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Ian Birrell

  • Award-winning columnist and foreign reporter. Contributing editor of The Mail on Sunday and weekly columnist in the 'i' paper. Writes regularly for many other papers, platforms and magazines. Frequent broadcaster and speaker at events. Co-founder wth Damon Albarn of the Africa Express music project and executive producer of 4 albums...Read more
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When will we define Brexit?

Published by the ipaper (14th January, 2019)

Even the word sounds like a curse now. Once the idea of Brexit was wrapped up in flickering images of past glories and fading dreams of imperial greatness as some kind of vague populist insurgency against distant elites. Now it lies exposed as an empty conceit, pushed by a bunch of upper-crust chancers that have largely fled the political frontline as their claims collided with reality. Yet still it corrodes the body politic like a flesh-eating disease. And this week, finally, a deadlocked Westminster must define precisely what this word means for the future of our divided nation.

For Britain faces a rendezvous with destiny over these coming days that will have repercussions for us all. Those lies tumbled so easily from the lips of Leavers who never thought victory likely: that severing decades of alliance was simple, we held all the cards in negotiations, a new trade deal would be quick and easy, we would stay in the single market, the union would be stronger, the health service richer, that migrants were to blame for Westminster’s failings. Douglas Carswell, one of the key Brexit buffoons, even suggested it might mean ‘less space for anger in our politics.’

Remember this deceit as politicians deal with death threats and hacks are harassed by fascists outside parliament. Now, after all the bile and bullshit, it is crunch time as a nation once admired for calm representative democracy sends military planners to prepare for border chaos. Unless the Prime Minister chickens out again – aware that threats and tricks have failed to sell her pitiful deal – she must ask the House of Commons to back a plan to weaken the country. She will almost certainly suffer humiliation with possibly the biggest post-war defeat for any government on our most important post-war debate. ‘The big issue is how far into three figures her defeat goes,’ said one key Tory rebel.

Much hinges on the scale of defeat to drive home to this stubborn prime minister that she needs a fresh approach. Yet even now key allies show how little they have learned from recent events. Chris Grayling, arguably the most inept cabinet minister this century who leaves chaos in his wake like the slime behind a snail, slides into the gutter to claim blocking Brexit could boost the far-right. Such scaremongering plays into hands of nasty extremists. It also ignores how bungling politicians broke the crucial bonds of voter trust – and the shameless way Leavers hitched themselves to dark forces of fear to send Britain spiralling into this mess.

Such a seismic defeat should mark the end of a prime minister – especially one as weak and useless as Theresa May. Yet some MPs fear she may attempt to keep coming back to them with tiny tweaks to her deal as the exit date looms closer, carrying with it deadly threat of cliff-edge departure. With luck, the equally-incompetent Labour leader will move his much-threatened vote of no confidence. Once that has been defeated, more sensible figures on both sides are free to plot a path through the torturous political maze ahead.

One key Labour source told me he expects May to offer an armful of olive branches to their side. Yet still no one really knows what will happen. The Prime Minister still possesses power to set the parameters of debate, even as parliament takes back some control from the executive aided by the Speaker, and breaking down of tribal boundaries. Civil servants are being briefed that no-deal remains the most likely scenario, with an extension of Article 50 the next favourite. Other central players think ‘Norway Plus’ will be the outcome, which is essentially Brexit boiled down to staying in the Brussels club but with no say on rules. 

This is the least bad outcome if politicians fail to prevent the train crash – although it is still highly corrosive for the country and such subservience greatly diminishes our strength. Sir John Major’s proposal to revoke Article 50, triggered so foolishly with no clear path ahead, is logical but unlikely to fly. One wag suggested the best solution would be if the House of Lords junked Brexit, then the whole nation could turn on the outdated chamber and abolish it. What a smooth way out of this self-inflicted crisis – but sadly it is constitutionally impossible.

Ideally Westminster would do its patriotic duty and divert disaster. If they do not have the bottle to do it themselves, then there must be a second vote with option to remain in the European Union now that voters can see the meaning of Brexit. This is similar to the informed consent a patient signs before surgery, as pointed out by the doctor-turned-Tory MP Sarah Wollaston. It would be good to see May back this. Asking voters to break the logjam after defeat would be far more legitimate grounds for a U-turn then her breathtaking breach of promises not to call a general election.

Arguments against another vote are spurious. Screams of betrayal can already be heard, squabbling over departure terms will continue for years under May’s deal and extremists have been unleashed by this nationalist cause. And how can it be undemocratic to ask people to vote? The only other option to avoid the curse is a government of national unity that embraces all the grown-ups in parliament doing their best to save the country – people such as Yvette Cooper, Hilary Benn, Kier Starmer and David Lammy from the Labour side, alongside Ken Clarke, Dominic Grieve, Anna Soubry, Jo Johnson and Oliver Letwin among the Tories.

But give mercy for small thanks: at least Britain could be about to finally define Brexit.

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