Brexit, as you may have noticed, isn’t going especially smoothly. And one of the most obvious casualties of Britain’s stumble out of the EU has been Conservative Party unity.
True, Michael Gove this week offered a stirring reminder that the most important dividing line in British politics is still between those who can abide the idea of Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn and those who cannot. But apart from that, the blue-on-blue fire has been unrelenting.
Hardly anyone has had a good war. But there is one group that has adopted the most disingenuous stance of all.
I am not referring to advocates of the hardest possible Brexit, but those at the other end of the spectrum. They pose as the only grown-ups left in their party, while acting with complete recklessness in pursuit of a damaging and likely unobtainable objective – a second referendum.
It is one thing for an MP who thinks a no-deal Brexit will be a disaster to do everything in his or her power to stop such a situation from coming to pass. It is quite another for an MP to deliver among the most eyebrow-raising warnings of just how apocalyptic that outcome would be – before taking steps that make such a scenario more likely.
Here the examples of Anna Soubry and Nick Boles are instructive. Both voted Remain. Last month, both threatened to leave the Conservative Party if the government allowed a no-deal Brexit to happen. Both were signatories to Dominic Grieve’s controversial amendment. Both have received unpleasant abuse for their stances.
But an important distinction was established in the voting lobbies on Wednesday: Boles backed the Government’s deal. Soubry did not.
In fact, of the 17 Conservative MPs who put their names to the Grieve amendment, eight voted for the deal on Tuesday’s night and nine voted against.
Boles, Oliver Letwin, Ken Clarke and Nicky Morgan are, in the taxonomy of plenty of Brexiteers, filed under “Irredeemable Remainers” alongside Grieve, Soubry, Sarah Wollaston and Jo Johnson.
But if you contrast the first group’s support for one of the only two versions of Brexit currently on offer (May’s deal and no deal) with the latter’s opposition – in defiance of the manifesto upon which they were elected – that categorisation starts to look not only inaccurate, but unfair. The distinction that must be drawn is between responsible Remainers and reckless ones.
It is not just on the Tory side that the advocates of a second referendum are running into difficulties. Even at this late stage, they still cannot tell us exactly what problem their proposal would solve.
Their objective is simple enough: stopping Brexit. However, they know that in the eyes of the public they cannot be seen to be just asking voters again and again until they get the answer they want, so they furnish their position with a fig leaf of procedural decency. The facts have changed, the people deserve a say on the final deal, young people were denied a voice.
To which I offer this thought experiment. If indeed we did revoke Article 50, would those crying for a People’s Vote still be demanding another vote, to settle the issue once and for all? Of course not. Because they only want people to keep voting if it delivers the answer they want.
What is remarkable, given the Brexit muddle, is how little headway the champions of a second referendum have made remarkably little headway in rebutting the objections to their position. Even at this fraught moment, voters agree by two to one that ‘Theresa May is right to warn that if Brexit is stopped it will cause a catastrophic and unforgivable breach of trust in our democracy’.
The latest and most fashionable fig leaf is that only the people can break the deadlock that Westminster finds itself in. That sounds plausible enough, until you realise that it rests on the idea that ‘the will of the people’ can be easily deciphered and straightforwardly acted upon.
And if you think that, then I envy your ignorance of the last two and a half years of British politics.
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