Observing the dog’s breakfast that is the Brexit process in Westminster brings to mind the saying attributed to Albert Einstein that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting different results.
The second meaningful vote has gone the same way as the first, and hints are now dropping that the siren song of a third vote is lulling the Prime Minister into believing that this time, the outcome can be different. Perhaps it is necessary to take stock of our national impasse.
The House of Commons is deadlocked about how to proceed with Brexit. The Prime Minister’s deal is dead because – as predicted in this column – concessions from the EU cannot be achieved without placing the interests of the UK (an exiting member) ahead of those of Ireland (a continuing one).
We continue to labour under the illusion that the EU places economic interests above political ones, and that it will all be alright on the night – presumably five minutes before Brexit. Such talk is for the birds as nothing to date supports this conclusion.
Nor is no deal favoured by our politicians, even though it remains our legal default position. In fact, it is unclear if any form of Brexit has a majority in the Commons.
Therefore, the scene is set for an extension to the Brexit process for an undetermined period, possibly for as long as 21 months, even though we have little idea what purpose such an extension would serve. After all, if we have not yet understood the fundamental reality that there are only three options available – the Prime Minister’s deal, no deal, and remaining in the EU – then it is difficult to see what will convince us of this in the months to come.
In retrospect, the process was always likely to end this way. The 2016 referendum was a real vote, but with a theoretical outcome. Because the Leave position was undefined – unlike Remain – and there were no manifestos to hold campaigns to account, it was possible for those voting for it to believe that whatever form of Brexit they personally imagined would be that which emerged. Thus MPs can claim to have respected the 2016 decision by splitting votes in 2019 between the Prime Minister’s deal and no deal. Neither group are wrong. But they cannot resolve their differences because they stem from a contested premise.
There are only two ways out of this situation – other than kicking Brexit into the long grass through a significant extension. The first is a general election, which should be discounted immediately as resolving nothing.
Under such a scenario, candidates standing for the Conservative and Labour parties would be forced to accept their party’s stance on Brexit as a condition of standing for election. Can anyone imagine the ERG members signing up to the Prime Minister’s deal, or Labour candidates in Leave-supporting seats endorsing the softest of Brexits? Imposing the party positions would lead to resignations and splits. Not doing so would leave us in an even worse position than today, with no consensus among MPs who could now claim a personal mandate.
Which leaves the idea of a referendum. Much ink has been spilled about going back on the 2016 vote, but the reality is that three years have passed. We have held general elections in shorter time periods. If we can make decisions about something as complicated as selecting a government across a range of policy decisions, it is risible to suggest that we cannot on a single issue.
The format for such a referendum would need to be two separate questions on the same day, with the second question only being counted if the first one did not get a majority. A straight Yes or No option to the Prime Minister’s deal would be voted on first, as the conclusion of the 2016 process. Should that pass, then the people will have endorsed her deal, and Brexit will be secured on those terms.
Should it fail, then the second question would come into play, which would be a choice of the only two other real, as opposed to fantasy, options left: leaving with no deal, or remaining in the EU.
There will no doubt be a collective shriek of horror about such “extreme” positions being put to the people. But if the Prime Minister’s deal is rejected, they are the only ones left that we know with certainty we can secure.
Knowing that these are the options would concentrate people’s minds about what they really want from Brexit. Those recoiling from absolute solutions would choose May’s deal. Hard Leavers will recognise that this is their only opportunity to secure a no-deal Brexit. Remainers will have the opportunity of exorcising the ghosts of 2016.
Above all, everyone would finally be heard in this debate and have had the opportunity to vote for a practical outcome. We would all have dipped our hands into the blood of a clear result without needing to blame a particular party or leader for it. The political logic of this is inescapable, even if the political will to accept it is mystifyingly absent.
The people started this process, and only the people can end it. Let us get on with it, and end this grotesque charade before it consumes us completely.