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Dublin: 9 °C Saturday 16 February, 2019
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'No deal? No problem': A street-side view of Britain's great Brexit battle

“If this was 500 years ago, there’d be a civil war and we’d be stabbing each other with spikes!” one Leave voter said.

“THESE STICKERS ARE worth nothing tomorrow, but worth lots today,” says a man handing out luminous ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ stickers to those passing through protesters on the path across from Westminster.

There’s a lot of creativity in the crowd of Brexit-enthusiasts, whatever side they’re on: there’s a WTO-umbrella, a Brexit grim reaper, and what can only be accurately described as a pro-Brexit girl band.

A little girl walks by the sticker-man, and he offers her one. She looks reluctant, but reaches out to take it and crunches it in her hand, smiling. Another girl, a man and a woman follow her, all dressed in high-vis vests. 

“Bollocks to the EU,” the woman shouts.

A giant drum propped up on a ‘Leave’ campaign stall is beaten incessantly, marking the separation point between the Brexit supporters, and those calling for a People’s Vote.

A little bit further on the same path, a man plays an Ode to Joy on the harmonica, while a woman sings pro-EU lyrics to that tune, using words she’s Googled.

A man rushes towards the sticker-man and says that his luminous stickers were removed. 

“A group of about three of them surrounded me and took them off,” he says, muttering afterwards that it wasn’t worth challenging the Brexiteers.

Behind them, an elderly woman holds up a sign to the traffic, and then exclaims to the man on her left, ”Oh you voted leave? I thought you were one of them!”

Joshua, a young staff member in the Houses of Parliament says that he’s not worried about the divide the Brexit vote has caused, saying that this debate has been going on for 40 years – it’s just more visible now.

A Leave supporter says that a couple of hundred years ago, there would have been a civil war in the country over Brexit: “We would’ve been here with our swords and pikes, killing each other.”

A historic loss

Brexit Vote - Westminster Source: Isabel Infantes

As MPs flowed back into the chamber after casting their vote on Theresa May’s Brexit deal, an audience of 100 people had gathered around the television in the main hall of Westminster to watch the result.

When the historic result was announced, some let out a short gasp or an intake of breath, others muttered to the person beside them. No one had predicted that she would win the vote, but the scale of the defeat was still shocking: a record-making 230-vote defeat, on the extreme upper end of the scale of predictions.

The last record-holder for this title was a Labour government in 1924, who lost by 166 votes – an outcome May would have been reasonably happy with.

The clustered visitors to Westminster stared at the screen as Theresa May tells the Parliament that we now know what MPs don’t want, asking the House: what do they want instead? 

In the Central Lobby where a crowd has gathered after the vote, members of the public look on as Boris Johnson and other MPs play musical chairs with the British media, his blonde head illuminated by camera lights in the dimly-lit hall.

Johnson said it was time to go back to Brussels and renegotiate, despite the EU’s assertions that this isn’t possible. Meanwhile, the Irish government has advanced its plans for a no-deal Brexit even further, saying it is now a possible outcome. 

In the debate that lead up to the crucial vote, Attorney General Geoffrey Cox told the House that thousands of legal systems would be “plunged into uncertainty” if there was a no-deal Brexit, and if you were a litigant in a court and found yourself “with the rug pulled from underneath you, you would say to this House”:

‘What are you playing at, what are you doing? You are not children in the playground!’

“We are playing with people’s lives,” he concluded.

Brexit Vote - Westminster Source: Isabel Infantes

So what’s next?

Most Brexiteers protesting outside Westminster have faith in a no-deal exit; with many holding signs saying “No deal? No problem!”

When asked about the Port of Dover test, where 89 lorries took part in a no-deal Brexit dry-run, they cite it as a feature of Project Fear – a suspicion that the downsides of Brexit are being exaggerated in order to prevent it from happening.

Although some protesters admit there might be problems immediately after, they say this is the best way forward, given the restricted legal timeframe that means the UK must leave by 29 March.

“We can default to WTO rules – lots of countries use WTO rules – what’s the problem,” says one member of Ukip.

It’s pointed out to him that if they took this option, the UK would have to apply to adopt WTO rules, which could take years.

“Do we? I don’t know,” he responds.

Another Leave voter called Paul, says that if there’s a second vote it wouldn’t resolve anything.

Why would I respect the result of your vote if you didn’t respect the vote of mine?

Another demonstrator says of the option of parliament revoking Article 50, which would mean reversing Brexit without taking it to a second vote:

“If they’d voted to Remain, and MPs decided that they were going to take us out of the EU anyway, there’d be uproar. We’re leaving and that’s the end of it.”

Harry, who is a Conservative supporter, says that the ”duplicitous” politicians will force the current deal, perhaps with some changes, through the House of Commons somehow.

He says that he expects the Conservative party to split over Brexit. 

This tallys with the actions of the party last night: of Theresa May’s 315 Tory MPs, 118 of her party colleagues voted against her deal. That’s over a third of her parliamentary party and represents a record show of indiscipline.

After the vote, visitors, journalists, parliament staffers and MPs spilled onto Westminster square, where a small number of demonstrators still stood, gathered around the gated exit. As a car leaves, they don’t cheer or jeer, but talk amongst themselves or look silently on.

As Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s motion of no confidence in Theresa May is due to be debated from early on today until 7pm, it’s expected that many of the protesters will return to the same spot, across from the Houses of Parliament.

With some of the staunchest critics of her Brexit deal publicly declaring they’ll back her on this deal, May is expected to survive her second confidence vote in the space of 30 days – but how many more bruising Brexit defeats can the embattled leader handle?

And, if she does leave, who will take over, and will they be able to get a Brexit deal through the House of Commons? It’s doubtful whether Theresa May herself knows.

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