Theresa May must now put her Brexit plan to Parliament and, if it falls, call a general election, writes Brian Wilson.
It’s time for Theresa May to bring the Brexit negotiations to a head, to find out if her plan can win the support of Parliament and, if not, hold a General Election and allow her successor to pick up the pieces.
Having given Mrs May the benefit of many doubts as she struggled to fulfil the referendum mandate, I cannot see any case for further prevarication. There was always going to come a point where it is necessary to say: “This is it. Like it or lump it.”
If she loses in Parliament or even in the Cabinet, the alternative cannot be to blunder on into “no deal” with all its dire implications. If that option is sniffed at by the Brexit zealots, they will jump at it because they are so contemptuous of consequences.
By offering the straight choice of accepting her package or going to the country, Mrs May would give herself the best chance of securing a majority while offering an indisputably democratic alternative. If there is to be a second referendum, then it should be at the behest of a freshly elected government.
Would it come to that? I doubt it. The prospect of a General Election would concentrate minds wonderfully because of the sheer unpredictability of the outcome. In particular, Mrs May’s ghastly cohorts in the Democratic Unionist Party would have some serious thinking to do, if that is not a contradiction in terms.
Sometimes straws do break camels’ backs. Step forward Dominic Raab, the man leading negotiations for British withdrawal, who has just discovered how important the Dover-Calais ferry link is to the British economy including minor matters like security of food supply. This beggars belief.
Mr Raab intimated that he “hadn’t quite understood the full extent” of reliance on the Dover-Calais crossing “if you look at how we trade in goods”. He attributed the same degree of ignorance to “the average consumer (who) might not be aware of the full extent to which the choice of goods we have in the stores is dependent on one or two very specific trade routes”.
Having been struck by this profound revelation, Mr Raab now favoured “a specific and very proximate relationship with the EU to ensure frictionless trade at the border”. It did not seem to occur that he and his associates could have saved us all a lot of trouble by not campaigning to create borders in the first place.
While Mr Raab was making a fool of himself, Mrs May was facing a fresh snarl from Arlene Foster, her soulmate of convenience in Belfast. Like other prominent supporters of Brexit, the DUP has proved incapable of facing up to the consequences of its own fundamentalism while attacking those who must deal with inconvenient realities.
Having dissected an arcane letter about backstops to backstops, Mrs Foster concluded that Theresa May is “wedded to the idea of a border down the Irish Sea”. This seems most improbable but in the mindset of DUP absolutism any attempt at political creativity is merely proof positive of impending betrayal. The hour has come for Mrs May to confront that mentality or else remain its prisoner.
The wider lesson is that it is impossible to appease the assorted forces who led us into a cul-de-sac under the pretence that disentangling four decades of integration with Europe would be straightforward. One who started out with that arrogant swagger was David Davis though, before fleeing back to his oppositionist comfort zone, he learned that Brexit complexities “made the Nasa moonshot look quite simple”.
In contrast, this column seeks to maintain its intellectual consistency. It is seven months since I suggested a General Election to establish a fresh mandate, one way or another, over Brexit. Everything that has happened since then points in the same direction, far more obviously than for just a second referendum with its democratic downsides.
It may not even require an election to secure an orderly outcome. The unambiguous threat of one could well do the job for Theresa May – but if that failed, why would she want to continue?