26 February 2019

The Brexit mirage: lots of movement, but nothing has changed

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Here we go again. The more things appear to change the more they in fact remain much the same. This is one of Brexit’s enduring miseries. This has already been a remarkable week in which the leaders of both main parties have conceded — or at any rate appeared to concede — that the premises upon which they have based their Brexit policies are no longer applicable. Theresa May concedes, for the first time, that the Article 50 process may be extended; Jeremy Corbyn hints that, just perhaps, a second referendum may be required to end this sorry process once and for all.

Much of this apparent movement is in fact a mirage. Delaying Brexit is not the same as cancelling Brexit. Extending the Article 50 process is not very much more than another exercise in kicking this old can still further down the road. At some point, no matter how much they might prefer it otherwise, MPs will have to make some kind of a final choice. And the fundamental terms of that choice remain unaltered: it must be between some version of the agreement the Prime Minister has reached and no deal at all.

Which, since there is no majority in the House of Commons for the shock therapy of no deal, means the Prime Minister’s deal has more life in it than it may deserve. It still lives, albeit in a state of suspended animation, because the alternatives are deemed even worse. At the very least, it is an option to which the Commons may return. It remains on the table.

Theoretically, of course, another referendum also remains a possibility but the practical difficulties of such an enterprise have not yet been resolved. What, precisely, would it be a vote on? It is difficult to imagine circumstances in which Theresa May would agree to putting Remain on the ballot paper. That in turn means any so-called People’s Vote would simply be one between different types of Leaving. I am not convinced there is significant public appetite for that kind of question.

No clarity will come from the Labour party either, whose “constructive ambiguity” on this question should more properly be considered “destructive obfuscation”. Emily Thornberry spent Monday night touring television studios to spread the word that Labour might now promise a referendum in which the choices were the prime minister’s deal and not leaving at all. Naturally this was then countermanded day briefings from well-placed sources reiterating that any second referendum would not in fact offer such a choice.

As best one can tell – and these things are not easy to decipher – Labour currently has three policies on Brexit and a second referendum. There is the Thornberry position, backed by Sir Keir Starmer, in which it’s Leave vs Remain all over again. There is the leadership’s position which appears to be Leave vs Leave. And there is a third position in which all the options – Leave Like This, Leave Like That Instead, and Remain – might be on the ballot paper. Whatever your own view is, Labour has a policy for you. This is many things but it is chiefly hopeless.

Then again, so is the Prime Minister’s position. It is still the case that MPs are against everything and for very little. There is not, a majority for the Prime Minister’s deal and there is not a majority for no deal or a second referendum either. Brexit continues as limbo.

To the extent anything is clear, however, it is this: the Prime Minister’s deal is the hardest Brexit achievable. Jacob Rees-Mogg and his colleagues in the European Research Group have, at long last, been defeated. They now face a choice between a Brexit they dislike and the likelihood of an extended Brexit process that cannot plausibly bring them closer to their preferred brand of Brexit. This is as good as it gets for them. Compromising with reality may be unwelcome but it’s that or nothing.

Ardent no-dealers, however, must also recognise that voting “against” no deal proves little and changes even less. No deal remains the default setting until such time – and time is running out – as Parliament votes for something else. That may indeed mean extending the Article 50 process but that, once again, only delays the moment of inevitable, unavoidable, decision. Voting against everything is an implied – indeed guaranteed – vote for no deal.

In that sense – and this is a very Brexit thing – even when things appear to have changed nothing has really changed in reality. The underlying truths remain as hard and as stubborn as ever and everything else is either wishful thinking or a means by which, yet again, those truths can be ignored because they are so very grimly inconvenient. The question “What does delay solve?” is both pertinent and awkward because the answer, however much you might wish it otherwise, is “not very much, if indeed it solves anything at all”.

But if the ERG and the People’s Vote people are in a bind, so too is the Prime Minister and her dwindling band of followers. By agreeing that an extension of the Article 50 process is possible, May has thrown away whatever leverage she had over MPs who, dreading the prospect of a cliff edge Brexit, might have been persuaded to endorse her deal for fear of something worse. The cliff, of course, is still there. It is merely out of sight. When we approach it once again, the Prime Minister’s deal will be energised but for the moment it’s a non-starter.

All these manoeuvres, then, give the impression of feverish activity without actually advancing us towards anywhere in particular. The risks of everything have increased and since, for various compelling reasons, none of the options available are especially attractive, the chief certainty to be grasped at the moment is that this is a desperate shambles and nothing that has happened in Westminster in the past 24 hours has changed that.

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Alex Massie is a political commentator.