Why all roads lead to hard Brexit
Now that the Withdrawal Agreement is dead, Britain is on course for no-deal. The parliamentary arithmetic simply guarantees it. Just look at the numbers: roughly a quarter of MPs are ultra Brexiteers who won’t vote for anything short of a loose, Canada-style agreement, and who would be quite happy about a no-deal Brexit. Roughly a quarter of MPs are Conservative loyalists or Conservatives ambivalent about Brexit who supported Theresa May’s deal, and who will follow the government wherever it leads them. Another quarter are Remainers who want a second referendum. And the final quarter are a mixture of Remainers and soft Leavers who are petrified of no-deal, and who support a softer Brexit — “Norway Plus” or a permanent customs union.
When you break the numbers down this way, it’s clear there is no majority for anything. The “People’s Vote” supporters aren’t going to get their way because a hefty chunk of moderate Remainers in the House of Commons don’t want another referendum. Even if they did, they still wouldn’t get anywhere because a second referendum would require the government to introduce primary legislation and spend money on a new ballot, and Theresa May isn’t going to do either of those things. If there’s one thing Theresa May is dead set against, it’s a second referendum.
Norway Plus is a fool’s errand because it, too, doesn’t command the support of more than a quarter of MPs. Theresa May couldn’t pivot to Norway Plus without hemorrhaging support from Brexiteers in her own party, meaning she’d have to get a deal through on Labour votes, something even loyal Tory MPs may find too hard to stomach. In any case, Theresa May isn’t going to go for any deal that includes freedom of movement, her reddest (and apparently only) red line.
Even if hardline Remainers currently hell bent on a second referendum could be persuaded to back Norway Plus, cobbling together a parliamentary majority in support of Norway, the government would still need to be the one doing the negotiating with the EU, and Theresa May ain’t going to do that. It’s not even clear if the EU would be willing to reopen negotiations for something so substantially different from the Withdrawal Agreement, with so little time left on the clock.
The Brexiteers’ Canada model isn’t going to happen this side of Brexit because the EU won’t drop the backstop. And, like Norway, there’s simply no time left to negotiate Canada. The government could seek an extension of Article 50 to negotiate Canada or Norway or something else, but it’s unlikely that the EU27 will agree to an Article 50 extension for anything other than to allow time for the legislation and implementation of a Withdrawal Agreement already signed — and there isn’t one.
Which leaves no-deal. The opponents of no-deal repeat the nostrum: “there is no majority in Parliament for no-deal”. And they’d be right — if no-deal ever went to a vote it’d go down heavily. But, as Brexiteers never tire of pointing out, if no Withdrawal Agreement passes, no-deal remains the legal default. If a deal with the EU isn’t signed before 29th March, Britain leaves the EU without a deal whether parliamentarians like it or not.
Because there is, actually, a majority for no-deal: a majority in Parliament voted for no-deal when it passed the legislation approving the invocation of Article 50 on 16th March 2017. Parliamentarians can pass as many motions against no-deal as they want, but, unless they vote for an alternative Withdrawal Agreement, no-deal is going to happen.
But let’s just say they did. Never mind the considerable obstacles to any of the alternatives; let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the House of Commons approved something else, averting no-deal. Since it’s a Remainer Parliament, we can be sure that whatever that “something else” was, Jacob Rees Mogg wouldn’t like it. Jubilation among Remainers, sensible Leavers and everyone apart from Jacob Rees Mogg — right?
It isn’t so obvious that that would be the end of Brexiteers’ dreams of a sovereign, Fully British Britain. Remainers might have a House of Commons majority on their side, but Brexiteers have a referendum majority on theirs — a referendum majority that, two and a half years ago, voted to take Britain out of the European Union. That referendum result — that stunning popular vote — was nothing short of a popular revolution, and, like all popular revolutions, Brexit has an irresistible logic and momentum to it. Attempts to stand in the way of the revolution, to push it back, or to thwart it, won’t succeed for long. Like all revolutions, Brexit won’t stop until it’s carried through to completion.
