How has it come to this? Nearly two-and-a-half years after the Brexit referendum, we still don’t know what will happen in a few months’ time. According to Theresa May, Brexit might even not happen at all: she’s now saying we can have no deal, her deal, or no Brexit. Only a few ideologues, on right and left, want no deal. Her deal isn’t a deal at all. It’s a promise to have a deal in two or three or four years’ time. Parliament looks like throwing her plan out anyway. No Brexit flies in the face of the referendum result. To navigate our way out of such a shambles, we have to be frank about how we got into it.
It began with a lie: that Britain could leave the EU but still keep all the advantages of membership. We could walk away from the responsibilities and irritations of political union, but still claim all the benefits of the economic union that comes with it. The EU would be so keen to keep us, they’d agree whatever we asked for. We’d be inside it and outside at the same time – inside for the bits we liked, outside for the bits we didn’t. Cake could be had and eaten.
Then we moved from cake to fudge. To keep the Tory party together, Mrs May’s approach has been to fudge, postponing the day of reckoning until after we’ve left. No choice had to be made. We can become both Canada and Norway. She’s still trying. It hasn’t united her party, and reality has caught up with her anyway. The rubber hit the road at the Irish border, but this isn’t really an Irish question. Leaving the EU is all about setting up new borders, for trade and regulation. It just happens that the only land border we have with the EU is that fractal line round six Irish counties which we’ve repeatedly promised would never be a hard border again. By its own lights, the EU has been reasonable, accommodating Mrs May’s ambiguity and fudge, but no amount of flexibility can avoid the fact that the EU’s border has to be somewhere, and we have to be inside it or outside it. Remember Schrödinger’s cat, in a box and supposedly alive and dead the same time? The point is that, when you open the box, it turns out to be one or the other.
That’s what Mrs May’s supposed deal tries to avoid: opening the box – making up our mind about the future relationship. But the Irish backstops remind us we must decide whether to be in or out of the EU’s customs and regulatory borders. Out means a border of some sort, either on the island of Ireland or across the Irish Sea. This basic contradiction in the Prime Minister’s position was willed on her by a split party, but her terrible tactics have made things worse. Triggering Article 50 put a gun to Britain’s head. She didn’t have to set the deadline we are now staring at. Her negotiating position was a criss-cross of red lines, ruling the possible out, and only the impossible in.
Now, in the endgame, her tactics could do irreparable harm. Her deal will not survive parliament. Too many oppose it. She needs DUP support, but they know how to say No. Brexiteers denounce her. They cannot depose her, but won’t vote for her plan. Otherwise loyal Tories despair of her. She’s tells her party it’s her deal or no deal: take what’s on the table, or leave with nothing – no transition, no trade deal, no protection for citizens’ rights – only disruption and chaos. But they won’t all vote for it. Nor will the opposition.
When her deal falls, perhaps we’ll get a new government, maybe after an election. But the underlying problem remains: there’s no magic fix, and the EU is not going to reopen negotiations to listen to more fantasies. They might agree to our leaving the EU but staying in the customs union and single market. That’s what happens in the transition period, and is close to where the proposed backstop will likely take us anyway. This has been promoted by the SNP and is close to Labour policy. It’s clear and simple, but problematic. Outside a political union but in an economic union, the UK would have no say in many of its laws.
Meantime, however, Mrs May’s tactics have changed significantly. So far, she’s threatened no deal to frighten Tory remainers. Now she’s decided to threaten the Brexiteers too, with no Brexit. They’re not both going swallow it. So if her plan falls but her government doesn’t, she will end up offering either no deal or no Brexit.
That isn’t a choice for the Government, or even for Parliament, but for the people. They voted for Brexit when told it would be easy. Faced with the no deal prospect – the Government is apparently planning for chaos, even soldiers guarding petrol stations – the choice must go back to the population in another referendum. People in all political parties are now supporting this. Some on the Conservative backbenches, many in the Labour Party (even Jeremy Corbyn is edging this way), and the Lib Dems and SNP also. If the country faces such a possibility, they all need to get together to deliver a People’s Vote.
Let’s not deceive ourselves. Having another referendum might avoid the chaos of no deal, but doesn’t solve every problem. The big political lesson of this decade is that referendums create division. Remainers might think that another vote will be the end of the matter, but the country needs to address that division and the economic and social concerns of those who voted leave. There’s no point in being tough on Brexit if we are not tough on the causes of Brexit too.
Jim Gallagher is a visiting professor at Glasgow University and was previously Director-General for Devolution in the Cabinet Office