Now that May has lost the vote on her Brexit deal, a Final Say referendum is the only option left on the table

There is a terrible, unbreakable deadlock and thus a referendum has emerged as the only way of resolving matters – as well as the right one

Tuesday 15 January 2019 23:05
MPs reject Theresa May's Brexit deal in overwhelming 432-202 majority

It is finally a dead deal. In her final statement tonight the prime minister claimed that her crushing defeat “tells us nothing”. She has never been more wrong. It might even have killed Brexit, to all intents and purposes.

The “meaningful” vote on Theresa May’s deal was indeed meaningful. The loss is historic. When Ms May asked the House of Commons what history will make of these events, she has her answer: the biggest defeat for any government and the biggest ever Conservative rebellion. She has, after 30 months of refusal, promised to “listen” to voices across the house. She needs to do this, and she needs to revoke or pause Article 50 to allow her sense of hearing to recover. She may find herself at odds with the remaining Brexiteers in her government, but the will of the Commons cannot be defied.

This defeat is not, as has sometimes been the case in the past, just a marginal defeat because some small band of otherwise loyal backbenchers decided to register a protest. It is worse than that, and far worse than some of the other recent notable government humiliations, for all parties, on tuition fees, the Iraq war and various measures in ill-starred budgets.

The “meaningful” vote on Europe has turned out to be a damning vote of no confidence in the government’s European policy. The May administration, as elected in 2017, albeit as a minority, has one central, transcendent aim: Brexit, and on acceptable terms. It has demonstrably failed. Even amendments around time-limiting the Irish backstop could not command sufficient support to rescue the cabinet’s policy. The only one that was called was crushed.

So it is just about as bad as things could get for Theresa May. Sensational as events have been, a vote of no confidence in Her Majesty’s government will be, strange to say, something of a sideshow by comparison, like her party’s own vote of no confidence in her leadership was a few weeks ago. Normally seismic events such as this are mere rumbles, given the Brexit meteorite about to hit us.

In a confidence vote on the Conservative government, as promised by Labour, every Tory, from Anna Soubry and Ken Clarke to Bill Cash and Boris Johnson, will support her, for the simple reason that they fear Mr Corbyn, or a combination of Mr Corbyn and Brexit, far more than they fear anything Ms May and her cabinet could do. The DUP is, additionally, not about to welcome such a friend of Sinn Fein into Downing Street, unhappy as they are with Ms May. Mr Corbyn will not get his general election, at least not yet. Even if he did, it would resolve very little.

The only practical purpose of Mr Corbyn’s move, then, will be to clear the way for him to back a Final Say referendum on Brexit. This is what an overwhelming majority of his members and MPs demand. It is the most popular option among voters. Despite Mr Corbyn’s almost palpable reluctance to follow his own party’s formal policy, as agreed at conference, he cannot avoid it. Nor can the eccentric band of Labour backbenchers ready to back Ms May’s deal with some flimsy guarantees about workers’ rights. Labour should soon be committed to a Final Say referendum, with Remain as an option on the ballot paper. Mr Corbyn and his party can, and should, secure another popular vote.

Ms May, it would seem, will attempt to kick the can down the road once again, though the end of the road is plainly within sight – a mere 10 weeks away.

Could she secure more “concessions” from the EU? Not now. The scale of her defeat makes it redundant, as Ms May tacitly conceded, and as EU leaders appeared to suggest via Twitter, within minutes of the result of tonight’s vote. Whatever new deal may emerge form cross-party talks, there remains a fundamental, logical, ineluctable problem with time-limiting an “insurance policy” – the Irish backstop – because to do so means it is not a permanent insurance policy but merely a temporary one, cancellable by one side unilaterally. At some future point it becomes useless. The EU shows no inclination to hang Ireland out to dry.

It bears repeating that the only way in which the Irish backstop would become irrelevant and soluble would be if some “technological” solution were discovered that would render it obsolete. Such a solution would surely have been discovered somewhere along the borders of the world’s 150-plus sovereign states so far – if it existed. There is no guarantee it will be found by 2022, as many Tory MPs would wish. If it is not, then come what may a hard border will appear on the Northern Ireland-Republic of Ireland frontier. Not only is this against the wishes of Ireland; it’s one of the DUP and Theresa May’s “red lines”. That is the trap that has ensnared Brexit, perhaps fatally.

The other option that is now coming sharply into focus as the Commons starts to take control is the “Norway-plus” deal – meaning an even closer relationship to the EU than the one Norway now has. Tory MP Nick Boles, working with senior parliamentarians from his own side and Labour, is leading a campaign to get this put into legislation, superseding the government’s own laws. It is gaining some cross-party momentum. The prime minister, at least, is prepared to consider it. She will need opposition votes to make it stick.

This would mean the UK remaining within the EU’s customs union and single market, whether temporarily or permanently. If “temporarily” in the customs union, then it would still leave the backstop issue unresolved, and would not move matters on from where we are now, and would not be attractive to the EU.

If “permanently” in the customs union, that would mean the UK is unable to strike trade deals outside the EU. In either case, it would mean accepting free movement of workers, almost unchanged from the current position and anathema to many Conservatives: Brexit “in name only”. More broadly, the Boles plan would leave the UK as the classic “rule-taker, not rule-maker”, or “vassal state” in the antique language of some Eurosceptics. Given that Norway is not in the customs union, the hard Brexiteers could say the UK would be the most vassal state of all.

The Boles plan, in essence, is another variation on soft Brexit and suffers from the same internal contradictions. It is, in terms of the national economic interest, vastly superior to either the May deal or no-deal Brexit – but politically it is deeply flawed. In any case, if passed with multi-party “rainbow coalition” support in the Commons, it too should be subject to a national referendum.

So, as soon as became apparent after the 2016 vote, Brexit is a self-contradictory conundrum, wrapped in confusion, based on uncertainty, a puzzle of endless complexities. Sherlock Holmes, a great problem-solver, once remarked: “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”

We now know pretty much what the impossibilities are: Ms May’s deal; a general election; and a no-deal Brexit, which is the one thing that is certain to be rejected by the House of Commons (as a recent rebel vote on the Finance Act demonstrated). The Boles plan may also fail in the Commons. That, then, leaves a second Final Say referendum as the solution, an event that once seemed highly improbable. Still, it has long been clear that it is the right thing to do, in order to carry the country into the future with the fairly and democratically expressed consent of the people, whatever that future may be. That would, in fact, be true even if parliament found itself in some easy consensus about Brexit.

Instead, there is a terrible, unbreakable deadlock, and thus a referendum has emerged as the only way of resolving matters – as well as the right one.

Soon, therefore, one way or another, the sovereign decision on Brexit will find its way back to the electorate. This is not “stealing” Brexit. Everyone who voted in 2016 can vote again. They can vote for Brexit again, should they wish. Or they can conclude that, for whatever reason, Brexit has proved to be a less easily deliverable paradise of opportunity than they were once told it would be. Now that they know the risks and the benefits of all the options, they should be given the opportunity to pass judgement. To do otherwise is to steal their democratic right.

Parliament has demonstrated that it cannot reach agreement. In such a circumstance, no democrat should want to refuse the people their right to leave or to stay in the EU. No democrat should threaten a far-right backlash because we are conducting a nationwide vote. No democrat should seek to sabotage a free and fair plebiscite. The Final Say referendum is looking inevitable.

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