Theresa May’s current political strategy seriously risks running into a dead-end from which it will only be possible for a new prime minister, taking a completely different course, to extract the nation, writes Geoff Kitney.
B-day is now just weeks away. And yet, after two years of the most intense debate about Brexit – the biggest decision Britain has had to make in its modern existence – its citizens are as deeply divided about whether or how to leave the European Union.
With the UK’s political institutions paralysed by the impasse between Brexiters and Remainers, even the most obvious answer to the crisis – to conduct a second referendum – is seen by many as too risky. What if the vote is narrowly in favour of Remain? Do we wait a bit longer and try a third time for a decisive result? What happens to the fabric of the nation in the mean time?
But this conundrum reveals the reality. The question is simply too hard to answer. Whether Britain should leave the EU or remain goes to such profoundly complex issues, it is impossible to give a “yes or no” answer.
This was the problem with the original decision by former Conservative leader David Cameron to simply put the issue to “yes” or “no” answers to a ridiculously simplistic question: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”
So, the Brexiters won the referendum. But the reality that they won with an absurdly simplistic argument has become ever more apparent, witnessed by the fact that support for leaving the EU has steadily declined almost from the day the “yes” vote was recorded.
Arguably, it would have been best if Britain had acted on the “yes” vote immediately and walked away from the EU.
It may be that this is now the only way Brexit can happen. On March 29, simply say “stuff you to Brussels, we are out”.
Once the issue became a negotiation with the EU and the process got under way of unmaking the long and ever deepening engagement between Britain and the European Union, it was inevitable that Brexit would become a bureaucratic and political nightmare.
If you have tried to read and understand Prime Minister Theresa May’s draft Brexit agreement presented to Parliament late last year, you will understand how true this is. It is difficult to imagine how anyone could fully comprehend it and how any MP in their right mind could vote for it.
The problem with all of this is that the most important question of all – what is good for the UK? – seems to have been forgotten.
So where does that leave Brexit realpolitik?
Prime Minister Theresa May is about to find out. On Tuesday she narrowly won support – with the help of opposition Labour MPs from mainly leave-voting seats – for a government-backed amendment to return to Brussels and demand concessions on the divorce deal, and in particular on the controversial Irish backstop. Almost immediately EU negotiators said the deal – signed off by Mrs May – was not up for renegotiation.
The prime minister insists that she will not budge from fulfilling her responsibility to honour the referendum result and deliver Brexit. She insists that it would be a failure of democracy to do otherwise.
But unless she is prepared to say “no deal, we are out”, she will have to extract herself from a quagmire to be able to honour that commitment, something that would surely require a lot more time, with no guarantee that time will ultimately make any difference.
My message to PM @theresa_may: The EU position is clear and consistent. The Withdrawal Agreement is not open for renegotiation. Yesterday, we found out what the UK doesn’t want. But we still don’t know what the UK does want. #brexit
— Donald Tusk (@eucopresident) 30 January 2019
Mrs May’s current political strategy seriously risks running into a dead-end from which it will only be possible for a new prime minister, taking a completely different course, to extract the nation. A Remain PM who says “forget Brexit, we are staying” or a Leave PM who says “stuff you, we are out”.
The problem with all of this is that the most important question of all – what is good for the UK? – seems to have been forgotten. The complexities of the mechanics of the Brexit process have overwhelmed consideration of the actual consequences of it.
The most important question of all – why are we doing this? – has been overtaken by another question – how should we do this?
This is a crazy reversal of the correct order of questions.
The problem is that the answer to what is the most important question – why are we doing this? – was seen as having been given by the 2016 referendum.
Yet it wasn’t.
No fair-minded person without an axe to grind in this highly emotive and emotional debate could conclude anything other than that the knowledge on which the original decision was taken was manifestly inadequate. That has been comprehensively proven by the huge complexities that have been revealed by the negotiating process to find a Brexit deal which protects all of the UK’s interests and the European Union’s own imperatives.
It is undeniable that the June 2016 “yes” campaign was based more on sentiment, prejudice, misrepresentation and simplistic arguments than it was on a deeply documented and argued case.
The “no” case started with a huge handicap: A long history of open hostility to the European Union from much of the English establishment – including much of the media – with scant counter argument.
The idea that the British people have paid a high price in lost sovereignty and lost opportunity for EU membership and for the rule of faceless bureaucrats in Brussels and the remote and unaccountable judges of the European Court of Justice was deeply instilled in the popular consciousness.
To see David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn as the poster boys for a positive vision of the UK’s place in Europe is, in hindsight, laughable.
The idea – and the reality– that Britain gained much from membership of the EU was ridiculed.
The rallying cry that Britain should “break free” of its EU shackles and restore its place in the world as a great trading nation was given powerful populist appeal.
The post-referendum political reality, however, has been shown to be somewhat different.
That [Mrs May] insists that she must complete the task looks to have more to do with avoiding a potentially fatal schism in the Conservative Party than defending democracy or delivering the best possible future for Britain.
While hard-line Brexiters have blamed the EU for deliberately bogging down and frustrating the Brexit process, the British public have begun to understand that Britain’s EU membership was much more nuanced than the simple slogans suggested.
The case for leaving the EU, which only just won a majority when it was voted on in 2016, looks much less convincing now, in the light of all that has been learned from the Brexit process.
Indeed, the majority for Brexit, which Theresa May insists obliges her to deliver it, almost certainly no longer exists. That she insists that she must complete the task looks to have more to do with avoiding a potentially fatal schism in the Conservative Party than defending democracy or delivering the best possible future for Britain.
The right decision for the future of the nation would surely be to remain – or at least to ask the question of the people again for a better-informed answer.
What is right and what might prove possible, however, may prove impossible to deliver, for the time being a least.
The pressure to Brexit on 29 March is enormous. It is the point of no return and any delay is seen by some as a disguised last-ditch attempt to remain within the EU fold. Once out, the ultra-Brexiters will re-engage to seek to determine the ultimate EU-UK trading relationship and transfer their nationalist intent to that battle.
However, unless something extraordinary happens – and that probably would have to be a solution to the Irish border question which at this stage is not apparent – it is most likely that the time limit for a Brexit agreement will have to be extended, a prospect which no-one can relish but all alternatives to which seem to be too hard.
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