Amid the latest chaos and shambles of Brexit, there is at least a growing voice of unity. We hear it in those radio and TV vox pops across the country: “Just get it done”; “people want it to be over”; “just get on with it!”
Oh, I wish, I wish. But instead, we are being offered “solutions” that only take us deeper into the mire – and to a state of irreparable division.
Take Theresa May’s statement after that shattering vote defeat: she will “listen” and “consult” with various groups. But what agreed combination of changes or concessions could she hope to obtain after consulting such a disparate feuding array as the SNP, the Greens, the Lib Dems, Corbyn’s Labour and her own backbenchers?
Then again, I cannot imagine what could persuade her to step down voluntarily from the premiership. If a historic defeat by 230 votes – greater than that suffered by any government for more than 100 years – doesn’t do it, what will?
The best she can hope for – her hope that is, not that of a wearied and exasperated country – is some fudged, foggy indeterminate delay that would keep her in office – or the pretence of office – until we are utterly worn down.
There is the phantasm of a deal in Brussels to agree a postponement of Article 50 and a re-opening of the Withdrawal Agreement. This looks scarcely credible – unless, of course, Mrs May was to seek a softer Brexit with terms more amenable to the rest of the EU. But how many of her backbenchers would go along with that?
There is the option of a second referendum – one to which she has been opposed till now. But supposing this is granted, and Article 50 suspended or extended, what question or questions would be put on the ballot paper? Remain? Or her Withdrawal Agreement softened to allow continued membership of the Customs Union and Single Market?
But that, for many, would simply be a choice of two versions of Remain. Would it offer Leave on WTO rules, or some variant enjoyed by Norway or Canada? How many months of preparation would it take for the explanatory leaflets to be agreed, the official campaigns drawn up and the campaign to run?
If we thought the raucous scenes outside parliament were not divisive enough, imagine this projected nationwide as an exhausted electorate is cajoled back to the polling stations. As Labour Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott warns her ‘People’s Vote’ campaigners: be careful of what you wish for.
Or if there is to be a general election – if not now, but when the Prime Minister finally runs out of rope, which could possibly happy before 29 March – is there such a thing left as a coherent Conservative Party? On what possible common platform could Anna Soubry and Jacob Rees-Mogg stand? Labour is also deeply split – between Leave, Remain and People’s Vote. Does it want the UK to stay in the Single Market and Customs Union? Coherence has so far eluded it.
As for the SNP, it is now demanding a second referendum – that’s a second referendum on EU membership on top of a second referendum on independence – and these campaigns to be led by a party whose present and former leaders are at war and under official investigations. Are Scots to be subject to two referendum campaigns in these circumstances? And what is the likelihood that an outcome at variance with the party’s preferences will be respected, any more than the previous two?
Truly, it is hard to conceive of options more designed to deepen confusion, bitterness and division nationwide. Angry demonstrations, shouting matches, fisticuffs and an atmosphere of malevolent hostility: civil war in all but name. Voters can only despair, while businesses will suffer from yet more warnings of catastrophe and disaster – more than sufficient to drive us into recession. The cry of “Just get it over with” will give way to “Just get me out of here”.
What possible way forward could there be that might command sufficient support and avoid the rancorous outcomes listed here? It may not be to the liking of all – that’s impossible – but here is an outline I believe many voters would support. It would avoid the ‘crash-out, hard Brexit’ feared by Remainers, honour the 2016 vote to leave, and offer the prospect of an agreed departure with the EU.
The seeds of A Better Deal and a Better Future were set out by the European Research Group in the aftermath of the crushing defeat for the Prime Minister’s Withdrawal Agreement.
First, commit to leaving the EU on schedule and as legislated on 29 March. Present the EU with a legal text of a new EU/UK trade agreement as offered by Donald Tusk on 7 March last year. The new text should include replacement of the backstop with a worked-out Irish border protocol based on an interim Free Trade Agreement and Trade Facilitation Agreement.
Fix a financial settlement linked to progress towards a trade agreement. Agree to mutually beneficial cooperation in areas such as the fight against terrorism, research, flights, data exchange, etc, leave the Common Fisheries policy and negotiate reciprocal access. Spend part of the £39 billion saved to boost economic growth. Unilaterally guarantee EU citizens’ rights to continue to live and work in the UK, agree measures to reduce the cost of imported agri-food items, improve domestic regulation to support competitive markets and seek to work multilaterally within the WTO on UK trading goals.
To secure cross-party support, I would add that priority be given to ensuring existing EU legislation on workers’ rights, health and safety and employment protocols are secured firmly in UK legislation, plus a commitment to work with international institutions towards climate change targets and environmental protection. Similar commitments should be given in the spheres of international development and poverty reduction.
There may not be much left to the £39 billion after these commitments are given. But at least the money is going to areas where there is cross-party support. This would go some way to avoiding ‘crash out’ while meeting those plaintiff voter cries of “just get it done”. As such, it would be a pathway out of unending Brexit Hell.