Chaos is coming. How should sensible, moderate Tories, who in their heart of hearts always feared that the last referendum set Theresa May an impossible task, respond? Do we bend our energies to helping a tottering prime minister keep the show on the road? Or do we march with the People’s Vote crowd this morning?
Convinced Leavers, disregard this column: you’ll be wasting your time. Here I shall be seeking not to convert readers to Remain but to offer — to those whose heads and hearts are already with the cause — some thoughts on how we proceed from here.
But why (you’re entitled to ask) does this ageing columnist and long-retired former Conservative MP presume to advise today’s politicians?
Because I have sensed among many of those who see clearly the mistake our country would be making on March 29 a sort of fatalism. They cower before what they seem to see as an extreme weather event, or perhaps a rogue asteroid hurtling towards us. In their frightened minds the fact that, by a narrow margin, it was the electorate who set these events in train has turned them into observers rather than shapers of history. In the unfocused words of Hecuba in Euripedes’ tragedy of the same name, “something [terrible] is going to happen”. Many Remainer MPs have in recent months struck me as little more than a horrified audience to an unfolding tragedy.
This is not true of all of them. Down beneath the forest canopy, worried Tory backbenchers have been maintaining a serious conversation with worried Labour backbenchers for quite some time; and these conversations are deepening and growing more urgent.
But any idea that at the last minute the parliamentary Labour party is going to ride to Theresa May’s rescue is for the birds. Short of totally acceding to Labour’s demand that Brexit delivers “the exact same benefits” as Britain enjoys as a member of the European Union, she can expect no sympathy among the official opposition. They believe — and they are right — that at the very outset she should have come clean with the country and with her own party about the limits of the possible. Instead she appeared to side with her Tory Brexit ultras, accused us Remainers of trying to “subvert democracy”, and then to the disgust of hardliners gave way in the face of reality, backslither by backslither, all the way down the line.
Moderate Conservatives, who could have been her friends, warned her at the outset that the Brexiteer Tory right would never be her friends. Now she is at their mercy. She will not get it from them.
I have the sense that it is slipping away rather fast for Theresa May. I well know the commentators’ worldly-wise argument (I’ve relied on it myself) that she’ll endure because there’s nobody to replace her, because everyone at Westminster fears a general election, and because, anyway, whoever becomes prime minister will face the same insuperable problems. True, true, all true: the arithmetic and the logic are on that argument’s side. But are the human dynamics?
Sometimes there comes a point in the disintegration of a person’s dignity and command when people stop asking about the alternative and succumb to an overwhelming sense that it’s over for the individual in question. That’s a human perception, not a political calculation. Start from that perception rather than trying to argue your way to it, and other futures become imaginable.
With her or without her, however, the House of Commons must decide the fate of any proposed deal with the EU that ministers bring home — if they can — next month or later. Over the summer I’ve formed the impression that potential Remain rebels on the Tory benches have been mulling over their options. Should they join the pro-Brexit European Research Group (ERG) in voting down the deal on the grounds that no “implementation period”, however extended, can mask the preposterousness of leaving the EU only to become its impotent satellite? Or should they support such a deal because the clean break that ERG ideologues crave would threaten our economy?
There is some fragmentation among Remainers as to the answer. The iron has now entered the souls of between six and ten Tory Remainers, who will vote against any deal likely to reach the Commons. Another group (though there is movement between groups) would suspend judgment until the conjectured deal can be inspected. A further group balk at the chaos the government’s loss of a “meaningful vote” would bring. All three groups agonise about appearing to defy the people’s will expressed in 2016 and about possibly toppling a Conservative government and letting in Jeremy Corbyn.
Chaos, Corbyn and the countermanding of the referendum. For Tory hesitaters there’s a remedy for all three: a new referendum, putting the final decision back to the people. If the government brings home a draft deal but MPs reject it, put it to the people. If it brings nothing home and a no-deal Brexit looms, put that to the people. In retrospect MPs now realise that in 2016 nobody could know what Brexit would mean. Now we do. So put it to the people.
For Mrs May or her successor there would be no disgrace in responding, albeit unwillingly, to a blocking of her way by the Commons. Let the people decide — and without another general election, which might not settle Brexit anyway.
Finally, though, a cautionary note. I’ve put some good reasons for a new referendum, reasons the electorate would understand and which can be advanced with moral confidence. But there could be a bad reason too, and I think voters will be very alert to its possible presence. If people think our ruling class disliked their first answer, and will ask again so they get it right second time round, public opinion will push back hard and angrily.
A new referendum must not be seen as having been imposed. It must be a response: a response to two evident problems. It must respond to a constitutional impasse, a visible roadblock in the Commons; and to a palpable and growing public demand for a new vote. Without these two a new vote will simply infuriate.
Both may come. But until they do, let the marches and demonstrations be led by the many, not the few. I want to hear talk of a new referendum in the post office queue, not the foyer of the Royal Opera.