First off, something that may shock you: I don’t blame the politicians for the Brexit bungle. Well, not entirely. There is a lot of stubbornness, an unwillingness to compromise, and too many are pursuing other agendas, in the SNP’s case it is for Scottish independence, while Labour has been driven to undermine Theresa May and thereby trigger a general election.
Aside from those narrow and somewhat mischievous agendas, it would have been more surprising, and even a little worrying, if the Commons had produced a simple and consensual solution to the Brexit conundrum. We all expect MPs to be representatives of the people, and in this situation their squabbling represents the divisions across the nation. Hearing members of the public saying in television and radio vox pops that the politicians should “sort it out” isn’t really helpful. The fact that they have not sorted it out indicates just how difficult this is to resolve.
That said, one thing that has become clear in the fog of debate is that the Brexit process was flawed from the start. The referendum campaigns were the worst in political history, badly led, littered with misinformation and rabid speculation. Neither side came up with a proper case for staying in or leaving. A highly complex issue was reduced to silly soundbites, flag waving patriotism and false promises.
Referendums are not a way to run a country. They are a refuge of governments unable or too afraid to take decisions they are paid to take. Ironically, they are usually called to decide issues that most deeply divide public opinion, such as abortion and capital punishment. In other words, they are seen as an answer to division, when all they do is confirm them.
Mrs May has been on a hiding to nothing. With division at home, she also faced having to overcome resistance from the EU which was always going to play hard ball. Britain was never going to be asked to hand back its keys to the EU’s front door and told it could keep popping back in whenever it liked. There was much for the EU to lose by allowing an easy Brexit. It would have stirred similar ambitions in other disgruntled nations and regions. Barnier and Juncker may have been seen as villains of the piece, but they had a bigger fish to fry: keeping the rest of the bloc together, and having seen the mess that Britain has got into they must be privately delighted that they have deterred any other rebels from stepping out of line.
Hindsight, as they say, is a wonderful thing, and while I reserve some sympathy for the current crop of politicians trying to resolve the crisis, there have been some poor decisions and a heavy dose of naivety beyond the bungled 2016 campaign. Mrs May famously declared “Brexit means Brexit” when, in truth, she and no one else (as it turns out) seems to know what Brexit actually means. Therein lies the problem: for some – and probably a large section of Leave voters – it means a total break from Europe (the No Deal scenario). Others think we can have a sort of half-way house (Brexit with membership of a customs union and/or the single market). As I said here back in 2016, we will probably end up “just a little bit less in”.
There are other variants that need not be explained here, but from the start, there should have been a clearly worked out definition of Brexit so that the public knew what they were voting for and against: the political equivalent of a pre-pack administration whereby if Britain collapsed its EU membership business it had a ready-made Brexit business waiting to take over. The fact that we are about to leave the EU in a matter of days without a workable plan is the most damning verdict of all. No well-managed company or other organisation would make such a rash change of strategy without alarming its stakeholders and putting its entire proposition at risk.
Politics clearly doesn’t work like other organisations. Instead we got the chaotic campaign outlined above in which the voters – the stakeholders – were badly briefed and left to make a knee-jerk decision based on the flimsy knowledge any of us had of how the EU worked, let alone whether it was good or bad for us. Few had heard of a customs union, considered what the loss of cheap immigrant labour would mean for our agriculture and service industries, or thought about the implications for the Irish border. As I said in a column at the time of the referendum we were like students being asked to sit an exam in a subject we had not studied. It was, frankly, irresponsible of the government to put such an important decision to the public. You would not expect the local scout group to be asked to vote on a new uniform without having first seen a list of options and prices.
The Brexit bungle has damaged Britain’s reputation for prudence and put the economy at the world’s mercy. The pound is looking for direction while we’re told that ships are already preparing to bring cargo into the country with no idea what import tariffs or other obligations they are likely to face when they arrive.
Mrs May has been handed the most toxic of poisoned chalices and while some admire her resilience and determination to see this through, there are deeply concerning questions about her unwillingness to listen, not least in relation to her Withdrawal Agreement that everyone seemed to accept was doomed. It had no chance of winning the support of her own party, let alone the Commons.
In circumstances such as these it is customary to draw comparisons with the Titanic. To that extent, Mrs May was like the captain of the sinking ship asking the chief engineer to try firing up the engines once again in the hope that it might just make New York.
The options facing Ms May are are also looking desperate. As she is given to dig in her heels, it looks like Jeremy Corbyn will be forced to wait for his general election. Before then we may get a short delay to EU departure (but that will only postpone a decision, not resolve it), or a second referendum (which would at least give the public an opportunity to vote armed with greater knowledge of what we might get). The problem then lies in what we do after that second vote. Should the public reverse its earlier decision there would be howls of outrage from the Brexit backers, and possibly legal action. Worse still, there could be civil unrest, although we are not France and don’t generally go in for that sort of thing.
Of course, a second vote might confirm the first and just put us back to squabbling about how to exit the EU. Any second vote needs to be based on more options and should require a significant majority. A result which once again reflects a near 50-50 division would resolve nothing.
Another option would be to delay the process for at least a year, as Gordon Brown has suggested. This would not necessarily involve another vote, but would provide time for proper consideration of what is involved. There is also a good case for taking much of the politics out of the process by handing it over to an independent commission. Party politics is too messy.