There are no good options from now on, no cost-free ones, anyway. There never were. If this point had been made 2½ years ago – and indeed at any point thereafter – we might not be where we are now. So now what?
Well, for those who want a No Deal Brexit doing nothing is the best option. Just wait. Tick. Tock. …… Until 11 pm on Friday 29th March 2019. Exciting, isn’t it? Like small children waiting for Father Xmas to appear. As Jacob Rees-Mogg might put it: Fiat Brexit ruat caelum.
And what about the rest of us, those who view with rather more apprehension the prospect of doing something which has not been done by any advanced, sophisticated (no sniggering at the back, please) country in living memory?
Well, here are two options.
- Take Back Control
Yes really: do the one thing which thanks to the ECJ – Oh, the irony! – is unequivocally, unambiguously, within Britain’s control without any interference from Johnny Foreigner: revoke Article 50. But, but, but…… the will of the people, no Parliamentary majority, May won’t do it, a democratic outrage etc etc. Yes, yes: all true. All very good points. But if Parliament really doesn’t want a No Deal Brexit – despite having enacted legislation achieving exactly that a year ago – then, absent any other choice, this is one thing it can do.
If Parliament could strain at the gnat of the EU Withdrawal Act it should have no difficulty at swallowing the camel of revocation. It does at least preserve the status quo – not something to be sniffed at in these febrile times. It enables Parliament and the country to do what they have so signally and dismally failed to do in the last few years: work out what they want to do, how to get there and what sort of relationship Britain wants to have with the European Continent.
A strategy, in short. (I know, the very idea!). And in detail – not in the sort of airy fairy generalised motherhood and apple pie language which has been used, the sorts of speeches known, somewhat sniffily by some civil lawyers, as jury speeches: all emotion and heartstrings, not much analysis or facts, the sorts of speeches which sound superficially plausible, get applause from the audience and fall apart moments later. Potemkin speeches – whether or not accompanied by Pinocchio-style dancing.
There are lots of objections to this choice, some of them serious and very well-grounded. Not doing what people voted for 3 years ago, having told them you would, is not a course of action a democracy should generally take, not without very good reason anyway. Still, it is not quite as unusual and outrageous as those objecting to it make out. It happens after every election, after all. (Tuition fees, anyone?) And it was the Labour government which went to court to establish the legal principle that a manifesto promise – about a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty (yet more irony!) – could not be relied on (R (Wheeler) v Office of the Prime Minister). Manifesto promises are worthless, the highest court in the land has ruled.
Still, those who voted Leave and those who think that a democratic vote should generally be honoured would have reason for complaint. In politics, if not legally.
So that takes us to –
- A Fresh Referendum
If the people voted on the concept of Leave in 2016, who not ask them now to vote on the reality? Why not ask them: Do you want to leave on the basis of this Withdrawal Agreement, with the future relationship still to be negotiated? Or, knowing what you now know, would you prefer to Remain? Of course, this would need the EU’s agreement to an extension of Article 50 but let’s assume they give it. And that the price (yes – there will be one) is not too high.
Divisive? Yes – but the country is divided anyway. Why the need to vote again? Well, 3 reasons: we know what the terms of departure are, which were not known in June 2016, the world has changed in 3 years and a vote by the people again undercuts to some extent those who think that the people are not being listened to.
Would it be unkind to suggest that there is a touch of fear in those who argue so fervently in favour of implementing one vote and equally fervently against asking the people to confirm that decision? A fear that perhaps the people might not do this, might not have been impressed by how their representatives have behaved, a fear that the Brexiteers’ vision might be found wanting. It would certainly not be unkind to suggest that many of those most in favour of a People’s Vote now were much less keen on the People voting once the result of the first vote came out.
Or Parliament can continue with its furious displacement activity – VoNC, cross-party talks or perhaps not, muttering groups in corridors, demands that the EU renegotiate, amendable motions or even movable amendments, alternative plans, interviews on College Green etc. Meanwhile tick tock.
As I said, there are no good options.