We’re out of options, and we’re out of time. As Parliament prepares to break for summer, the UK is facing one of the biggest political crises in our peacetime history. The government is being beaten into submission by an ideologically driven faction of hardline Brexiteers on the right of May’s party, and it faces rebellion from the moderates and remainers on the backbenches. With the October deadline fast approaching, the Tory party is on the edge of open civil war; this over a compromise that it’s taken two years to reach. The Labour Party isn’t much better, still grappling with the fact that it has two very different bases with different stances on Brexit, and a set of MPs who still seem very reluctant to rally around the leadership. Something has to give, and soon.
Ultimately, we’re in this mess because the referendum was a mess. Cameron held a referendum he didn’t expect to lose, and he lost. It was an ill-advised exercise in placating the Eurosceptics in his party — not a well-executed exercise in direct democracy. There was huge misinformation on both sides, because there was no plan (and certainly no consensus) on what Brexit would be if the people voted for it. Remainers painted an apocalyptic worst-case scenario, and Brexiteers conjured up a fantastical Brexit, with countries desperate to trade with us, and for which we would “negotiate the terms of a new deal before we start any legal process to leave”. The people didn’t vote for any one type of Brexit. We voted for or against thousands of spectres of it. That’s not to delegitimise the vote: whilst I have plenty of frustrations about how the referendum was handled, whichever way you dissect it more people voted to leave than to remain. That said, with the narrow margin, the fact that young people (who are going to be affected most) voted overwhelmingly to remain, the spectre of Russian interference, the revelations that Vote Leave broke electoral law, and the misinformation and vagueness from the campaigns, the mandate for Brexit is murky at best. There’s certainly no clear mandate for the kind of hard Brexit May’s peers are forcing her into.
Unfortunately, that does nothing to dissuade them. On all sides of the debate, MPs from both parties are digging their heels in. There seems to be very little chance of a Commons majority for any particular type of Brexit, and with the deadline drawing ever closer, we need this deadlock broken. We need to ask the people what they want.
— Yvette Cooper (@YvetteCooperMP) July 18, 2018
— Anna Soubry MP (@Anna_Soubry) July 23, 2018
We could have another election, with a new mixture of MPs shifting the balance of power in Westminster. It’s not likely. The Conservatives are well aware that they’re bungling Brexit, and that there’s every possibility that if an election is held soon it could thrust a Corbyn-led Labour party into government. Even we did get an election, it’s pretty clear that the balance of views in Westminster would remain fairly similar. We saw in 2017 that Tory voters are too disturbed by the prospect of a Corbyn government to defect to the Lib Dems or UKIP in any significant number, and Labour voters aren’t likely to defect when they’re this close to ousting the Tories. Unless there’s a major change in the candidates they’re putting up, an election could well see Parliament coming back and being no less stuck than before.
The people didn’t vote for any one type of Brexit. We voted for or against thousands of spectres of it.
When faced with the alternatives, a referendum is looking increasingly attractive. Just last week, the former education secretary Justine Greening threw her weight behind another vote, saying “I think we’ve got to recognise that this stalemate means there’s no decision coming out of Parliament, and that therefore means you have to put that decision back in the hands of the British people.”
This wouldn’t be a rerun of 2016 — it’d be a case of saying to the public: “given what we now know, we can have this deal, a no deal Brexit, or we could stay. Which do you want?”.
It’s not going to be uncontroversial, but it’s the most direct, the fairest, and frankly the only way to sort this mess out.
Europe has always been a point of tension for the Conservatives, and it brought down the last three Tory prime ministers. With Brexit a reality, the pressure and the tensions are greater than ever, and are only going to increase as we hurtle towards the deadline. Unless May can find a way to break the stalemate, it’s hard to see how the whispers of leadership contests and outright splitting of the party are going to do anything but grow. For once, the interests of her party and the country find themselves in alignment – Brexit stagnation will hurt the country, but it could prove fatal for the Conservatives.
The politicians clearly have no idea what the British people wanted. We can let them waste even more time and risk political chaos trying to reach a deal that’ll disappoint Brexiteers and remainers alike, or we can give the people the power to decide their future, and stop ideologically driven politicians bickering over the will of the people. The choice is simple. I just hope May has the courage to make it.