Asking what would have happened had MPs swallowed the “backstop” takes you into a labyrinth of counterfactuals—but most roads lead to regretby Rafael Behr / September 18, 2020 / Leave a comment
It is hard to pinpoint a precise moment when the pro-European cause in Britain was lost. Even after the referendum it was not a foregone conclusion that the result would be implemented in terms dictated by the most hardline anti-Brussels faction. There were plenty of junctions along the road from 2016 to the present predicament. But moderate Eurosceptics and ardent Remainers could not agree on an alternative destination.
Last summer, a pro-European cabinet minister in Theresa May’s government described the problem memorably in terms of a mountaineering expedition. Parliamentary supporters of a second referendum had not initially expected to get anywhere near as far as they had. They were surprised by their own success. And now, just beyond the clouds, they could see the summit. They thought it was near enough to reach. But they did not have the political oxygen for the last bit of the climb. Their dreams would expire and they would end up with the hardest of all Brexits, he said. They should have taken May’s deal.
The reasons why that version of Brexit failed are too many to all be listed here. Each of the 432 MPs who opposed it in January 2019 had their own combination of motives. Some changed their minds in the following months, but May’s deal never got to a majority. How many of them now wish they had chosen differently? Some say they do in private. Few have been as candid as Gloria de Piero, former Labour MP for Ashfield, who earlier this month tweeted: “I hold my hands up. I was an idiot for not voting for May’s deal.”
Would Britain be in better shape today if parliament had taken that first exit on the Brexit roundabout? The question leads into a labyrinth of counterfactuals. The hardliners would never have been satisfied. The implacable Ukip tendency would have cried betrayal ever louder, disrupting politics and savaging Tory unity as they had done for the preceding decade. And May would still not have had a majority in the Commons. So perhaps more chaos would have been unleashed.
But rage among Leave voters would have been diminished by the prospect of Brexit actually being done. There would no longer have been such visceral potency to the claim that the 52 per cent were being overruled…