All of Brexit’s theoretical flaws lead to one practical and as yet insoluble problemby Jonathan Lis / March 8, 2019 / Leave a comment
Perhaps it is because Brexit is so all-enveloping that it keeps folding back on itself within our national conversation. After three years of rudderless policy and pointless humiliation, we return, over and over, to the same problems. How can we continue frictionless trade while introducing new barriers with our largest trade partner? How can we preserve both an invisible Irish border and full economic integration within the UK while diverging on regulation? How can we reclaim sovereignty or “take back control” while handing over our trade policy and renouncing our voting rights? All of which theoretical questions lead to one entirely practical and as yet insoluble problem: how does Theresa May ever get the numbers for her deal?
The problem has been clear since November and indeed long before. The deal is unacceptable to Brexiters because, principally through the backstop, it keeps us aligned to EU rules indefinitely and without democratic oversight. It is unacceptable to the DUP because it keeps Northern Ireland alone in a single market for goods and thus produces a regulatory border in the Irish Sea. It is unacceptable to the Labour Party for all these reasons, in addition to the lack of negotiated customs union and guarantees on workers’ rights. And it is unacceptable to a number of Remainers who know a turkey when they see one, and wish to consult the public before the government forces them to eat it.
It is this toxic combination which in January condemned May to the worst parliamentary defeat for any government in modern history. Since then, precisely nothing has changed. The government has promised to renegotiate the backstop and refused to listen when the EU has repeatedly refused. As expected, the talks have achieved nothing.
May has promised to bring the deal back to parliament by Tuesday at the latest. It is inconceivable that she will be able to entice MPs with any cosmetic improvements. If it was a university assignment she would be failed on the spot. After all, a deal that was too poor to accept in January should, without substantial alterations, be too poor to accept in March. But this politics has now become almost entirely personal. Every group has short-term and long-term interests, and the predicament offers a unique calculus to each.
The easiest group to predict are the Remainers. Now that May has given parliament the power to rule out no-deal and request an extension to Article 50, MPs in favour of a second referendum have nothing to fear from voting against her deal. Even those representing Leave seats should feel comfortable with the decision. The deal is wildly unpopular with the public and does not deliver anything promised to voters during the 2016 referendum. If enough voters feel it does deliver Brexit—despite all the evidence and polls—they can of course make that decision plain in a new referendum.
If there ever is a vote on a second referendum, a majority of Labour MPs will likely support it—especially since Jeremy Corbyn has, after many months of hesitation, finally endorsed it as official policy. (He may, however, continue to seek further alternatives, such as the “Norway-plus” solution). The government has made no effort whatsoever to accommodate the Labour Party’s demands for a full customs union in the political declaration (despite the fact that the backstop facilitates one through the back door), and the leadership therefore has no choice but to vote against the deal. The real problem may come from the 30 or 40 MPs who represent Leave seats and want to see Brexit delivered. These MPs now face a critical choice. They can either vote for a deal which their constituents will hate, or vote against it and risk being branded with the political anathema of our age: “thwarting the will of the people.” Some will choose the short-term solution of accepting the deal and justifying it to their voters later.
But these MPs should perhaps think ahead. How can they justify accepting a deal which they rejected two months ago? On a personal level, how can they endure the humiliation of submitting to a Tory prime minister and giving her exactly what she wants when she has offered them precisely nothing in return? And on a political level, how can they defend rescuing and sustaining a profoundly harmful and unpopular right-wing government which, left to its own devices, would tear itself apart?
Then there is the DUP. It is hard to see how they will ever support May’s package. The backstop is not just about an all-UK customs union, but regulatory alignment specific to Northern Ireland. If the choice is between remaining in the EU or instituting a form of economic division from Britain, that may be no choice at all. As such, we should expect them to vote down the deal even if it leads to a new referendum.
This conundrum will ultimately be settled where it began: with the Brexit purists of the Conservative Party. After denouncing the deal as vassalage and explicitly demanding changes that will never come, how much humiliation will they be able to tolerate? The European Research Group is rapidly approaching the moment it decides whether any form of compromise is a surrender. Could they conceivably choose the valiant defeat of Remaining over the permanent ordeal of May’s Brexit? Individual MPs will reach different conclusions, and it is likely that the closer we come to a possible referendum or Article 50 revocation, the more of them will capitulate to the prime minister. May’s deal does, after all, remove us from the EU, and some of the hardliners will hope to sabotage it after we have left.
But another wing of the ERG may calculate matters differently. The Eurosceptic project has always required a story of victimhood. The Brexiters dictated the narrative that, having lost an empire, Britain was somehow conned into someone else’s. As though consoling themselves over a bad relationship, they affirm that we entered the EU at a moment of great vulnerability and didn’t know what we were doing. Brexit, a nirvana of sovereignty and power, always represented the ultimate liberation. Its unquestioned panacea would deliver socialism and capitalism, free trade and protectionism, customised to each individual’s taste. Because all our problems came from Brussels, we would instantly cut them off at their source.
Sometimes the worst thing in life is to get what you want. Most of the Brexiters now realise that their nirvana is not coming. Some will admit to themselves that it never could. Either way, they may not tolerate the prospect of lifelong dreams publicly shattering when colliding with any form of reality. Rather, they will prefer to keep the dreams permanently intact—tantalisingly within reach but deliberately unattainable. Thus the Brexiters can avoid taking responsibility and instead devote themselves, once again, to a long and glorious martyrdom. Like committed Communists, these Tory revolutionaries will forever claim Brexit would have been a success if only it had been attempted.
The votes before parliament next week and in the weeks to come will not be decided on principle. Large numbers of MPs will carefully evaluate what might get past their constituents, what might deliver them their career goals and, maybe, how much their consciences might excuse them. The greatest issue of our times, affecting—and jeopardising—countless livelihoods, will in the end reduce to numbers, games and party politics. Perhaps, after all, Brexit is not big. Britain just became small.