The thirty months since the 2016 EU Referendum have been politically tumultuous and unpredictable –and we are now in danger of leaving the EU in a chaotic way that few want, but possibly no-one will be able to stop. It is time to face the truth; there is not enough time to develop an alternative, which is why the only responsible action is to stop it, by revoking Article 50 now. We can all see what is happening. Parliament has barely ceased to function, with executive Government treating Parliament with contempt, and the domestic agenda completely side-lined. Our future feels uncertain, and the mood in Westminster, as across the country, is anxious and sour.
The Prime Minister herself has said that there are three options on the table. Her deal, no deal, or no Brexit. Leaving the EU with no deal will cause disruption and danger of the kind which should not be countenanced by any responsible politician. There is no political or public support for the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal as we will see today; it is at best a list of joint aims for the future, with the hard bits kicked into the long grass, and at worst a worthless wish-list. After two and a half years of negotiations and analysis, nothing workable has been produced.
This leaves us with Theresa May’s third option: no Brexit. There are plenty of my colleagues who understandably feel nervous about considering this option; how does this respect the referendum result, what will the backlash be, how does this effect public trust in democracy. These are all valid questions, and they deserve serious answers.
The referendum was, as is widely accepted, politics at its worst. It promised completely undeliverable outcomes, and it became a proxy for all sorts of other issues that affect the lives we all live. There have been years of arguments over whether ‘people knew what they were voting for’ or not, but we all know a lot more now about the EU, and about the complex intertwined nature of our relationship. The promises made, of a dividend for public services, of more control, of increased wealth and prosperity and jobs, have been shown to be for the birds. We now know that it is almost impossible to resolve the dilemma of a border with the EU within the island of Ireland. The genuine trade-offs between leaving and remaining have rarely been properly discussed.
Backlash from those angry with no Brexit is inevitable, as is rhetoric suggesting a broken democracy – but that would happen with the Prime Minister’s ‘deal’ – there is no Brexit which will satisfy those who made impossible promises. A descent into chaos will be worse.
Revoking Article 50 now not only stops the panic that is likely to ensue after next week, it actually offers those who want to leave the EU the opportunity to go away and think through what they really want and come back with genuine options rather than fantasies. The recent court judgement that confirms that the UK can revoke Article 50 does not prevent it being invoked again in future, despite the Prime Minister’s claims. Lawyers will continue to argue over it, but the advice is that revoking requires it to be in good faith, in other words not just a cover for stalling for time. Many of us wouldn’t want it, but it can be returned to.
The debate over our relationship with our neighbours is not going to go away – those of us who believe that our future lies within a reformed EU need to build a stronger and more persuasive case. Those who want out need to explain much more clearly what kind of relationship they envisage in future. What we cannot do is just crash out, and hope for the best – which is why we should revoke Article 50 sooner, rather than later.
Daniel Zeichner is the Labour MP for Cambridge