Overreach was the Brexiteers biggest domestic political mistake. As their plans fall apart, undone by their own lack of planning and the EU’s implacable defence of its own interests, it has fallen to Remainers to repeat the error.
Spend any time with Remain activists and you’ll soon find out they’ve convinced themselves their belief that Brexit is a self-evident disaster is universally shared. You will be presented by impassioned arguments that public opinion has swung decisively against Brexit, that the EU will find ways to allow Britain to call the whole thing off, and even, if you listen to Tony Blair, that it will make concessions to the UK on the free movement of people to have us return that it wouldn’t make for David Cameron when we were still inside.
They are motivated by a hope that it is possible to put Britain’s membership of the EU, fragile egg balanced on the top of a wall that it is, back together again.
Each of their arguments is far weaker than their proponents claim. While the polling average shows a tilt to to Remain, this is not because people have in the aggregate changed their minds (the numbers who’ve switched from Remain to Leave and from Leave to Remain are about the same) but because people who didn’t or couldn’t vote last time – mainly the staunchly pro-European young – are being factored into pollsters’ estimates. Turnout modelling is the most inexact part of polling, and nobody is quite sure how a new referendum would go. It is reasonable to expect Remain turnout to be higher, since no Remainer this time thinks the result a foregone concluson; but it is a mistake to think Leave will not also be able to mobilise its voters perhaps under the slogan, “What part of Go! do you not understand?”
Second, Remainers mistake European politeness for an actual desire to have Britain back in. The reality here in Brussels is that almost everyone is fed up to the back teeth with British demands for extra special treatment. All those opt-outs, rebates and vetoes exacted a heavy price in lost trust that feeds into the stereotype applied to the British not as paragons of fair play but as subtle and sinuous masters of what could be considered a Yes Minister-style irregular verb. I make pragmatic decisions. You concoct elaborate deals in your own interest. He’s perfide Albion.
Remarks like the recent ones by Sam Gymiah MP, who resigned from the government on Friday, that May’s Withdrawal Agreement would leave us without voice or veto only reinforce the sense on the continent that a returning British leopard would have no intention whatsoever of changing its spots.
The European Court of Justice’s advocate general (whose opinions are influential but not binding on the Court) today argued that while the UK could, before March 29, 2019 revoke Article 50 unilaterally, it had to do so “sincerely” – and suggested the Court, not the political Council would be the judge of sincerity. And while Europeans would welcome a Britain that had finally decided to become a proper member of the club, as evidenced perhaps by a decisive Remain majority, a Britain that voted back in by a minuscule margin would be the object of intense suspicion.
This suspicion will only be reinforced by the “Remain and Reform” line that Tony Blair — who hovers above the People’s Vote campaign like a troublesome but influential ghost — thinks should be adopted. Let us back in, he says, but only if we can be exempt from having to give your people the same rights to move here as they have in every other member state. We want your money, your international influence and access to your single market, but — God Forbid! — we don’t want your people. There are many ways to win friends, but this ain’t one.
Nor is the route to holding a referendum (let alone winning one) straightforward. To hold a one, it is necessary for a referendum act to be passed and therefore for the government to allocate the legislative time needed to pass that legislation.
In normal circumstances, were the Government to lose the “meaningful vote” on its Withdrawal Agreement, it would consider it a vote of confidence and resign, possibly fighting an election on the issue during which it could hope to make up whatever support it lacked that prevented it carrying the day. Advocates of a referendum could then campaign for the opposition, and if they won, gain the control of the legislature needed to carry one out. At a pinch, this could just be squeezed in before March 29.
But, and this is much more than a matter of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act getting in the way of long-established conventions, the Conservative Party is split in three. The government will not lose the vote on the Withdrawal Agreement by a few votes, but by a considerable margin, and the party is not yet so suicidal as to attempt to fight an election on a subject on which it hasn’t made up its mind, to defend a Prime Minister whose campaigning track record isn’t exactly first-rate.
