A flag flown by pro-EU protesters taking part in a march in London. Photo: PA

The Prospect editorial: Crunch time on Brexit

It’s fair to say that Brexit isn’t going as anyone had hoped. If you don't believe me, just ask Arron Banks
November 14, 2018

It’s fair to say that Brexit isn’t going as anyone had hoped. Don’t take my word for it, ask the bankroller of Leave.EU, Arron Banks, who in November said he was so despairing at the direction it had taken that “if I had my time again I think we would have been better to probably remain and not unleash these demons.”

The public is having some second thoughts too. The headline Leave vs Remain balance has moved modestly, though possibly materially given the original 52-48 split. Our new polling probes under the surface, where myriad doubts are setting in. Thanks, perhaps, to chauvinist chancers like Banks more voters than not look back on the original referendum as “unfair and illegitimate.” More Britons than not also suspect that we will one day end up asking to rejoin—and they also judge, from what they’re seeing of Brexit, that it is weakening and not strengthening Britain’s international voice. Indeed, the former head of MI6, John Sawers, affirms several specific ways in which we could soon become a lonelier country in an insecure world.

As I write, there is talk of a “deal” but even if this comes to fruition, it might well be more of a divorce settlement than a definitive plan for future relations. Many fraught questions may be answered with haze until after we’re out of the club. Another serving of fudge might well be Theresa May’s best political hope of survival at the top of the Tory Party, but for the country, negotiating as an outsider can—surely—only weaken our hand.

So what, if anything, can still be done to change course? The first step is for Britain to snap out of its solipsism and make sense of its predicament in the context of the far wider frailties of Europe, which Timothy Garton Ash magisterially surveys. Britain could, he argues, not merely save itself but also galvanise a new coalition of reformers to create a more flexible and sustainable European Union, if only it would pull back from the brink in a fresh referendum. Others will fear it is not so straightforward to ask the people to rethink, especially in the context of our culture wars (which Philip Collins and Nesrine Malik consider in a books special). But even for those bent on doing Brexit there is still no need, as David Allen Green explains, to do it in such a silly and self-harming way.

The thing to grasp is that for the moment—though not for much longer—everything remains possible. Previewing the mechanics of the parliamentary crunch, I conclude that MPs can, if determined, ensure that their votes on Brexit are “meaningful” and seize their chance to change the country’s course. The great mistake, though, would be to imagine it will be easy to put things right later on, during a transition in which neither parliament nor the country will enjoy the same traction. It’s always tempting to play for time in politics. But there are times when that simply won’t work. The witching hour is upon us.