Another vote on Brexit carries significant risks – and could not be seen as a Remain stitch-up – but it appears the only way out of the current mess.
In what could be described as ‘normal extraordinary’ times, The Scotsman would be today calling for Theresa May’s resignation. But we are not.
As the leader of the UK Government, she has spent the last two-and-a-half years developing a plan to fulfil the result of the Brexit referendum and leave the European Union. And, on this most important issue, she has failed. And failed spectacularly.
Her Brexit deal met the biggest defeat for a British Government in more than a century, eclipsing the record of 166 held by Ramsay McDonald in 1924.
But the crises of recent times utterly pale in comparison to the situation Britain faces today. And, regardless of The Scotsman’s view, it appears likely that May will win a confidence motion in the Commons today, a bizarre prediction in keeping with the growing bizarreness of the situation.
Ahead of last night’s vote, May told the Commons that her deal was the only option. After the vote, she said she would hold talks with MPs, then return to the EU, suggesting she would look for another option. Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president, noted the vote “with regret” and urged the UK to “clarify its intentions as soon as possible”.
One of the first things May should do – assuming she does survive today’s vote – is seek an extension of Article 50 because, as Juncker said, “time is almost up”. We need more of it. And the EU should accept that request. It would be in the economic interests of both parties, and also their political interests.
Signs that the UK, one of the world’s biggest economies, is struggling to leave will act as a warning to other EU states thinking of doing the same.
During that extension, May will clearly try to find a solution to break the impasse, but it seems unlikely the EU will make any significant concessions.
The 2016 referendum was a hugely divisive event, but the Government has done its best, in difficult circumstances, to honour the result. Unfortunately, there was always an element of fantasy about the promises of a “have our cake and eat it” deal from the likes of Boris Johnson. Regrettably, Jeremy Corbyn appears to have joined the fantasists’ ranks, claiming the UK could have a deal of that ilk if only he were Prime Minister.
So it’s understandable that the vision which persuaded 52 per cent of people to back Brexit has not been turned into reality. And that means the Brexit question has now changed and, therefore, it requires a new answer from the people, expressed in a second EU referendum.
However, there are dangers associated with this course of action. Brexiteers who believed the issue was settled in 2016 may feel aggrieved – and with some justification. There is a risk that some will boycott the vote, undermining the result. Others may decide that democracy has been betrayed and may – wrongly –conclude that unrest is therefore justified.
Make no mistake, a badly handled second referendum would pose a serious threat to law and order in this country. Faith in democracy, a most important thing, could be badly damaged.
In order to minimise the chaos involved, the question would have to be agreed with leading Brexiteers. Given a clear majority of MPs are opposed to a no-deal Brexit, hard Brexiteers may actually be sympathetic towards a second referendum that offers this choice as it seems like the only way this could happen. Speaking last night, Nigel Farage appeared open to the idea and suggested Leave would win a second referendum.
Any ‘People’s Vote’ could not be a Remain stitch-up – or be seen to be one.