A vote on Brexit, in Parliament or in the country, is more important than the timing

The Labour Party has moved a great deal towards a more pragmatic and patriotic stance in recent months, and it may not be long before they advocate a final referendum for the British people on the eventual terms of Brexit

Wednesday 25 October 2017 16:23
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British Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, David Davis
British Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, David Davis

Who is right about the Brexit vote: David Davis, Theresa May or logic?

In fact, logic has a place on both sides of the argument, which doesn't help. When the Brexit Secretary told a select committee of MPs that the vote might have to be held after the UK formally leaves the European Union in March 2019, he offered the perfectly rational explanation that a vote cannot be held on an agreement that may not exist.

When the Prime Minister shortly after told the whole House of Commons that the British Parliament, as with the other national and regional assemblies, and the European parliament for that matter, must ratify the treaty, then she was correct too.

Politically, the UK cannot be pulled out of the EU without Parliament at least agreeing to the terms (and, much better, those being referred to the British people in a final referendum). And yet diplomatically and legally it may be that Article 50, unless extended or somehow made conditional by agreement, will dump the UK outside its old club precisely at midnight on 29-30 March 2019 (for which historic moment Big Ben might be coaxed into a few bongs).

So not for the first time this unprecedented process has fallen victim to its own contradictions. Brexit has, again, run into a tangle of political, legal and logical puzzles which are, in reality, necessarily irreconcilable. Like the Irish border issue, it is not a matter of political goodwill or expertise or even differential interests that divides the sides, but simply the intrinsically impossible task of adding two to two and trying to get three.

Indeed, the entire process of Brexit is one enormous exercise in trying to square the biggest circle of all; frictionless access for UK and EU goods and services to each other’s markets (or as near enough to the current position as possible), but with the UK effectively opting out of the provision for freedom of movement of labour.

The UK may be allowed to have its cake and eat it, if (some of) the noises emanating from Germany are to be believed, but then again it may not, or it may only do so at an enormous cost in contributions to the EU budget. The idea of Theresa May, Liam Fox, David Davis and Boris Johnson gambling with the British economy is not a reassuring one.

Cutting through this Gordian knot would require a political authority that has long since slipped away from Ms May’s grasp. To be fair to her, it has also been notably lacking from the approach of Jean-Claude Juncker and his chief negotiator, Michel Barnier. That is partly a matter of political accident (the British general election of 2017 – a classic unforced error), and also of personality; but it is much more of power and leverage.

The EU certainly possesses the most heft in these talks, but the British do have some cards to play, and the Eurosceptic claim that the EU wouldn’t benefit from walking away from the talks and moving to WTO terms is certainly true. And yet the British may be pushing them towards such an outcome. As time goes on the pressures and the scope for accidents and misunderstandings simply multiply, and the damage to economies from the uncertainty grows.

It is wishful thinking to suppose that the latest confusion over the timing of a parliamentary vote on Brexit might sow in a few more Tory minds the insight that “no Brexit is better than no deal”. Yet that may well be a conclusion that the public moves steadily towards as the evidence grows of the disruption and damage to living standards Brexit would mean.

Crucially, the Labour Party has moved a great deal towards a more pragmatic and patriotic stance in recent months, and it may not be long before they advocate a final referendum for the British people on the eventual terms of Brexit. Whatever the legalities and the practical diplomatic means required to do so, the sovereignty of the British people has to be respected in this most momentous of decisions.

The imperative for a final say on the actual terms of Brexit, whenever it may come, is something no government can ignore. Anything else would leave the UK's exit from the EU badly compromised and lacking in democratic legitimacy. It has been a divisive enough issue already and will continue to be so. The country owes it to itself to try and make one last effort to agree on the way forward after an informed debate. The substance of a final vote on Brexit, in Parliament or in the country, is more important than the timing, provided it is understood that the eventual Treaty cannot take effect unless that consent is granted.

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