For those of us who believe Brexit to be a colossal mistake, an act of foolish national self-harm, the fact that the nation did not depart the EU on Friday may have come as something of a relief, but anyone who believes we are on the brink of reversing the result of the 2016 referendum is surely kidding themselves.
Rather, the third defeat for Prime Minister Theresa May’s deal increases the risk of the UK crashing out of Europe with a painful No Deal Brexit.
Having secured from the EU a brief delay to the UK’s departure, May has until 12 April to find a majority in the House of Commons for her divorce deal. If she fails, then we are out on our arses without any kind of agreement.
A statement from the European Commission makes this perfectly clear. In the aftermath of the PM’s latest parliamentary humiliation, an EC spokesman said: “The Commission regrets the negative vote in the House of Commons today. A ‘no-deal’ scenario on 12 April is now a likely scenario. The EU is now fully prepared for a ‘no-deal’ scenario at midnight on 12 April.”
Furthermore, lest anyone be in any doubt, departure terms without Commons support for May’s deal would be much worse than with.
“The benefits of the Withdrawal Agreement, including a transition period, will in no circumstances be replicated in a ‘no-deal’ scenario. Sectoral mini-deals are not an option,” said the spokesman.
Doubtless, dedicated Eurosceptics will already have convinced themselves that this is a hollow threat, that the EU is still ready to capitulate to the UK’s demands if only we would all “believe” in Britain. Or maybe they’re of the full-on masochist variety, the types who believe No Deal Brexit is the very best possible outcome.
Fortunately, a majority of MPs have voted against countenancing such a possibility. No Deal is very much a minority interest at Westminster.
But all of that means nothing if MPs can’t reach some kind of consensus before a week on Friday. The EU need not – and will not – respect the view of the parliamentary majority if we reach 12 April without an agreement on a way forward. MPs cannot vote against reality.
And so we need something significant to happen. Simply hoping that MPs who are now utterly divided are going to come together in the next 12 days is the stuff of fantasy.
There are those who yearn for a second referendum – a so-called “People’s Vote” – to put this issue to bed, once and for all. This – the preferred option of many Remainer MPs – would, in theory, break the deadlock. Of course – and I am hardly going to criticise them for this because I share their desire – what these MPs want is for the UK to take the opportunity to change its mind and vote Remain.
Assuming, not unreasonably, that, having rejected the Prime Minister’s deal three times, MPs are not clamouring to approve it in a fourth vote, there appear to be three routes forward.
Either MPs argue among themselves until, inevitably, the UK leaves the EU without a deal on 12 April or Theresa May pushes the button on either a second referendum or a general election.
In order for either of those two options to take place, the PM will have to secure a further delay to Brexit from the UK’s European counterparts. There is no guarantee that the EU, having been messed around for almost three years, would agree to such a development, but May must try.
As a determined Remainer, I enjoy the fantasy of a second referendum ending up with a decisive victory for my side and for all of this to be left in the past where it may be regarded as a temporary aberration, a mistake that we rectified before it was too late.
But, looking at the Commons’ decision-making on this issue – and the massive pressure on the PM from Eurosceptic colleagues and Conservative Party members – it looks to be a vanishingly unlikely scenario.
The argument that it would be undemocratic to hold a second referendum because one doesn’t like the outcome of the first carries some weight. It certainly chimes with Brexiteers who, much as it might pain me to admit it, have a point. After all, none of us who voted in the 2016 referendum believed that the decision of the majority would not be upheld.
And so, surely, the best possible option would be for the UK to go to the polls again.
If the current House of Commons cannot reach some kind of agreement, how else are we to move forward?
Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party has, for some time, been calling for a general election. The Labour fantasy is that they will defeat the Tories in this election and then agree with the EU a better departure deal than the one achieved by the Prime Minister.
Wishful thinking is doing a lot of heavy carrying in the logic behind this proposal. Despite the utterly dysfunctional nature of the Tory Party, Corbyn’s Labour languishes behind it in the polls. Another election might well see the Tories restore their parliamentary majority.
But this is neither here nor there. We cannot go on like this and if the only way of freeing up the Commons to act is to install new members, then what better option is there?
Of course, it is perfectly possible that, after a general election, we end up with a House of Commons that is similarly divided on this issue, that simply cannot find some way forward, but that cannot be a reason not to go down this road.
Remainers may take some comfort from the fact that Friday’s original Brexit day passed without us leaving the EU, but we are kidding ourselves if we think dragging things out like this is a permanent solution.
It’s time for political parties to bring forward manifesto pledges based on the reality, as we now see it, of Brexit. Otherwise, we simply cannot avoid the No Deal Brexit so many of us fear.