So, MPs vote on May’s Brexit deal today, and if they reject it, have given the government just three more days to come up with an alternative. Parliament is at war with the government, and at war with itself. Both are battling a deeply divided electorate. Beyond even Brexit itself, the UK’s political stability is at risk.
In reality there are only two options that are both logically consistent and could protect the UK’s political integrity: May’s deal, or offering to defer Article 50 on a timescale for conjoined agreement on the Irish border and directly-related trade.
Two factors now turn Brexit from being a major national decision, into being a crisis that threatens the UK’s political stability. These are the lack of integration, and inadequate legitimacy, in the process. The primary duty of MPs must be to cast aside party affiliations and vote with their conscience to at least ameliorate these related, but distinct, challenges.
Parliamentary democracies achieve integration through repeated elections. The errors and omissions of one government can be corrected, as we learn more realities and debate evolves. Leaving the EU is however virtually irreversible. If you doubt that, consider the irony of May’s plan being portrayed by some as a national humiliation. The last time pundits used that phrase in relation to Europe was when the French president De Gaulle rebuffed the UK’s first application to join the EU, in the 1960s.
Irrevocability makes integration – developing a more rounded and inclusive path – much harder; ambiguity more dangerous; and legitimacy all the more vital.
Legitimacy for Leave was not provided by a referendum in which only 37.5% of the country voted to Leave, based on a campaign that appears to have involved illegal finance and foreign interference, and in which the major issues that now dominate the debate were barely aired in the campaign.
Yet neither would a second referendum now really resolve this – and politically at this moment could even make things worse. The modest time since the first has been focused on negotiations and tactical debates focused around internal Tory disputes. There is still no proper, clearly defined choice backed by informed public debate. A rerun now might enable the other partial view to win, albeit with some clearer sense of the stakes - but at huge political cost, with continued ambiguity around the question. It would be another vote on fuzzy choice with its own huge challenge of legitimacy if it just marginally overturns the first. It would not resolve the UK’s eternal ambiguity vis-à-vis the EU. The debate on second referendum mostly just serves to reveal the hypocrisy of those Brexiteers who so fear it – if a second vote could swing the decision so easily, we can hardly attach so much legitimacy to the first.
The only practical way to enhance legitimacy at this stage is indeed for Parliament to assert its role as guardian of the national interest, without deference to either Party allegiance or dictation from an inadequate referendum. The government has done its best, and a free Parliamentary decision in favour of May’s deal would at least provide some combination of electoral and parliamentary legitimacy. That is one option, and history would be the ultimate judge of their wisdom.
If May’s deal is rejected, and a second referendum now is not an adequate answer, then what? Plenty of rhetoric has denounced May’s deal for leaving the UK taking EU rules in key areas and inhibiting independent trade deals with others. That is partly what is to be negotiated in the transition period but is not the decisive factor. All trade deals give up some autonomy for economic gain – as Geoffrey Howe put it, sovereignty is not like virginity, which you either have or you don’t, but a resource to be used. The efforts of our International Trade Department since the election have merely served to underline that there is no economic advantage in abandoning our closest big market, or reason to believe that other countries would give us a better deal than that the ones we already helped to negotiate as part of a far bigger economic bloc.
Laid bare now is the fact that if Parliament reject May’s deal, it will be because of the Irish border issue.
Thus the alternative surely must be to accept the real implication that the Irish border issue is inseparable from the terms of a future trade deal with the EU. The logical implication would be to ask the EU to defer Article 50 implementation, not for a few months and a fudge, but until the end of negotiations to decide an integrated package which, at minimum, addresses trade in the sectors central to the Irish border – goods, and energy. That, with the additional time for reflection on the fundamentals central to an integrated view in both the UK and the EU, is what should then be put back to the electorate - whether through a General Election, or a referendum that should be clearly defined as legally binding.
If May’s is rejected, only that could offer the combination of integration and legitimacy that is so vital for our country’s future.
Michael Grubb is a Professor at University College London, Institute of Sustainable Resources