15 January 2019

MPs are playing a dangerous game of Brexit roulette


“Don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good” is one of Michael Gove’s favourite lines. He used it again on the Today programme this morning. In ordinary times, this could serve as a working definition of Toryism. But these are, as we all know to our cost, far from ordinary times and Brexit is a radical proposal, not a Tory one.

Nevertheless, Gove’s warning remains reasonable and it is one that ought to be considered by MPs from all parties all across the House of Commons ahead of this evening’s vote on Theresa May’s deal. Warning Tory Brexiteers that dumping May’s Withdrawal Agreement risks no Brexit at all is one thing, but there is a corollary to that which in more sensible times would be borne in mind by moderate Tories, moderate Labour MPs and even, in a dreamworld, the SNP. And that is that dumping May’s agreement with the EU also sharply increases the risks of the No Deal Brexit many of these MPs consider the worst of all possible outcomes.

That is the Catch-22 in which MPs find themselves this evening. Modestly increasing the chance of achieving your own preferred Brexit (or no Brexit) also significantly increases the chances of ending up with the outcome you desire least. Is that a gamble you really want to take?

At present, the answer to that appears to be Yes on all sides of the House. The cavalry have started to charge and there’s no way of issuing a recall instruction that will actually be heard, let alone obeyed. And so on they ride, rushing into the Valley of Death for they can do no other.

None of this makes the Withdrawal Agreement reached with the EU any better. Almost everyone can find something to dislike in it. Nevertheless, its sole strength is, paradoxically, its unpopularity. No-one backing May’s deal can achieve everything they want; but nor do they lose everything either. It may be but half a loaf and a stale one at that but there is just enough nourishment in it to satisfy the need to avoid a No Deal crash while also “honouring” the instructions delivered to parliament by the electorate.

Some of the objections to the agreement also verge on faithlessness. Hardcore Brexiteers once told us an agreement determining the long-term relationship between the UK and the EU would be a skoosh, a walk in the park, a festival of cakeism, and, not to put too fine a point on it, a piece of piss. Now, however, they have decided that the presence of the Irish backstop which only kicks into action in the absence of an agreement means they cannot accept Mrs May’s deal. The backstop is time-limited unless no long-term deal is reached. That might indeed take longer than two years but the backstop is now being used, cynically, as a reason to push for No Deal at all.

Brexiteer cynicism finds its match on the Labour benches, however. Labour’s official position remains that a general election is required to produce a Labour government that will then magically negotiate a better deal that passes Labour’s six Brexit tests. Since those tests amount to, in effect, retaining all the benefits of EU membership without the tedious inconvenience of actually being a member of the EU even bears of very little brain can understand this a non-starter.

Here we encounter the reality that not all preferences are equal. For some Labour MPs, a No Deal Brexit might be very bad but so is having a Conservative government. And when push comes to shove — as it always must — the latter is worse than the former.

The Prime Minister will lose her “meaningful vote” tonight and the only question is whether her humiliation is partial or total. Notionally, such a defeat opens the door to any number of possibilities. But, at least initially, even losing does not alter the fact that the prime minister’s deal is, for now, the only one on the table. Moreover, it is the only proposal to which the EU has agreed and there remain plenty of MPs who seem happy to forget there are two parties to this negotiation. An alternative plan needs to be able to get through Brussels as well as Westminster.

Perhaps the EU would be happy to extend the Article 50 process to allow time for a second referendum to be held. Plenty of Labour (and Lib Dem and SNP) MPs certainly seem to think so. But the problems obvious with a second referendum remain: what would the question be? Equally, it is not obvious that an anti-Brexit campaign predicated on telling voters they’re fools is bound to prove persuasive. At which point, the “clean” Brexit desired by the hardcore Brexiteers would be all but guaranteed. It is, at best, a high-risk manoeuvre.

Old Yeats was right, you know: “The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity”. Most of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s ERG rebels appear implacable. No Deal is what they have decided is best, largely because it has the thrilling appearance of finality and simplicity. The EU is a Gordian knot and they have a whacking great sword.

The Prime Minister cannot defeat the Moggers on her own. She needs help. Alas, she has from the very beginning made little effort to welcome others into her Brexit tent. It has always been too small for that. Her own red lines and her own partisanship have seen to that. The result is that she is all but alone and in no great position to beg for mercy or assistance.

Even so, her deal, for all its imperfections, remains preferable to the absurdity of No Deal and, perhaps, also preferable to the grimness of a second referendum. She can only be rescued by opposition MPs, however, who have hitherto shown little interest in saving a prime minister who cannot even bring herself to send out a Mayday signal. She has made her own difficulties and, in that sense, deserves to go down with her ship.

That does not solve the problem, however. It does not make the No Deal most MPs want to avoid any less likely. At some point MPs must vote for something, not just against everything. The Prime Minister’s deal has few strengths but one of them is that at least it exists. The question for sensible opposition MPs is whether they can stomach accepting something disagreeable on the grounds it is at least modestly better than some of the more unpalatable alternatives.

All the signs indicate that is not going to happen. Everyone is prepared to risk setting the village ablaze in order to save it. May’s deal is not a good one but a good deal was never likely. Making the perfect the enemy of the good, however, is akin to putting all your money on a single number at the roulette table. It might work but the odds are against you. By contrast, May’s deal is like betting on red or black; less rewarding but also rather less risky.

Alex Massie is a political commentator.