As the Brexit process descends ever deeper into chaos, a simple argument has started to gain ground. Remainers want to remain. Leavers want to leave. So isn’t the obvious way out of this impasse to go for the version of leaving that is closest to remaining?
As I write, MPs are due to vote on whether they want to “take control of Brexit”. Even if that amendment fails, they are promised a series of indicative votes on their preferences. This has revived, from the near-dead, an idea being championed by a cross-party group of MPs including the Conservative Nick Boles and Labour’s Stephen Kinnock, under the brand names “Norway Plus” or “Common Market 2.0”.
The plan is to leave the EU, but protect the economy – and solve the Northern Irish question – by staying in the Single Market and customs union, or a very close approximation of both. Jeremy Corbyn has been having lengthy talks with the group, and is said to be keen.
It sounds like a sensible compromise. But, in fact, it shows exactly why Brexit has become such an intractable issue.
Last week, the People’s Vote campaign commissioned a new poll from YouGov. It showed – as all other recent polls have – that voters have polarised between no deal and no Brexit. The idea of leaving but staying in the key EU institutions was supported by just 13 per cent.
Equally striking were the more detailed findings. Both Remain and Leave voters (and, indeed, both Tory and Labour supporters) felt that retaining free movement – an inexorable consequence of the Norway Plus solution – would not honour the referendum result.
Nor would continuing to pay large sums to Europe or following its rules and regulations, which are both part of the package.
In other words, on the surface, Norway Plus looks like a sincere attempt to bridge the chasm between incompatible positions. But that bridge collapses once you put any intellectual weight on it.
Being bound by European rules, but having no say in their making. Continuing to make substantial payments to the EU. Having our potential to strike our own trade deals or diverge on regulation drastically curtailed.
Remainers would argue that, faced with this unappetising menu, you might as well stay in. For Leavers, it’s Brexit but without the Brexit.
Or, to be more specific, it’s a solution that denies us the chance to do any of the things that might actually give us a long-term competitive advantage: a Brexit devised by people who believe that there can be no upside from Brexit – only damage to mitigate.
And the thing is, both Leavers and Remainers have a point. Boles cites an academic study showing that this is “the compromise most people could accept”. But that’s like saying that I want Liverpool to win the Champions League and you want Manchester United, so we’ll settle on supporting Spurs.
We’re coming together out of horror at the alternative, not any actual enthusiasm.
Back in June 2016, I voted Remain. But when 17.4m people disagreed with me, I accepted their verdict.
Brexit had to happen – and it had to happen in a way that looked and felt like Brexit. That meant taking back control of our money, laws, and borders – and seeking to maximise opportunities rather than just mitigate losses. The worst thing would be to opt for a shoddy photocopy of EU membership.
Since then, millions have signed petitions. Many of them have marched through London’s streets. But there is little sign of the kind of mass “Bregret” among Leave voters that would invalidate the referendum result.
And as for the idea that the vote was invalid because the campaign was rigged, or that people were misled by some dodgy numbers on a bus, it’s worth remembering that the government spent £9.3m – more than Vote Leave’s entire budget – on a leaflet telling us that Brexit would cause the oceans to boil and crops to wither in the fields.
Whatever the outcome of the Brexit process, there will be pain, anger and disillusionment for many.
Personally, I still feel that – for all the passion shown by the marchers last weekend – the cancellation or indefinite postponement of Brexit would represent a crippling blow to our democracy.
We would effectively be telling millions of people beyond the affluent Remain heartlands, many of whom voted for the first and only time, that their vote was worthless.
Yet an almost equally poor outcome from this frenetic game of parliamentary ping-pong would be the embrace of Norway Plus, or a similar solution which offends the least number of people rather than energising the most.
Because once the dust had settled, we would realise that, in the name of trying to satisfy everyone, we had satisfied no one at all.