Voters overwhelmingly now remember only two arguments being made in favour of Brexit before the referendum: curb immigration & more money for the NHS. pic.twitter.com/6bmcd3Tvwk
— Andrew Cooper (@AndrewCooper__) February 9, 2018
Theresa May became Prime Minister in the wake of the referendum. She applied herself immediately to understanding the extent of the bow wave. Correctly, she determined that the form of Brexit needed to meet those concerns. She prioritised them, ensuring the NHS gets preferential treatment in the budget. When it came to the negotiation of Brexit, her starting point was that Britain had to be able to control immigration. The deal that she has brought back reflects that strategic priority.
It seems that most Leave advocates have forgotten what they campaigned for. At the last count, 90 Conservative MPs, most of them hardline Leavers, have indicated that they will oppose the deal provisionally agreed. They are concerned about the backstop provisions and about the barriers to Britain making its own trade deals.
Some Leavers have gone further. Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab and Daniel Hannan have all said that the current deal is worse than remaining in the EU. All three were on the Vote Leave campaign committee that focussed so relentlessly on immigration and money for the NHS. The only conclusion one can draw was that they whored for votes using arguments they didn’t believe in and now are enraged that Leave voters are not being betrayed for their real priorities.
Two out of these three have pretensions to become the next Prime Minister. Their devotees won’t notice their duplicity.The general public already has.
It is hard to have much sympathy for Leave advocates. If they wanted a mandate for prioritising trade deals, they should have sought one. It turns out that pandering to xenophobia to win votes has consequences for everyone, not just the nominal losers. Who could have guessed? This explains Michael Gove publicly regretting Vote Leave fuelling fears about Turkish immigration during the referendum campaign.
It’s all very well skewering the rampant hypocrisy of the Leave advocates, but Leave MPs participate in the meaningful vote and at present the Prime Minister looks to have faint hopes indeed of getting her deal past Parliament on the first attempt. Indeed, the government is already strategically leaking how it is anticipating the markets going haywire following such a defeat and relying on that to drum some sense into MPs of all parties.
Plan B, however, also currently looks forlorn. If Labour, the SNP, the DUP and 90 Conservatives all vote against the deal, it will be defeated on the first attempt by something like 150 votes. It’s hard to see how the deal could be resuscitated after that. The defeat would be just too crushing.
What, then, is Plan C? If the deal dies in December, the government cannot simply do nothing for three months, waiting on the shore for the hundred year wave to crash over the country. Further choices will need to be made.
Britain could seek to renegotiate with the EU. This looks forlorn. The current deal is barely acceptable to many of the stakeholders on the EU side. It seems unlikely anyone will have the patience for a fullscale revision. Tinkering at the edges is not going to satisfy recalcitrant MPs.
If a deal is not struck, there is no mandate for remaining in the EU, so much is obvious. Yet there is also no mandate for leaving without a deal. The Leave campaign was founded on the ease of a deal being struck: “we hold all the cards”, “the easiest deal in history”.
A consistent 30% of the public are prepared to pay any price to secure a deal – Northern Ireland going up in flames, Scotland going independent, family members losing a job. 30%, however, is nothing like a majority and if Britain suffers severe social disruption that up to two thirds of the public did not actively support, the country’s politics will be engulfed in a firestorm.
Somehow or other fresh authority is needed for the next step if the deal is voted down decisively. There is no time but the simplest means would be to hold a fresh referendum. So time will need to be found. It would be divisive and settle nothing, but other routes from here are even worse.
In one of the great bone-chilling short stories, The Monkey’s Paw, the eponymous paw has been enchanted to grant three wishes to each owner, each of which will come at a great price. Leaver politicians appear to have taken possession of the Monkey’s Paw. They have secured their referendum victory, but on a basis that many of them regard as negating what they were looking for from it. Some now are making a second wish for Britain to leave without a deal, without any mandate for doing so.
In the original story, the previous owner of the paw had made his third wish a wish for death. For Leavers, the death wish seems to have come early.