Why can’t Leavers just accept that the country deserves another say?by Jonathan Lis / April 11, 2019 / Leave a comment
It must have been the culmination of Theresa May’s worst nightmares. First she pledged we would leave the EU on 29th March. Then she insisted we would not participate in the European elections. After that she guaranteed she would not accept any Brexit extension beyond 30th June. And finally she agreed to the fait accompli the 27 other European leaders had prepared for her while she waited in a different room, and postponed Brexit until 31st October.
The date was a compromise between the 26 heads of government who wanted to give the UK breathing space, and the president of France who wanted to breathe down its neck. In the end it scarcely mattered. The chosen day could have been 31st December, 31st March or 12th April 2029. May would have agreed because she had no leverage and no choice. The moment she did so, she terminated her premiership, her deal and, quite possibly, Brexit itself.
The Brexit process has hinged more than anything else on the matter—and power—of time. May has attempted to blackmail both sides of the debate with the threat of the clock. The Brexit hardliners had to back her deal because the alternative was a long Brexit delay. Labour and the Remainers had to back it because the alternative was a no-deal cliff-edge. And the European elections on 23rd May provided a useful cut-off point for the prime minister to secure her ultimatum.
Today that strategy lies in ruins. The Brexit hardliners have now seen the inevitability of a Brexit delay, and they are apoplectic. In their eyes they were betrayed first by May’s deal, then by the long extension, and the purest zealots have no intention of endorsing either, ever. Indeed, they are now even less likely to back the prime minister. Why would they succumb to a new humiliation of helping someone they consider to be the architect of their misfortune? Rather, it seems the ERG will spy an opportunity. A long extension gives them the chance to remove May and replace her with a true believer. Meanwhile the European elections can help them show up the government’s current strategy and spur their campaign for a no-deal outcome.
For their part, the DUP are as far away from supporting the government as they have ever been. In their statements today Nigel Dodds and Arlene Foster made no effort to mask their contempt for the prime minister’s failure. Dodds has indicated he would rather stay in the EU than back the deal.
On the other side, the key threat for the Labour Party—a no-deal outcome—has been eliminated. After we hold the European elections, there will be no formal cliff-edge for the European parliament’s full five-year term. That is because parliament will never support no-deal and the EU will never insist upon it. Labour MPs who might have backed the withdrawal agreement under duress have now been unburdened. Why submit to your opponents and prop up an unpopular right-wing government when you have ample time to campaign for your alternative and propose a general election to facilitate it?
The long extension also lifts substantial pressure from Labour in its current negotiations with the government. Jeremy Corbyn no longer has to concede anything against the clock. Indeed, it may suit him much more to play for time himself. The Tories have more to lose from participating in the European elections, and from offering a customs union. Meanwhile, ministers have helped Corbyn in recent days by advertising that a future prime minister could undo any cross-party deal. If the government did, say, compromise on a customs union, Corbyn could protest that May’s successor might simply cancel the concession a few weeks later, rendering the commitment worthless. He may indeed find himself under immense pressure to do so from the majority of his backbenchers who insist not only on a customs union, but on a new referendum.
The problem with kicking your can down the road is that you also kick your opponents’. While May spent the last five months running down the clock, she also invigorated the campaign for a new referendum. Supporters point to the ongoing deadlock as evidence that parliament is incapable of deciding what Brexit means—and so the people must instead. Plainly, people did not “know what they were voting for” in 2016, because Brexit’s supporters in the Commons still cannot make up their minds three years later. Meanwhile, the more time that elapses, the easier it becomes to argue for the original mandate’s expiry. Before 2010 we mostly held general elections every four years to test the public will. A new referendum in the autumn would be only around eight months short of that.
Of course, the Remainers’ strength is not time alone. Comparing today’s chaos to the promises made three years ago is an exercise in humiliation which both unites voters and galvanises them. It is not simply that the Brexiters’ pledges have not been and cannot be delivered. Rather, the complacency of inept leaders and opportunism of charlatan patriots has brought the country to its knees.
How would voters in June 2016 have reacted to the news that, in April 2019, the prime minister would be begging France and Germany to allow us to remain longer in the EU? That we would find ourselves two days from voluntarily breaking up our trade infrastructure and introducing medicine shortages? That, around the world, Britain would stand as a by-word for political chaos and national disintegration? The argument for a referendum is not simply based on what voters think now. We should ask ourselves who in the Britain of 2016 could have wanted or voted for the Britain we inhabit today.
The longer this farce continues, the more people will decide that it is no longer worth the pain. May cannot deliver her deal. Parliament will continue in paralysis. A general election seems all but inevitable. All the while, the problem will remain a Brexit which we cannot implement without kneecapping our economy or our democratic oversight or both. Now the threat of no-deal has vanished, we have time to consider if this is the path we really choose. It now seems likelier than ever that it is not. The EU has compounded May’s nightmare, but Britain’s may soon be ending.