The Brexit ‘debate’ increasingly resembles a 12-round heavyweight brawl in which exhausted fighters, totally punch-drunk, stumble to the final bell hoping to land a knock-out punch. The audience is exhausted by the length and scrappiness of the fight but also desperate for their side to win. Tomorrow, the Prime Minister’s deal will stagger back into the ring for another bout against several opponents.
Both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition continue to mark time, failing to recognise that the only way to end this protracted punishment is to bring about a People’s Vote on the Brexit deal, versus staying in the EU.
Yet what Tuesday will primarily be about is an attempt by MPs to neuter the possibility of a ‘no-deal’ Brexit. The problem is that a carelessly drafted piece of legislation on the activation of Article 50 has led to ‘no-deal’ becoming the legal default. Theresa May has been using this position to claim that we might ‘accidentally’ leave without any transition period or arrangements in place to avoid record queues at ferry ports, major disruption to (or suspension of) air travel and shortages of vital medicines.
Spending large sums on unwanted lorry parks, ferries for the Channel crossing and fridges for the NHS gives some credibility to the threat, at least amongst the credulous. But the strategy isn’t working to shift the Prime Minister’s Tory backbench critics or Northern Ireland’s DUP. Either they don’t believe the government will go through with ‘no deal’ – and 40 ministers are reported to be ready to resign to make sure it doesn’t – or they don’t care.
Either way an ‘accidental’ no-deal position is an absurdity. The government has a choice. The EU would in all probability be prepared to extend the Article 50 timetable, if asked, providing a sensible plan for resolving Brexit is in place – and the government could bring forward legislation to cancel Article 50 at any time before the end of March. Running the clock down makes no-deal a conscious choice for the UK. No one is forcing us into it.
While most MPs recognise this and are rational enough not to want run off a cliff, there is still a significant group who appear ready to jump and to drag the country with them. They reflect the real world fraternity of BASE jumpers, who get a thrill from leaping from buildings, bridges, and cliffs in the hope of a soft landing aided by their parachutes or wingsuits. Casualty rates are high, as they would be in the political equivalent which is the idea that Britain’s Brexit landing can be cushioned by ‘WTO rules’.
The WTO, having been an influential force for free trade and non-discrimination a decade ago, has seen its authority wane. The collapse of its multilateral negotiations and the emergence of economic nationalism led by Trump means these are not safe waters to land in. Leaving the European Union to rely on the WTO for fair, free trade is as naïve as believing we can leave NATO and rely on the United Nations for defence.
Inevitably, the British instinct to compromise – most recently reiterated by the Queen herself – means there is some energy behind proposals to commit the UK to a ‘soft Brexit’. This would essentially mean keeping the single market and customs union, but losing the political trappings of EU membership. While this appeals to the traditional refrain ‘we joined a common market and ended up in a political union’, the truth is that such an outcome will please no one.
Leavers say it would be a ‘betrayal’ of Brexit, and Remainers say ‘if it is Brexit in name only, why leave at all?’. Such a solution would buy short-term peace and reassure businesses but will lead to greater dissatisfaction down the track when people realise that nothing much has changed beyond the voluntary surrender of our seat at the EU negotiating table.
There is therefore much more mileage in the demand for a People’s Vote with the option to Remain. In all likelihood, the country would now vote to retain membership of the EU, but the referendum route is also a lifeline for the government: the people could yet resuscitate Brexit on these terms if they choose to.
If MPs succeed on Tuesday in seizing control of the parliamentary process around Brexit, the way will be opened to bring this public contest about. It now has the support of the previously sceptical Times and the Financial Times. More and more MPs, particularly on Jeremy Corbyn’s fractious Labour benches, are getting behind it, even while he continues to procrastinate. And crucially poll after poll shows that the public do not regard more democracy as ‘undemocratic’. 2019 can yet be the year when the public sound the final bell in the Brexit fight.
Vince Cable is the leader of the Lib Dems and MP for Twickenham