Why is this happening?
Although there are many reasons for this crisis, it derives ultimately from the fact that the Leave campaign did not specify, and therefore the leave vote could not endorse, what Brexit actually meant. That was entirely irresponsible, but it was not accidental. Only by holding together disparate and incompatible versions of what Brexit meant was it possible to win the vote.
It’s this, even more than the closeness of the vote, which has dogged Brexit. At PMQs this week an MP drew a comparison with the referendum on Welsh devolution in 1997, which was even closer and on a much smaller turnout and yet no one questioned the result. The implication – which May agreed with - was that the same should be true of the EU referendum result. But implementing the Welsh vote was straightforward: everyone knew what it meant and how to do it. In the case of Brexit the opposite is true.
This basic fact is what has led us through all the twists and turns to the present situation. It meant that any attempt to implement the result was always doomed to fragment the coalition that brought it about. That’s why (as I’ve argued many times on this blog) Theresa May should have attempted to develop a more consensual form of Brexit – not just because it would have been the fair thing to do but because it was politically necessary.
Of course, had she done so, the ERG Ultras would have rejected that and done all they could to wreck it. But the point is they have done that anyway, and they were always going to, because their position is one of permanent campaigning and permanent grievance: nothing was ever going to satisfy them. By trying to do so May failed to build the support from elsewhere that might have enabled her to deliver a deal that MPs would accept.
Indeed, even now that the Ultras have turned on her, she continues to deploy their slogans so as to treat the 2016 vote as an inviolable mandate to deliver Brexit in the form that she has ordained, on the date she has ordained. It is a monocular, Terminator-like, dedication to a very narrowly defined mission from which she has only deviated to the extent that at some point last summer she realised that it could not be done in the fantasy way that the Ultras had said (and still say) was possible, and that she had so foolishly promised to give them. From the moment she did so, she lost their support. Now, they have struck out and even though they got enough votes to hurt, they failed to land the knockout blow.
Now May has to be honest
Such a blow may still come from a parliamentary confidence vote but, if not, the issue now is whether she continues to fail to see that the 2016 vote is not enough to take her to where she thinks it forces her to go. She has always resisted parliamentary involvement – most obviously in the absurd legal fight against Gina Miller’s Article 50 challenge – and resented it, too. That’s evident in, for example, the way she made a special trip to the House of Lords to glare, basilisk-like, at the Peers as they debated the Article 50 notification, and in the way she framed the 2017 General Election in terms of parliamentarians not having accepted the ‘country’s’ consensus. But there is no consensus in the country, as both the referendum and the election result showed and as subsequent events have confirmed.
For these and (of course) many other reasons it’s no surprise that by this week it became abundantly clear that May’s deal was going to fail spectacularly, leading her to defer the vote to an unspecified date. There simply isn’t the straight line that May imagines from the 2016 vote to ‘delivering it’. In her statement that prematurely ended the meaningful vote debate, May challenged her critics to be honest about what their own preferred approaches meant. She needs to do the same.
She has – unlike anything her opponents in both the Conservative and Labour parties have proposed – come up with a workable deal, in the sense that, operationally, it could be delivered. But it isn’t politically deliverable and because she refuses to understand that the 2016 vote isn’t a big enough engine to make it so, she is resolutely opposed to the second referendum which, very conceivably, would do the trick for her. Every time so far that the idea of another vote is put to her she rejects it on the grounds that the electorate have already voted to leave, rather than seeing it as an opportunity to enable them to support her in what, according to her, is delivering on what they want.
Will May use the lifeline?
Having now seen off the Ultras’ challenge – the latest in a series of miscalculations deriving from a dogmatic zeal that may well yet lead to the delightful irony of the ‘prize’ of Brexit slipping through their fingers – May now has an opportunity to recalibrate. She failed to free herself but, bizarrely, they have gifted her that freedom. They can’t challenge her again for a year, and she knows they will never support her. The crucial question for her, and much more importantly for the country, is what she does with her freedom.
The first thing she needs to do is to be upfront in admitting that she isn’t going to get any substantive change to the Withdrawal Agreement. Everyone knows that. She only said it to placate the Ultras and now there's no need and no point. It’s not a matter of EU recalcitrance but the fact that the EU has no room for manoeuvre on the fundamental issue of the backstop precisely because of the UK’s red lines that she herself drew. Even if she gets a bit of linguistic tweaking and some warm words, she won’t get her deal through parliament.
That being so, and given her evident commitment to her deal, her most obvious course is a referendum: ‘my deal’ versus remain. Too late for the Ultras to complain that this doesn’t include a ‘proper Brexit’ or ‘no deal’ option: they’ve blown it. Clearly this course of action would require a massive backtrack on what she has said so far, but she has some track record in that respect despite her reputation for stubbornness. It would also need an extension of the Article 50 period, but it’s widely believed that this would be achievable to accommodate a referendum.
A conceivable alternative could be to pivot to Norway Plus, for all its difficulties and unresolved quandaries*. It would, arguably, only need relatively achievable changes to the Political Declaration rather than to the Withdrawal Agreement. That could be done without a referendum, and in that way would be consistent with her mantra that the vote has already happened, and now parliament must deliver. It might not even need an extension of the Article 50 period. But of course this alternative, too, would require her to backtrack considerably, especially on her implacable hostility to freedom of movement.
One thing I do not think is currently feasible, even though some remainers hope for it, is to use this week’s ECJ ruling to rescind Article 50 but without another referendum (more discussion of this and related issues here). That would be neither politically realistic nor legitimate, and would carry real long-term danger of never putting the EU issue ‘to bed’ in British politics, which goodness knows is going to be hard enough anyway. Whatever people – myself included – may think of the conduct and folly of the 2016 Referendum, its result is a political fact. Arguing that ‘legally’ the government could rescind Article 50 without a referendum, whilst true, has as little traction as the equally correct argument that the 2016 referendum was only advisory. Political and legal realities are not always the same thing.
Either of the two scenarios sketched above would require a complex cross-party alliance, since neither would get the support of the Ultras (although it is conceivable that the DUP could support the second scenario, as it would be consistent with their deepest red line of there being no divergence between Northern Ireland and Great Britain). It wouldn’t be a ‘national government’ in the way that some, including me but rather more significantly the MPs Nicky Morgan, Sir Nicholas Soames and Anna Soubry, have speculated about, but it would entail getting support from some MPs from opposition parties. To do so would – to use May’s favourite phrase – be to act in ‘the national interest’.
Doing this wouldn’t be easy for anyone, especially someone with May’s temperament and skills. My fear, and in fact my expectation, is that what this temperament will lead to is that rather than using this moment to effect a fundamental reset, she will use it to plough on with her deal, shamefully leaving the meaningful vote to the latest moment possible in the hope of bouncing MPs into supporting it because there is so little time to do anything else. That would squander the very small chance that she – and we – have to get out of this mess. If that happens then the crisis we are currently in will continue and intensify.