High horses and big asks

19 January 2019 

Just twice before this week can I remember Brits breaching their reserve to speak about politics to strangers. The first occasion was on the bus to school at the height of the Cuban missile crisis. The second was between strap-hangers at the time of the outbreak of the second Iraq war. And now on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week in restaurants and shops. Phlegmatic reserve has resumed: partisans are now digging in and this bodes ill for a resolution. In addition, this week’s chaos has put the wind up politicians, journos and just plain folks so much as to release any amount of poppycock into the ether. So let’s first dispose of two particular nonsenses.

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Forget about a General Election. On Wednesday we saw that Labour can’t engineer one, with no serious reason to expect the DUP or Tory Leavers to join the opposition in any future such votes. It’s no better across the lobby: the Tories are bankrupt before the electorate as they can hardly campaign for a deal which 118 of them brought to defeat on Tuesday. This means they have no differentiating policy on the issue of the moment. What’s more, their leader is a proven vote-loser who has promised not to lead them into a future General Election. I see no way out of this. The Parliamentary party has twice missed its chance to get rid of May: the December party vote and Wednesday in the Commons, where no-one had what it took to make their support conditional on her defenestration. So, no General Election.

Similarly, forget about a rerun of the June 2016 referendum. It doesn’t matter that a run of polls show that opinion is shifting towards Remain, nor that the majority of MPs are said to be keen. The point is that it makes no sense for Brussels - at this point all about reducing uncertainty. Much as the EU would like the vote to be reversed, if it went the wrong way for them no one would be any further forward: a straight “Leave vs Remain” vote gives Parliament no guidance as to the end-state of departure and this is what is messing everyone up. So the EU has no reason to permit an extension of the Article 50 notice period for such purposes, ruling out a straightforward rerun.

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This is not, however, to dismiss every kind of resolution by popular vote. A return to the public might be both decisive and legitimate, if the various parties got off their high horses. In return for Leavers eating the bitter pill of a second vote, Remainers would have to accept the principle that the vote was upon an end-state of departure.

To clarify, this notion is not intended to dish the Remainers. They would be at liberty to campaign for whatever version of Brino they fancied -  if they liked, staying in both the Customs Union and the Single Market. On the other hand, if our purpose is certainty, sensible rules of the game would enjoin them to coalesce around a single “more-aligned” offer; they would also do well to obtain assurances from the EU and EFTA that it was deliverable. Such rules would also oblige Leavers to coalesce around their own “less-aligned” solution - let’s say Canada, that is an arms-length FTA. And they too would benefit from firming up their proposal with assurances from Brussels.

The EU may be expected to welcome such an exercise as committing the UK to orderly conduct, a definitive outcome and cash on the nail. But it too would have to choke back a bitter pill: that the Irish backstop would become a matter for renegotiation should the voters go for the “less-aligned” proposal.

Can all concerned get off their high horses? And can the Parliament, the Electoral Commission and the EU itself square away the complications of timing, in particular the more-or-less coincident EU parliamentary elections, from which it had been agreed to exclude the UK?

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This scheme, a “more-aligned vs less aligned” referendum, puts big asks to both UK sides and to the EU, not to say calling for unprecedented qualities of leadership from May. I’m guessing the answer will come back “no”, not least because amicable relations seem close to breaking down between UK parliamentarians and must be stretching thin between London and Brussels. But you never know: needs must... Failing a wheeze along these lines, we are left with no deal. Five years ago, I suggested this was where Brexit would end up. Since June 2016, we’ve had thirty months on a roller-coaster which now seems to be taking us to just such a place. Full disclosure, I can happily live with it. But let’s be real, our hearts are hardly set to soar after two and a half years of bungled effort.