Everyone is wondering who will be the next minister to resign Theresa May’s cabinet, whether she will face a leadership challenge, whether there will be another general election? The debate on solving the Brexit riddle goes around in circles. And, once again, Brexit throws up similarities to Greece’s troubles of 2015.
Can a complex political problem brought about by a bad referendum idea be fixed by a general election? The answer is yes and no. The reason can be found by drawing a parallel with Greece. In the summer of 2015 the Greek PM Alexis Tsipras was dealing with a problem. His negotiations with the EU had failed to produce a different plan for Greece than the one already pursued by previous governments. If anything, what was on offer that summer was substantially worse that what had been offered to Mr Tsipras at the early stages of his administration. How could someone who brought his party to power on promises of resistance and a ‘different’ path agree to compromise with ‘same as before’? The answer presented itself in the form of a referendum, not on Euro membership, not on EU membership, but vaguely on whether to go with what the Europeans had proposed or not. The campaign that followed the referendum announcement was one of falsehoods and disinformation. The result was predictable. Faced with a choice of voting for known unpleasantness or the potential for something undefined, yet better, people voted for better, they voted No to Europe.
The difficult was however that the Greek government was not expecting a No vote. It was expecting a marginal Yes, so they could agree the EU’s deal, seeing no alternative. The No vote made their situation worse, they had been caught out on their big lie, they could not negotiate something better, no matter what mandate they claimed to have. The PM signed the deal with the Europeans saying that he would seek to improve on it later, and purged the governing party of the fanatics who wanted ‘freedom’ at all costs, even if this meant Euro-leaving Armageddon. The purge, however, cost the government ts parliamentary majority, an election became inevitable. Now we come to the crux of the issue. Did an early general election undo the mistake of the referendum? It could have, if it were used to solve the underlying issue: Did Greece want to stay in the Euro or not? If the political parties aligned themselves along this divide, then the election would have allowed the people to make a choice. Alas, this opportunity was wasted. The election was ran along familiar lines and slogans skirting around the main issue. The mythical good deal was just around the corner, if the right team would come along. Tsipras narrowly won.
Fast-forward to 2018 and London. What Mrs May is facing is quite similar to what Mr Tsipras had to deal with. As is often said, there is no majority within any of the parties, in parliament, or the country for any sort of Brexit. What everyone seems to agree on is that anything done by everyone else is substandard, and that a good solution is just around the corner, only if someone else were in charge. After the resignations of some Brexiters from her Cabinet, May faces an impossible situation. She cannot backtrack from the terrible deal represented by her own white paper, and cannot achieve something that will please any side. This is against a background of the coming rejection of her plan by Europe anyway. If she purges the Tory party of the Brexiters she will surely lose her majority. If she does not and accepts a Norway style soft Brexit she will also lose her majority. If she fails to achieve a deal and a border is re-established in Ireland she will again lose her majority. In every scenario, the government falls.
Could she escape by calling an election? We return to our Greek parallel. If a general election were held with parties clearly aligned on the Brexit issue, then this would be an opportunity to escape the prison of the referendum result, without needing another referendum. This would necessitate for parties to run on manifestos choosing a form of Brexit and adopting its consequences. Labour could opt for soft Brexit, the Tories for a harder version, Ukip for a harder still and the Lib Dems for Remain. The people could choose off this menu. Alas, this will not happen, as it did not happen in Greece in September 2015. What will happen instead is that everyone will run on a platform that says ‘we will achieve a better deal than the others’. Different versions of unicorn will be on offer, the choice will be meaningless. Any result will leave us right where we started.
Could a general election solve the Brexit riddle? Yes, it could, but it won’t.