This is so because, unlike parliamentarians, the country hasn’t continued fighting the referendum since the day of the result. That’s not to say the country isn’t still divided as ever over Brexit, or that many don’t still regret the result of the referendum and wish it had gone the other way. But half the country isn’t clamouring to overturn the referendum result. The side that lost have — mostly — accepted the result and think it should be respected. They think that, the country having voted for it, it’s only right that Brexit should now be done; they didn’t have much love for the EU anyway.
Parliamentarians could ignore this public sentiment and vote for a soft Brexit or a second referendum — but they couldn’t ignore it for long. The public is shrewd. It will know if politicians have stitched up Brexit by signing off on a “Brexit In Name Only” deal, just as it knew Theresa May’s deal was rotten. It will know that a “People’s Vote” will be a cynical attempt by Remainer politicians to reverse the result of the first referendum. And the public won’t be impressed.
Let’s say Parliament goes for Norway Plus. Theresa May cobbles together a motley coalition of Tory Remainers, Labour and opposition MPs, and grumpy but pliant Tory loyalists, to get a deal along the lines of Norway Plus through. It might get through over the indignant objections of Tory MPs, but it gets through nonetheless.
Brexiteers will be in uproar, as they were in uproar over the Withdrawal Agreement. The Brexit-supporting press will report their uproar, and will join in the uproar. They will cry betrayal, call it Brexit In Name Only, and claim the people’s will has been thwarted. Brexit would be anything but resolved, in the eyes of the side that won the referendum.
The public will read what the Brexiteers are saying; they will read how the EU still controls Britain’s trade, how the EU still makes vast swaths of Britain’s laws, and how freedom of movement still remains in place. They will read all this and realise what has happened: Remainer politicians have, indeed, sabotaged Brexit. Brexiteers are not going to stop talking about Brexit, and a Brexiteer Conservative Party will win a majority on the promise of delivering a “real” Brexit — perhaps not for two or three elections down the line, given the inevitable meltdown of the Conservative Party after Brexit — but eventually it will, and there will be little public opposition to its delivering on that promise.
But let’s say, instead of a Norway deal, Parliament votes for a second referendum. It should be obvious that Leave would win again, and bigger than last time, given that the Leave vote would be swelled by former Remainers who now think Brexit should be implemented. And a second referendum win by Leave would be an emphatic mandate in favour of no-deal. MPs who continued to try to thwart no-deal after a second Leave vote would be committing political suicide.
But in the unlikely event that Remain won a second referendum, it’s hard to see how things could in any way be resolved. Any Remain win would be narrow, and such a slender result would not furnish a mandate for cancelling Brexit in the eyes of Leave voters. “Tough,” might reply the Remainers. “You claimed victory upon a narrow result, so we will, too.”
Except Leave voters will know, too well, that Remainers didn’t accept the result of the first referendum, and won’t see why they should accept the result of a second. They will believe the establishment nullified their democratic vote. They will be incensed, and will resent the EU and Remainer politicians all the more. Meekly accepting their loss will be the last thing on their minds: they will not let it go until Brexit is delivered.
How could it be otherwise? Do Remainers, who’ve never accepted the result of the referendum, think that everything will go back to normal if they overturn it? Do they think that the public will just forget about the last two and a half years and go back to not thinking about the EU and voting obediently for inoffensive David Camerons and Tony Blairs? That the genie can be forced back into the bottle?
Brexit is a revolution — once started, it can’t be stopped. Any halt or reversal can only be temporary. If Britain remains in the EU following a second referendum, it won’t be for long — certainly not forever. Following a second referendum, the country will continue talking incessantly about Brexit, and won’t stop until Britain leaves the EU. If nothing else, the continued integration of the EU and formation of a Single European State, as the EU’s leaders have stated to be their goal, will force Britain to the exit once again. As the People’s Vote supporters like to say: the facts will have changed.
There’s one other alternative: the government, with Parliament’s support, could withdraw Article 50 and cancel Brexit without a ballot. It shouldn’t need explaining that this would be hideously undemocratic and the voters would punish any politician who colluded in it. The next government would be elected on a sweeping, indisputable mandate to implement Brexit. And the Brexit it will deliver will be hard, fast, and complete.
It’s pointless trying to stand in the way of Brexit. Brexit is a revolution, and revolutions don’t stop until they’re finished. All roads — unfortunately for Remainers — lead to hard Brext.