Parliament has failed (again), so let the people decide Brexit with a Final Say referendum
The costs of Brexit, the tacit conclusion must be, are not worth it, at least on the terms agreed between the prime minister and the European Union
One of the many excruciatingly painful ironies associated with Brexit is that a process designed to allow the British parliament to “take back control” has seen it utterly fail to do so.
The issue has proved so divisive, so difficult and so costly that it has jammed the usually smooth machinery of British political life. It has split parties; it has made enemies of friends; it has undermined businesses and destroyed jobs; it has rent families asunder; it has made hard-working Europeans in Britain feel unwelcome. The constitutional status of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Gibraltar are in jeopardy. All to no avail.
The costs of Brexit, the tacit conclusion must be, aren’t worth it, at least on the terms agreed between the prime minister and the European Union. Hence the defeats.
But that is a judgement – now that we know the realities behind the sloganeering – that should rightly rest with the British people. In other words, even if parliament had approved the deal with a thundering majority, it should still have been put to the people. If not, then many would feel that they had never had the opportunity to give their assent to this momentous, historic decision.
Now, though, there is a less high-minded, though perfectly valid, reason for pursuing a Final Say referendum: parliament is deadlocked. Because it cannot reach a decision, the question must be put back to the people in a further popular vote.
A general election would not resolve this matter, because the likelihood is we would see another hung parliament, and the arguments would remain as they are. Much the same goes for a new Conservative prime minister – she or he would face exactly the same realities as Theresa May, though perhaps enjoying a marginal advantage in competence or luck.
There is, practically, no alternative left to another vote. In truth, Ms May could easily declare that, having made insufficient progress in parliament, she will now take her case to the country, and put her deal – which is a real, signed-off package rather than a mythical construct – against remaining in the EU on existing terms. She might even win, and gain the popular mandate that has thus far eluded her. It would be a perfectly respectable course of action. In any case it is the only one left to her.
For months, it has been apparent that our MPs know what they do not want; but they have proved unable to come to a decision about what they do want. Partly, that is a failing on the part of the prime minister, whose stubborn refusal to reach out to the opposition to frame some sort of cross-party consensus lies behind her recent humiliations.
She has been in politics a long time, including a spell as party chair. She knows well the nature of the Eurosceptics on her back benches and in the local associations. As Tory leader, she is unusual in actually liking her activists and coming from their ranks herself, having served in local government for a time. She should not now be taken aback when she discovers that the likes of Bill Cash and Steve Baker are always likely to ask for more. No one doubts their right to do so, nor their personal motives as honourable politicians. Yet the stubbornness of the European Research Group is unnatural, matched only by that of the Democratic Unionists and their “blood red” lines. So it proved. Ms May should really have known better.
Now it also seems certain that a no-deal Brexit will be taken off the famous table, and that the UK will have to ask the EU for a delay to the Article 50 process.
The question the EU will be entitled to ask now is: what is the delay for? If it is merely to spend another few months going around in circles then that would be futile – as most agree. If it is for the British to draw breath and collect their thoughts, then it would do some good.
In reality, a longer time period would be required to hold a further referendum, or to reformulate Brexit, with a view to a new deal eventually being presented to the British people. If that means remaining in the EU for another 21 months, as some Brussels sources suggest, it will be time well spent. It is currently far superior to crashing out.
At the end of it we might even find an answer to the conundrum of the Irish backstop, and actually have an actual UK-EU trade and security treaty to examine. If it takes time, then it takes time. Uncertainty is far better than a hard Brexit. The time has come: let the people choose their destiny.