...to choose

11 December 2018

Pierre Mendes-France was French Prime Minister in the early nineteen-fifties, slightly more than a spear-carrier in the tragi-comedy of the Fourth Republic, with one lasting legacy. On 3 June 1953, he spoke to the National Assembly, coining a phrase which survives to this day. It made such a splash that he recycled it as the title of the third volume of his collected works. Let us rise above this self-assumed gloire to remember his luminous words: Gouverner c’est choisir.


And so to the Commons vote, no longer this evening but now to occur by 21 January. May is right on one thing at least: our MPs can’t please everyone. Let us do our bit by reminding ourselves of the four fundamental groupings to be squared away.

  • High-road Remainers, who believe that a European Union promises to lay the ghost of the murderous nationalisms of the continent’s past. They get that this is a shade ethereal for the Clapham Omnibus so they are given to throw in with…

  • Low-road Remainers, who place emphasis upon the social and economic costs of dissolving the entanglements accumulated over the last forty-five years with our Continental neighbours. They contend with…

  • High-road Leavers, who argue that our freedoms are sustained by a longstanding political culture whose independence is threatened by encroachments from Brussels, also given to mercantilist instincts which hurt our wallets. These views sit uneasily with…

  • Low-road Leavers, who object to unfettered immigration, which cannot be controlled for as long as the UK is tied into freedom of movement within the EU, as well as to annual charges seen as well over the top.

Our parliamentarians have an unenviable task, reconciling these factions and complicated by the nine (count ’em, nine!) choices before them. These are:

1.       No deal This excludes the customs union and the single market, indeed every aspect of the EU acquis. There would be no bill, no backstop and no jurisdiction by the ECJ. This would delight both “high-road” and “low-road” Leavers, as there would be £39bn for damage-limitation, freedom to negotiate trade deals with third parties and no freedom of movement.

It would, however, incense if not terrify every sort of Remainer, who fear economic disruption, placing the country in bad legal standing, risking Irish peace and undermining the supply lines and markets of UK manufacturers. It would also mightily cheese off the EU, who would do much huffing and puffing about violating negotiation protocols and so on. In reality, it’s impossible to imagine taking this course without ad hoc discussion with our neighbours, which takes us to…

2.       Managed no deal This is more or less as above, save that attempts would be made to curb the worst of immediate disruption with arrangements as to aliens, ports, landing rights and such like. The nation’s eventual legal standing and bill would depend upon agreements down the line. This would please and displease pretty much as above, albeit with the hope of taking the sting out of the worst of Remainers’ angers and fears.

3.       Canada plus This excludes the customs union, the single market and the jurisdiction of the ECJ. As it would be an agreement the nation’s legal standing would be unimpaired, indeed the deal is understood to be on the table for Great Britain, ie, excluding Northern Ireland as in the backstop. This last, together with any bill, would be rendered subject to negotiation.

The pattern of support generally follows the no deal scenarios: “high-road” and “low-road” Leavers could not be certain of the £39bn for damage-limitation, but they would still relish freedom to negotiate trade deals with third parties and abolishing freedom of movement. On the other hand, Remainers would continue to fear economic disruption by way of undermining the supply lines and markets of UK manufacturers.

Something along the lines of the first three options comes onto the cards if the Tories contrive to coalesce around a new leader.

4.       May’s deal This calls for staying in the customs union but leaving the single market, paying the full £39bn bill and remaining subject to the jurisdiction of ECJ for many years, in the worst case indefinitely under the backstop agreement. May hoped that she could create a constituency by truckling to “low-road” Leavers and the manufacturing lobby. In the event her deal has pleased so few that she has pulled the Commons vote.

5.       May’s deal with a fig leaf from Brussels May is now to return to Brussels as Henry IV to Canossa, with similar grounds for optimism as to the final outcome. In yesterday’s statement, she claimed that hers remains the best deal, with reservations in the Commons stemming narrowly from the backstop. As backbenchers queued up to tell her, this just ain’t so. Brussels may go so far as to offer a form of words on the backstop, but May will then still have to sell a fundamentally flawed deal to a sceptical country and Commons. No-one can say how that might go but it looks a stretch, with her political capital exhausted. If she fails, we are back to a new PM trying to make one of the first three options work while binding the nation’s wounds. Uphill battling.

6.       Norway/EEA This excludes the Customs Union, but embraces the Single Market, with fees payable for access and full acceptance of its rules and ECJ jurisdiction. On the other hand, trade deals with third parties are possible in principle, though it is hard to take precedents from the smaller countries currently constituting the EEA. This may please parliamentarians disinclined to do their homework, but it will provoke high- and low-road Leavers; even Remainers will argue that like May’s deal, it is worse than the status quo ante. This is because it makes the country a perennial bill-payer and rule-taker (Norway is often spoken of as a “fax democracy”), while impairing manufacturers’ sourcing and exports. Although last week’s cri du jour, it is unlikely to make headway.

7.       Stay in This is included for the sake of completion but is impossible without obtaining popular legitimacy as (8) or (9) below, as it repudiates the 2016 referendum. It goes without saying that it would delight Remainers and infuriate Leavers.

The final two scenarios are not so much policy objectives as devices to overcome the deadlock in the House of Commons.

8.       New Referendum This has been made more likely by yesterday’s expediently-timed ruling by the ECJ that the UK can unilaterally revoke its Article 50 notice. It is, however, not the least clear how the question could be agreed without much ill-feeling. For example, are the alternatives revoking or maintaining the Article 50 notice (in effect a rerun of the 2016 vote)? or between alternative outcomes, in which case what are they to be? If not May’s deal, what deal? And if the alternatives to a deal are “No deal” ([1] or [2] above) and “Stay in” ([7] above) how is the vote to be organised? The conventional answer is the Single Transferable Vote. Multiple-choice referendums have taken place in Australia, Switzerland, Sweden and elsewhere, but we lack the experience ourselves. In addition, the last referendum had a formal campaigning period of ten weeks (informally nearly five months), a duration making it tricky to organise a vote before the Article 50 notice runs out on 31 March next year.

Such a course would delight many Remainers but infuriate most Leavers. Although May has made much of her opposition to a referendum, she is patently losing her purchase on events. This outcome would please those Tory grandees who are anxious to relieve the party of what they take to be the irreducible odium of Brexit. So too presumably, those of corresponding mind in the Labour ranks. What with one thing and another, it is probably as likely as the first three scenarios, taken in concert. But can it actually resolve the matter?

9.       Election By comparison with much of the foregoing this is straightforward and familiar, but it is uncertain that it would resolve the point at issue. This because both parties are split on Brexit and an election might fail to offer or flush out distinct positions. Corbyn gives the impression of wanting to campaign on austerity and from his point of view he may be right. In addition, the timing is short for such a course, though not as much as for a referendum as (8). Corbyn claims that this is what he’s after, but he could end up disappointed. At time of writing, this outcome looks the least likely, only occurring if the Tories and the DUP become so much at odds as to be unable to act jointly to control the Commons.


This is an extraordinary moment in British national life. So far from our institutions and their participants letting us down, they are more or less doing what they are supposed to do. The Commons is holding a failed Prime Minister to account and worrying its way towards a new government which might preside over an eventual conclusion. Tempers are inflamed, as well they might be, but no-one is wearing yellow vests. This is certainly no time for self-congratulation, but neither is it a time for despair. Choisissez.