As first the man in charge of negotiating Britain’s EU exit and then the foreign secretary flounced out of the government, outsized egos and thwarted ambitions looked like the obvious explanation. They played their part, but they are not the whole story as to why Theresa May struggled to make her Chequers deal stick. Even putting aside the question that really can’t be put aside for much longer, about whether there is any hope of the rest of Europe buying it, she also found herself snared on something else: logic.
The moment May began to move towards the softer Brexit which she has concluded that the economy, the parliamentary arithmetic and the Irish border require, it started to become plain that the UK is headed towards a worse position than now.
The recent White Paper cheerfully advanced a “common rule book” for traded goods as a boon, but the chief difference with the existing “common rule book” is that the rules in the new book will be rules over which we have no say.
Whereas a hard Brexit could crash parts of the economy, its smarter advocates can point to serious potential advantages regarding sovereignty and commercial freedom which must be weighed against the losses. But as we edge towards signing up to the main rules of a club while walking away from it, it is hard to recall what the point was.
Hence the rising murmurs about whether it might be better to stop the clock, rethink, rebuild some bridges with Europe, and, once the real options are clear, ask the country anew. People thinking this way can be found in all parties and none, and this month we hear from two who come from very different perspectives.
Zoe Williams believes the country could change its mind, but only if a radical left government demonstrates how it will use EU membership and EU reform to address the social grievances that fuelled the original vote.
Meanwhile, Nick Clegg favours a small-c conservative exercise in consolidating the deal Britain has already got, and working with other Europeans who, facing their own populist challenges, might be open to placing new limits on free movement.
Any road back to remain is fraught: citizens were told the last Brexit vote was final, raising questions about democracy; there is also a real danger of a nationalist backlash (Chris Bickerton and Emma-Lee Moss). And don’t just assume, Wolfgang Münchau warns, that Europe would welcome Britain back with open arms.
Against that, there would be many upsides, including for the City (Will Hutton) and defence (Shashank Joshi). Even more fundamentally, the country is finally clocking that pressing on with Plan A—quitting on 29th March—also involves walking a road lined with many booby traps too.