Brexit fatigue is no excuse for a make‑do deal

Brexit fatigue: a condition in which you weep uncontrollably at the sight of members of the ERG; start twitching at the mention of meaningful votes; suffer hallucinations that you are being strangled slowly by one of Theresa May’s chunky necklaces while a waxen Michel Barnier recites the text of Article 50 like the last rites.

Goodness, we are bored with it. Bored, exhausted, sick to the back teeth. Louder grow the voices arguing that we simply need a resolution, whatever that may be. Last week various figures speaking for business said that we needed to crack on and do something — anything. “For God’s sake, just get on with it… accept second best if that’s what it requires,” declared the entrepreneur William Kendall. Adam Marshall, director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce, said businesses urgently wanted to “escape from the gravitational pull of the Brexit black hole”. Anything is better than limbo, millions cry: just finish this!

There are 650 people who will be painfully aware of this today. MPs know the public are heartily sick of Brexit, and they are too. Most did not come into politics to squabble about Europe and dodge lunatics of both fringes on College Green. They want to resolve this so that we can focus again on the NHS, creaking social care, underperforming schools, the mental health crisis in universities, the young people being stabbed on the streets, the quality of our air, the dynamism of our cities; everything that matters. There is, in short, extreme pressure to get the whole thing over and done with.

But to cobble together a majority for options that many feel are worse than the status quo — simply to get something over the line — is not in our long-term national interest. If MPs feel that the customs union arrangement or Common Market 2.0 are poorer deals than the one we have, they would be short-sighted to vote for them. This is not to mention the foolish idea circulating that no-deal would at least offer a resolution of sorts. The advice that it is best to rip the plaster off quickly works for plasters, not decades-old trading alliances.

And so, among a variety of unpalatable options, one which once seemed too radical now looks the most sensible: a confirmatory referendum, with the option to remain in the EU. In parliament last Wednesday, 268 MPs voted to indicate their support for another referendum. Those who abstained may have been fearful of backing the vote because of three powerful mantras of the defend-Brexit movement: holding another referendum would be an affront to democracy; it would be seen as an establishment betrayal; and it would sow more bitterness and divide Britain further. So oft-repeated are these lines that they have become gospel. Some MPs who know that we are heading in wildly the wrong direction are frit of following their gut because of these three arguments — but each can and must be knocked down.

Holding a referendum is hardly an affront to democracy; it is democracy. It is consulting the people on an issue of critical importance which has shifted significantly over the past three years. This is the most compelling argument for another vote: we know a lot more now than we did then. We know the limit of the EU’s concessions and patience, and we know that those German carmakers won’t, in fact, ride to our rescue. We know about the stumbling block of the Irish backstop. We know that a roll call of global names have started moving operations overseas.

We know that the Brexiteers’ promises were sheer fantasy. We know that talk of doing multiple trade deals with the rest of the world before March 2019 was more than a little optimistic. We know better how deeply interconnected our economy is with our European neighbours. Who, if we are honest, had spent much time before June 23, 2016 thinking about just-in-time supply chains, or indeed the technological issues on the Irish border, or the perils of chlorinated chicken? Millions of us voted in complete ignorance of what Brexit — any form of Brexit — would mean.

This is not casting aspersions on the intellect of the average Leave voter; most Remain voters didn’t know their Canada plus from their Norway minus either. The vast majority of us were not remotely qualified to make this decision. Now, at least, we have been better educated, and must be allowed the chance to reassess what we want in light of lived experience. As the Brexiteer David Davis once said, “If a democracy cannot change its mind, it ceases to be a democracy.” Amen, brother.

Neither should MPs be frit by the idea that a second referendum would be seen as an establishment betrayal. Face it: anything bar a no-deal Brexit will be called an establishment betrayal. Such is the nature of the Eurosceptic beast. Nothing it is fed will sate it. The permanently aggrieved will find reasons to suggest that the new status quo is a silver-spooned stitch-up, too. Of course I understand why MPs fear being labelled as we-know-best elites who have little care for the concerns of Leave-voting areas. But those who believe that any form of Brexit will cause pain to the poorest must have the courage to act on that belief. It is grossly hypocritical to try to be seen as a “champion of the people” while supporting a course you know will hurt those you claim to champion. Ultimately, do MPs care more that people “feel their voices have been heard”, or that they have a job to go to, enough money to provide for their children, decent public services they can rely on?

As for the argument that another vote will unleash yet more bitterness, bile and possible riots on the streets, surely we shouldn’t take decisions that will change our country for ever because of what the likes of Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (sorry, “Tommy Robinson”) and his ilk might do? Does the lion cower under the hovering bovver boot? Besides, does anyone realistically see this Kumbaya moment of “national healing” happening any time soon?

With most polls showing a majority for Remain, any option is bound to leave millions feeling disappointed and embittered. This is unavoidable. The day when the demons unleashed by Brexit climb meekly back into their box is a long way off — so the promise of imminent healing is hardly reason not to have a second vote.

Yes, we are all sick of campaigns, sick of promises, sick of wall-to-wall Brexit. The thought of dragging this out for months more makes me nauseous too. But the course of Britain’s next few decades will be set over these months. The important thing is not just to get this done — it is to get it right.

Clare Foges

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