There was a moment this last few weeks when I actually began to feel slightly sorry for Theresa May. Standing before a packed House of Commons and attempting to ‘sell’ her Brexit deal, she found herself subjected to a mass ‘thumbs down’ from all sides of the chamber. In the days that followed, as rumours of a leadership challenge began to swirl and it appeared that the chance of her getting the arrangement through a Commons vote was as high as Jacob Rees-Mogg taking up a spot on season 11 of RuPaul’s Drag Race, the PM looked genuinely exhausted. Now, I’m no Tory sympathiser – quite the opposite – but a tiny part of me did feel for her.
Fast-forward two weeks and Number 10’s charm offensive is in full swing. Given how utterly alone and war-beaten she has looked of late, May now looks surprisingly energised and determined as she flits from radio station to TV studio to meeting, seeking to flog her Brexit deal to the country. It is, she says, the only deal on the table. Indeed, it is apparently the best we can hope for. Meanwhile, the country remains riven with divisions; on the one hand, there are the Brextremists who condemn the deal as not going far enough to cut us adrift from the European Union. On the other are those who strongly feel that withdrawing from the Single Market and Customs Union is an unprecedented act of extreme economic self-harm – and, crucially, not what was on the ballot paper in 2016.
What might seem at first to be a nightmarish perfect storm for the PM is, in fact, unlikely to deal the coup de grace to her leadership. By portraying proponents of Hard Brexit as unrealistic, uncompromising and extreme, she is able to depict what she has negotiated as reasonable, moderate, almost innocuous. Simultaneously, she regurgitates her well-worn sound bites about ‘delivering on the will of the people’ of ‘our union’ in ‘the national interest’ so that she emerges as some kind of 21st-century Boudicca, leading her army into battle against those who would ‘betray’ their compatriots by refusing to accept that democracy came to a halt one day in 2016. In short, the spin seeks to convince us that this deal is all we can hope for and that we should rally behind the Prime Minister, lest history judge us for not helping to heal the wounds opened up by the Tories in their determination to pacify their Eurosceptic backbenchers and silence a once-boisterous UKIP.
The cold, hard truth, however, is that there is no deal better than the one we enjoy right now. Having made utopian pledges of a Golden Age of prosperity after leaving the EU, as a less rosy reality dawned regarding the UK’s prospects on the outside, the Brexit brigade have shifted the rhetoric from a Land of Milk & Honey narrative to one that seeks to convince the nation that stockpiling medicine and food, losing unfettered access to the markets of some of our closest trading partners and jeopardising environmental and animal protections is a price worth paying to ‘take back’ the sovereignty we never actually gave away. History will question how so many allowed themselves to be missold this package of blatant untruths.
Yet, we do have the freedom to rehabilitate ourselves in the eyes of generations to come. A People’s Vote on Theresa May’s proposed withdrawal agreement is the most logical way forward and the only way to wrestle the country’s future from the grasping hands of Brextremists. This is not a question of rerunning the 2016 referendum, for the question two years on is entirely different. Voters must be given the option to endorse the deal on the table or to retain the status quo with all the benefits EU membership entails. ‘No deal’ must be removed from the equation; to even contemplate this scenario is to dice with the unimaginable.
As Theresa May frantically tours the country, inexplicably targeting the general public with the PR campaign for her deal, this whole sorry charade continues to lurch from one excruciating chapter to the next. It’s time to accept what may be unpalatable to many but blindingly obvious to even more – that Brexit is undeliverable, particularly in the form touted in the run-up to June 2016.
Be in no doubt that there is a very deliberate, pinpoint media strategy at work here. Despite treasury warnings that Brexit in any form will come at great economic cost (so much for the halcyon days augured by Rees-Mogg at co.), May and her supporters will seize upon the confirmed risks of a no-deal withdrawal as evidence that the only feasible course of action. Instead of acknowledging that leaving the European Union in any form is a retrograde step for our country, they will doggedly promote the dog’s breakfast of an agreement that they have put on the table. The most tragic irony to all of this is that those who refuse to accept that this whole project is an unmitigated train-wreck of unrivalled proportions claim to be patriots; they dismiss any legitimate criticism of this whole debacle as ‘talking Britain down’ through ‘Project Fear’. In reality, there can be no act more unpatriotic than inflicting deliberate, long-term economic damage on your own country, largely on the basis of misconceptions and blatant mistruths as to how the European Union works and the benefits we extract from our membership.
Let us not buy into the narrative that to call for a People’s Vote on the best way ahead is somehow a betrayal of democracy. More democracy can never diminish democracy. As the realities of leaving the EU have become increasingly clear (and increasingly terrifying), it is perfectly logical to assert that the public are entitled to break the deadlock at Westminster by making an informedchoice as to whether Brexit is really worth it. Brextremists will dismiss any and all evidence of the cataclysmic impact of withdrawal – in turn, it is the job of the rational-minded to relentlessly counter this narrative and to keep reminding the public of the lies, exaggerations and electoral fraud that so influenced the referendum campaign. ‘Not as disastrous as it could have been’ should not be good enough for anyone who claims to love their country. It’s time for patriotic internationalists to reclaim the debate and fearlessly nail their colours to the mast in favour of a People’s Vote.