As we approach the slightly later than planned day of reckoning

As we approach the slightly later than planned day of reckoning

Has Britain finally reached a decision point? Still the outcome seems in doubt. Many others are writing about what comes next. But how did we get here?

Failure is an orphan and no one is taking credit for the current mess. There is plenty of blame to go round though and we can dole out lavish helpings.

First of all, we should note that it wasn’t inevitable that there would be a decision point now. No attempt was made by anyone to forge a consensus that would have allowed a mainstream way forward to be identified. The Prime Minister made no attempt to reach out to other parties, she made no attempt to include strands from the defeated campaign in the thinking of what Brexit would look like, she made no serious attempt to engage the EU in this process.  

Nor did any other prominent Leave figure. That would have been a huge challenge, given the way in which the referendum was fought, but the attempt was not made. Remain voters were alternately abused and ignored. This was to be a Tory Leaver Brexit for Tory Leaver people (Kippers welcome by prior appointment).

The paranoia about the motives of Remain supporters was self-fulfilling: there are only so many times that you can be told that you are a traitor or a quisling before you decide that you might as well act as a fifth columnist if you’re going to be treated as one. After the referendum, there was an opportunity to seek to mend fences. Not one prominent Leaver tried.

Even within the Leave grouping itself, no attempt was made to forge a consensus. Rather, each strand of Brexitism pursued its own beliefs. Many comparisons have been made to the Civil War but Leavers have a striking resemblance to the non-conformists then who prioritised their own relationship with the Almighty, prioritising perfection over broad-based compromise.  

At no point did Leavers attempt to reach broad-based agreement on what was most important to them. Because the attempt was not made, everything was treated as equally critical. This does not make for a good basis for assessing whether a negotiated deal meets your objectives: you first need to set your objectives.

Related to this was the failure of self-proclaimed moderate Leavers ever to confront the extremists in their midst. This was smart politics if morally disgraceful during the referendum campaign itself. It was atrocious politics when seeking to build a basis for the future after the result was in. It meant that debate was driven to the extremes (and that those who had supported Remain were steadily alienated more and more). And then the point came when compromise was essential and it could not be secured because those who were required to compromise felt completely validated in their desire to stand firm, having never been challenged on it previously.

The EU has not shown any statecraft either. It has rigidly followed its preferences and now risks, wholly avoidably, having a new antagonistic neighbour for the foreseeable future. However much it can reasonably claim that Britain has been catastrophically led, it has played no constructive part in shaping choices in a way that will lead to a durable settlement. That’s pretty inept.

Mind you, Britain has been catastrophically led. Theresa May has proven a lousy saleswoman for her deal.  She governs by centrifuge. Politics is atomised.

Worse than that, she has actively sought to stop any consensus being built around any other option, even though her own deal has been defeated twice by enormous margins. She has fought against Labour’s alternative approach, against a fresh referendum and against Parliament taking control of the process to seek to hammer out a way forward.

An extension having been granted by the EU, it looks as though the Prime Minister is again going to try to eat up that time in order to threaten Parliament with no deal by running down the clock in order to secure agreement to her twice-rejected deal.  

At the time of writing, it looks as if this gambit will fail. Is the Prime Minister bluffing or is she indeed going to try to take Britain over the edge in accordance with the wishes of the curious flat-earthers that now dominate her party?  

Are MPs going to take the matter out of her hands, and if so how? Last week the motion proposed by Hillary Benn to allow Parliament to take control of the process failed by two votes.  Will MPs find a way to try again? If they do, will they take that opportunity?

Who knows? The course of Britain’s politics for many years to come is going to be determined by a group of below-average politicians acting collectively in a blind panic at high speed.  That should produce good governance. To date, politicians have collectively done what is easy rather than what they think is right. If they continue on that course, Britain will leave the EU with no deal.  

At the death, the EU has done what it can to avoid a no-deal Brexit by offering an extension of the Article 50 period. The Prime Minister, Cabinet ministers and MPs are now going to have to consider whether that is what they think is right.  If it isn’t, they will not have another opportunity.

Whatever is decided, Britain will be broken, furious and divided.  From the wreckage, some way forward now needs to be constructed. But how?

First of all, some kind of consensus is going to need to be constructed. Whoever replaces Theresa May is going to have to find a message that includes more than just Leavers and more than just Remainers if the country is not going to spend decades relitigating the referendum back and forth. The prospects for that look poor and I have no idea what that message might be but that’s where effort needs to start. That means marginalising and confronting the extremes and rewarding moderation.

As of right now, few politicians seem to have begun to think about that challenge.  None have come up with coherent answers. It is especially unfortunate that both main party memberships are now dominated by extremists. This may be an impossible challenge for now. But that’s where they need to start. Are any of them ready for that?

Alastair Meeks

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