Replacing the PM herself is not practical either. No faction — from Remainers who would jump at the chance of another referendum, to hard Leavers willing to countenance no deal, or even middle of the road loyalists who want the whole thing over with — is strong enough to be sure of taking over. And Tory party rules mean that a failed challenge guarantees her immunity from further putsches for another year.
If political pressure or internal party manoeuvres are unlikely to work, there is still the possibility of a parliamentary vote of confidence. Labour have said they would put one down. If it were carried, the Fixed Term Parliaments Act allows for 14 days to pass during which another government could be formed before an election needs to be called. If the DUP voted with the Opposition, the no-confidence vote would pass. Though there’s a conceivable possibility that a new Tory Prime Minister could obtain the support of the DUP, he or she wouldn´t be able to renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement, so the Ulstermen’s objections to it would have still hold. Unless they then backed down, the country would be plunged into a winter election in which the Conservatives would be in chaos but stuck with their sub-optimal figurehead Theresa May. The outcome of such an election is impossible to predict, but could well put Jeremy Corbyn in No 10 and John McDonnell in No 11.
These are high stakes for any Conservative Remainer. Voting down the Withdrawal Agreement could set in train a series of events that could lead to a new government being elected that could hold a referendum which could be won by remain. On the other hand, this new hard-left government could be led by Jeremy Corbyn, who would campaign in the second referendum with all the enthusiasm he showed in the first. The result of a referendum defeat — no deal Brexit — would be a disaster. Scottish independence, and even a United Ireland would be a distinct possibility. Brexit could even be confined to a “Former United Kingdom of England and Wales” (you can spell out the acronym yourself).
There is nevertheless an alternative. As I think Georgina Wright, now at the Institute of Government, was first to point out, the Prime Minister’s deal covers only the Withdrawal Agreement. It puts down in legal terms the parameters that any relationship between the UK and EU would need to have. These include in particular that Single Market membership requires the free movement of people and that there will be no hard border on the island of Ireland, so that if the UK wants to adopt its own trade policy there will have to be customs and regulatory checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. But it leaves the development of the future relationship open to negotiation within those parameters. Britain could, if it were happy to allow customs checks on cross-Irish sea traffic, pursue an entirely independent trade policy. It could also, and this is crucial, opt for a closer relationship like Norway’s (but with a customs union attached). While the “Political Declaration” insists that free movement would end, unlike the Withdrawal Agreement, the Declaration is not legally binding, so does not in fact rule out a “Norway+” arrangement.
It is the substance of the last proposal — the exact mechanism can vary; do not be distracted by the precise arrangements of Norway’s situation which may or may not apply to the UK — that is being advanced by Nick Boles MP. It is a compromise. To Remainers it is obviously inferior to being a member of the EU. It keeps Britain rather closer to the EU than many leavers would like even though it carries the not insignificant advantage, from a leave point of view of actually being outside its political institutions and the further political, economic, and even military integration that it is planning.
Unlike almost everyone else, who don’t stint in imagining new forms of “cake” to be proposed, and inevitably rejected, by the EU, Boles is now honest about the trade offs. His agreement requires the UK to accept freedom of movement (but immigration is now much less of an issue than it was two years ago). It would also require the UK to follow major parts of EU law (even if not directly through the ECJ), without having formal rights to shape it – in practice the UK would be able to exercise influence from the outside, but not as much, naturally as it could as a member.
But it achieves two crucial things of vital importance to Conservatives. It keeps economic disruption to a minimum because we would stay in the Single Market, and keeps the country together. There would be no need for a hard border on the island of Ireland or in the Irish Sea, this means the DUP could support it. Scotland wouldn’t have to go independent to escape No Deal chaos. And it is not just low party advantage to point out that it would avoid Corbyn and McDonnell coming to power in a few months.
As they vote on the Prime Minister’s Withdrawal Agreement, pro-Remain Tories need to weigh up the alternatives: vote against, for the outside chance of reversing the whole process, but also much greater risk of a no-deal cliff edge, an extreme Left government, and the breakup of the United Kingdom. Or support the Withdrawal Agreement and set a course for Norway+.