Politics is stuck – every bit of it.
Parliament can’t agree a deal but won’t force a General Election. The Prime Minister is kept in place by disunity in her cabinet and immunity from her MPs. And the cross-party talks are a sham. So where next?
This past weekend’s European election polling provides a clue. In 2017 the Tories became the party of Brexit and Ukip were crushed. Two years on, Farage is back, leading a real Brexit Party and promising to take back control. Tory support is down at just 16%, the combined Ukip/Brexit Party vote is almost double at 29%.
At the same time, the revoke/remain petition – now boasting more than six million signatures – comes with its own bad news for the Tories: almost 94 Tory MPs have more than 10,000 signers in the constituency; 98 face the frightening prospect of an election in which the number of local signers stands higher than their existing majority.
Last week the Tory think tank Onward published some fascinating research on the gap between the Conservatives and younger voters. The analysis was superb, but the recommendations politely ignored the elephant in the room. The Tories’ biggest problem with young voters is cultural, and the biggest cultural signifier of them all is Brexit.
In an age of extremes the Tories are stuck in the middle and bleeding support. They desperately need to move on – after all, in Jeremy Corbyn they face an Opposition leader less popular than the poll tax. They can win the next election, but not on a realistic form of Brexit, and not soon.
So this weekend’s polling should have finally killed the idea of a General Election stone dead. The Tories cannot afford to go to the country. Even with the perfect campaign, not exactly a given, in this environment the Tories would still lose a hefty chunk of support to a pure Brexit Party on their flank, and Labour – who would surely guarantee a referendum to avoid facing an equal and opposite problem with the TIGgers – would fall into government. That path gives Conservatives a referendum on Brexit, McDonnell in the Treasury and Jeremy Corbyn leading our country at home and abroad.
The Tories can’t pivot to support for ‘no-deal’ because there are still too many sensibles who will resist – by leaving the party and bringing down the government if necessary – so they are left, with only one option to avoid annihilation. Like it or not, it’s a referendum.
The surprisingly common suggestion that a referendum must take place within the extension period is for the birds – there is no question that Europe would resist a decisive vote for the sake of a few extra months. So the question is not one of logistics but of politics.
Theresa May’s premiership is not turning around. When this phase of Brexit is over, so is she, and so keeping the hardliners happy is not only impossible but also irrelevant. Instead, her dire situation should afford her the freedom to act decisively. Through one big decision she can do what’s right for her country and as luck would have it, what’s best for her party as well. She should secure a referendum – remain vs parliament’s choice of a deal (decided through a system that eliminates options until we find a winner) – with the support of Labour moderates even if not the leadership, who may in any case find it impossible to resist.
It would cause chaos in her own party – hardly an enormous change – but would give Conservatives a chance to get it all out: fight, make up and move on. A victory for a deal, as opposed to the high level vision put forward in 2016, would provide an undeniable mandate to approve the process and get on with it. A vote to remain would allow the country to draw breath and step back from the cliff-edge we currently face without a plan.
Both results lance the boil, allow the Tories to elect a new leader with the contours of Brexit fully set, and move on to governing the country and fighting Labour.
The only way the Prime Minister will get anything through parliament is with Labour votes, the only way politics can move on is with a definitive resolution, and the only way for the Tories to survive and reconnect with modern Britain is to stop banging on about Europe. All point to a referendum. An uncomfortable, painful, traumatic process but for the Tories a second referendum is like a root canal, sometimes there is no alternative.