germany and France. 

Hence we have seen a stand-off that has culminated  in the postponement of the most crucial issue to be put before the British parliament in 40 years. Facing a big defeat, May has now decided to go back to the EU to try and win, if not concessions, then at least clarification on what will transpire with the back-stop.

The delicacy of the situation is tantalising. The Labour Party could call a vote of no confidence, which it might conceivably win; but that would mean new elections and possibly a second vote. But could that all happen before next March when the UK is due to leave?

The pro-Brexit lobby in the Conservative Party is gripped by a similar prisoner’s dilemma; it could try to replace May but that would risk crashing the government and playing into the hands of the “second vote” lobby. The smaller parties in parliament now gain disproportionate power, and both the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party favour a second referendum.

In the grip of these tricky choices, it’s only conceptually possible to imagine a set of different scenarios.

Will May return from Europe with concessions big enough to win over the sceptical voters in her party? This is very unlikely. If she does not, will Labour, which doesn’t have a clear position on Brexit either, being led by an old-style socialist who’s no fan of the EU, try to force the issue?

In one of the great ironies of our times, business in the UK is seeking exactly the same thing business organisations often seek from the SA government: some scrap of clarity or certainty around which it can start planning, whatever bad that may be.

Like South Africans at comparable moments in history, Britons have to get used to the idea of political ambiguity in which it’s possible to embrace a measure of uncertainty to avoid choices which have no desirable outcomes.

Embracing ambiguity only ever happens in moments of deep crisis, and that moment is now. ​