MPs opposed to a no-deal Brexit face a difficult choice, but there are signs that sanity is at last breaking out, writes Brian Wilson.
There is a long way to go but this just might be looked back on as the week when sanity broke out over Brexit.
If so, much of the credit will be due to 20 Tory MPs who were prepared to break the party whip for a greater good. No matter which party is involved, that is an act which requires some courage from those whose prior careers have been based on loyalty.
Progress towards a reasonable outcome will only be maintained if MPs of all parties are prepared to show similar flexibility. There is no point applauding the principles of others while adhering to one’s own rigid discipline. Plaudits were also due to those Labour MPs who took the initiative in striking out for cross-party co-operation. That created the majority against a “no-deal” which is a good start but far from a mission accomplished.
I watched part of the debate on Theresa May’s deal when Keir Starmer was virtually being invited to negotiate across the floor of the Commons on what terms would be acceptable to Labour to prevent a no-deal.
These exchanges were with Ken Clarke and Oliver Letwin but the immediate common ground was that they should have taken place long ago on the initiative of the Prime Minister, rather than of dissident backbenchers.
Having acknowledged this, Clarke asked: “We are now so short of time and in danger of going towards a no-deal exit which only a small minority of the House positively want, is it not time for him to answer the question – is the Labour Party available for discussions with a positive view to reaching a conclusion on a Customs Union and sufficient regulatory alignment to keep open borders?”
Starmer replied: “I have been available for discussion for the whole time I have been in this post.” I hope he meant it, that his leader agrees with him and that these discussions will now take place. They offer the optimum solution and have done all along – respect the referendum result but end up as close as possible to where we are now.
As this column pointed out previously, Mrs May’s preferred strategy of doing business with the right-wing of her own party and the equally unreasonable Democratic Unionist Party was a fundamental error which has wasted precious time and contributed to the current impasse.
Mrs May became an MP in 1997. I had the dubious advantage of having sat through the preceding years as a detached spectator, watching the cold-eyed assassins of the Major government – Redwood, Duncan Smith, Cash et al – going about their business without a care in the world beyond their Europhobe obsession.
The same people are doing the same thing more than 20 years later and, with their goal in sight, no “solution” short of outright victory – ie a crude exit from the EU – was going to satisfy them. Trying to appease them was a complete waste of time. Ditto the DUP with its own brand of obscurantism.
If Mrs May wanted a moderate solution – a “soft Brexit” – then the obvious direction to turn was towards Labour MPs who were not thirled to complete rejection of the referendum result.
It would have been politically difficult but avenues of communication should at least have been kept open in anticipation of the deadlock that now exists. Is it too late? For all MPs who united around the need to avoid a no-deal, the next few days and weeks will require walking a tightrope, with massive implications if they fall off. By pursuing their first preference beyond a certain point, will they play into the hands of those whose true and now unconcealed ambition is for a no-deal exit?
Every MP who opposes that outcome has a duty to ensure that it is avoided. In the judgment of history, it will be straightforward as that.
No amount of rationalisation or retrospective blame-shifting will justify facilitating the worst possible result.
As things stand, that Ken Clarke-Keir Starmer exchange offers the best prospect for an outcome that most of us could live with.