Quite naturally, most of the focus lately has been on Mrs May’s increasingly desperate attempts to reach a deal which steers between the Scylla of EU rejection and the Charybdis of ERG revolt. She may yet succeed. If she does, however, it is clear that it will be a narrow squeeze, built on navigation by fudge, postponement of key decisions and general statements of intent to patch the timbers of the ship where water is pouring in. It is possible to imagine a package that is generally seen as unsatisfactory but passes the Commons by a majority of, say, 15, leaving details to be resolved over an indeterminate transition period years into the future.
Whether you’re a Leaver or Remainer, do you find this an attractive prospect? The usual answer is “Well, it’s better than any available alternative.” But it isn’t. The public can be asked to resolve the problem.
To see the attractions of that, it’s important to consider just how peculiar the current Parliamentary arithmetic is. By pure chance, we’ve ended up with an alliance of convenience with an Ulster party enjoying little respect on the mainland, facing a disparate and divided opposition. The current arithmetic gives both the ERG and the DUP power beyond their numbers. A small shift of say 20 seats either way would transform the situation. 20 more broadly loyal Conservatives would give a Conservative PM – whether May or not – the room to manoeuvre either to an EEA-like outcome or a clear Brexit. 20 more broadly loyal Labour MPs would give Corbyn a mandate to form a loose coalition government, insufficient in number to implement a radical programme but overwhelmingly based on MPs with no particular passion for Brexit, making an EEA-like deal relatively easy to reach.
The polls suggest another close race, and of course we might end up with exactly the same balance of power. But it’s not very likely. Nearly every election in history has shifted the needle on the dial one way or the other, and it’s likely that we would see a clearer outcome.
The point is that both outcomes would actually be more in the national interest than the status quo. Labour supporters would be dismayed to see a solid Tory majority, but many might concede that it could be better for the country than total paralysis. Conversely, many Tories terrified of Corbyn might feel that a period constrained by LibDems and SNP during which the Brexit dilemma was actually resolved might, again, be better than stumbling into a post-Brexit future shaped by inchoate deals and indefinite ambiguity.
Whether the Conservatives feel such an election would best be fought under May is a matter for them, and something to resolve by the autumn. They should either back her or sack her, not leave her negotiating our future from a cell on Death Row. And once they’ve decided, they should try for a proper majority. Sooner or later another election will come anyway, and they are better off fighting one now than in the aftermath of a shambolic Brexit.
Is there time? Oh yes. The EU leaders have repeatedly made it clear that they’re up for a postponement for a few months if something will actually change. The prospect of a British Government that actually agrees with itself about what it wants will be irresistible.
“Frankly, we all need it.”
Nick was Labour MP for Broxtowe 1997-2010