How did the irony escape us? I predicted on this page almost two months ago that while we were obsessing about Theresa May “running down the clock” on MPs, another was ticking: Brussels was running down the clock on us. And this week Britain was finally cornered into a humiliating six-month extension during which we’ve had to promise not to misuse our voting rights as a member of the European Union.
So here’s the second irony, also still escaping us. The limbo in which we now sit until November, and which everyone calls humiliating, is a trial run for a Brino (Brexit in name only) Brexit. Adherence to the rules, no United Kingdom veto, no vote in the selection of European commissioners. Our first taste of vassalage, and the response has not been encouraging.
We keep the benefits of membership at the whim of the “proper” members of the EU and the twitch of a French president’s eyebrow. This “humbling” of Britain which the news media now lament mirrors the status to which those MPs and commentators who call themselves compromisers and “reachers-out”, those who would “split the difference” between Leave and Remain, aim to reduce us. For the next six months we are rule-takers, not rule-makers. Now we know what Theresa May’s “implementation” period, and (probably trapped by the Irish backstop) beyond it, will feel like.
This too is the status Ken Clarke is proposing with his permanent customs union proposal. This is what Nick Boles and friends are recommending in their Common Market 2.0 plan. It is what some One Nation and Onward Tory backbenchers are pitching for; and it still remains (so far as I can tell) official Labour policy.
I turn 70 this year. Before I die I want to see our politics move on from bickering about Europe. But the fetishising of compromise proposed by archbishops, royalty, scared business leaders and most of the really nice people in British public life bids fair to prolong these agonies indefinitely. All seem blind to a great truth: there is no sustainable half-in, half-out solution to be had. For the British, satellite status will never bed in.
The prime minister will surely take one fourth crack at getting something like her deal through a “meaningful vote”. She’ll probably choose the days before May 22, after which (if her deal fails again) we’d enter the European elections.
It’s depressing to hear well-intentioned MPs talking about healing scars, avoiding a “divisive” referendum and finding a middle way with hardliners. The mirage of a promised reconciliation is seductive. The sorrowfully shaken head — “sadly, there’s no going back into Europe now” — is almost relaxing. “Too late” is always comforting.
Falsely so. Should a withdrawal agreement be passed, the compromisers should not imagine that in ten years’ time anybody will remember the pressures they were under to compromise, the honourable motives they had for compromising or how rough the alternatives looked. Historians will remember only the stupidity of the compromise itself, and the flicker and rumble of the unending guerrilla war that followed. By striking a temporary ceasefire, compromise can be the most corrosive outcome of all.
Before our latest extension expires, it will be three years since (again on this page) I wrote this, post-referendum: “The journey, once started, cannot be to a halfway destination without the implicit recognition that we should never have started it; because halfway is worse than staying put”. In other words we must all, at heart, place ourselves in one of three groups: those who want to remain in the EU; those who see a brighter future in a clean Brexit; and those who hold that if the electorate votes narrowly to self-harm then their politicians should stand by with razor blades and bandages. These last may call themselves the healers. I will never join them.
In the politics of our continent, Britain now seems likely to replace Julian Assange as the voluntary hostage upstairs. From this week onward the United Kingdom’s fate is in the hands of the president of France. Emmanuel Macron has used his half-reprieve at the EU’s emergency summit to put down a marker for what he may do as our extension draws to an end and we ask for another. In Friday’s Times, Bruno Waterfield and Oliver Wright (“Fright night ends in leaders subduing Macron’s resolve”) quoted a diplomat who was there: “[Macron] was pretty belligerent. He said [to Mrs May] why shouldn’t we just give you until May 22 to ratify the withdrawal agreement? Either it passes and if not then you would have to revoke Article 50 and cancel Brexit.”
But this time M. Macron did not push it to a French veto. Next time — unless we’re committing to a referendum campaign — he will.
Everyone who still resists a referendum can see only walls around them, and no door. Mrs May, obviously. The European Research Group Tory Brexiteers, noticeably — look how publicity-shy they’ve suddenly become, scuttling into the wings and leaving Mark Francois holding the microphone. But the “Euro-realist” Tory centrists trap themselves too, if chained to a doomed Brino compromise.
So may I address this thought to the Brexiteers? They will doubt my good faith but I really am trying to put myself in their shoes.
“Former colleagues, for all its horrors you ought to have supported May’s deal first time round because (as some of you now concede) it gives you scope for a second-stage heave. But her deal’s probably now blocked. You wanted (many of you) no-deal, but revoke has become the default option. And I understand the psychological temptation for you to march off into the wilderness, crying ‘Betrayal’ and ‘Our time will yet come’.
“But how about this one last try? Why not demand, instead of resisting, a fresh referendum? Get on to the front foot. A referendum may be coming anyway, and to enter the campaign complaining that the voters should not have been asked in the first place is no way to start. Even if the only Leave option on the ballot slip is May’s deal, you’ll this time be able to tell your supporters where, under a Brexit prime minister, the next Tory administration will be taking the implementation period.
“On balance I think Remain would win but I wouldn’t bet on it: you Leavers will have some of the best tunes.”
Remainers should vote for a confirmatory referendum in hopes of revoking. Leavers should do so in hopes of staying in the game. Then let the electorate settle it. I see now that there’s no other way.