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Sat 17 August 2019
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As the Prime Minister travels to Belfast and Brussels, time is running out. Is there still time for a Brexit emergency landing?


On 8 December 1978, as United Airlines flight 173 from Denver was preparing to touch down in Oregon, the passengers felt a disconcerting jolt.

Fearing that the landing gear hadn’t opened properly, Captain Malburn McBroom requested permission to circle while checks were carried out. The crew inspected the wheels and found that all was well, but McBroom wasn’t satisfied. A faulty warning light had begun to blink repeatedly on the flight control panel and he fixated on it. He demanded further assessments and then some more.

After an hour of circling, the light finally went off and the plane made its final approach. But it was too late – one by one, the engines ‘flamed out’. UAL 173 had run out of fuel.

The problem for the 66 million passengers trapped on this progressively bumpy flight is simple. If a ‘no deal’ is made, we plunge from the sky.

Yesterday, in the cockpit of Number 10, Captain Theresa May once again affirmed that Brexit means Brexit and that it will land on 29 March. She just needs to fix a few blinking lights first.

Today, she is in Belfast meeting the DUP, which remains implacably opposed to the current backstop agreement, and Sinn Fein, which is equally insistent that it stays. Tomorrow, the Prime Minister goes to Brussels to seek changes on her deal – changes which the EU 27 have already ruled out.

The problem for the 66 million passengers trapped on this progressively bumpy flight is simple. If a ‘no deal’ is made, we plunge from the sky and it would be every bit as catastrophic. Theresa May is stubbornly and imprudently fiddling with switches when she should be evincing an emergency landing.

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When UAL 173’s black box recordings were examined, they showed the co-pilot repeatedly warning about the low reserves – but cautiously. Instead of yelling: “We are running out of fuel and need to land!” the First Officer gently updated the Flight Engineer, hoping that the Captain would overhear. He didn’t.

There are plenty of sane members of the Cabinet currently doing much the same. They were described as “unusually quiet” yesterday as the Prime Minister reiterated her determination to meet the 29 March deadline.

MPs and Ministers always have one eye on their future and perhaps they are more concerned about their own survival than the prospects of the UK. Nobody seems willing to take Captain May by the shoulders and shake some sense into her.

The first concern of government, like any aircrew, should be to serve the interests of the people entrusted to them. It is beholden upon those on the flight deck to bring us safely in to land.

With very few realistic alternatives left, and all sides increasingly entrenched, an Article 50 extension is the best and safest short-term escape route. It buys time. It allows the UK to park up on the runway and hammer out a compromise – or take the decision back to the people.

To manage that, it requires MPs of all persuasions to put party loyalty to one side and speak up for it and that’s not happening. The passengers on board Flight Brexit to Sunny Uplands might well have signed on for the trip, but they didn’t do so expecting to end the journey crashing into a forest.

The first concern of government, like that of any aircrew, should be to serve the interests of the people entrusted to them. It is beholden upon those on the flight deck to bring us safely in to land.

Things didn’t end well for Captain McBroom. He survived the crash landing but 10 passengers and members of the crew did not. He was fired by UAL and lived out the rest of his days wracked with guilt – regretting that he hadn’t taken the right action. Theresa May take note.  

After all – it didn’t say “brace! Brace! Brace!” on the side of that bus.

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