Hand poisoned chalice back to the people

Published by The ipaper (25th March, 2019)

Think back to those far-off days when Britain was a sane place, before we slumped into fear, loathing and nationalist self-mutiliation. It seems a long time ago, so dark are the gathering clouds, so angry the bitter divisions, yet less than three years back we were defined by something other than Brexit. Cast your mind to 22 June 2016, the day before that risible referendum ruptured our country. ‘Nobody knows what is going to happen,’ said its architect David Cameron, before adding: ‘I believe it will one way or another be decisive.’

Cue the hollowest of laughter as one side screams betrayal and millions on the other side sign petitions and march in mass protest. A vote selfishly designed to salve festering wounds of Tory civil war over Europe has ended up shredding two more prime ministers. It has wrecked the already-soiled reputation of Westminster, shaken economic stability and, most alarmingly, undermined Britain’s place in a turbulent world in which our values are under assault – not just from traditional foes, but even from supposed friends.

Cameron was right on one count: nobody really knew what would happen – least of all the voters who were persuaded to back Brexit by lies spewed out by self-serving hucksters. But it was always obvious that holding such a simplistic referendum risked far more than just our place in Europe; while it was clear even a crushing win for Remain would not silence his foes on the hard-right given their disruptive track record and declared intent to keep fighting if they lost.

Yet not even the greatest pessimist, nor the most devout europhile, thought that wretched ballot would leave Britain in such a shocking mess. Who knew our prime minister would be so pathetic, our politicians so incompetent, our opposition so toothless, our media so weak, our corporate bosses so supine, that Britain would still be bickering over Brexit four days before scheduled departure date? Let alone that the prime minister of the world’s fifth biggest economy would have to sit and wait like a naughty school child while other nation’s leaders determined our future.

This is a glimpse of Britain’s future if Brexit still goes through – although with luck, Theresa May’s dire deal is now dead after she displayed her phenomenal lack of political judgement again last week. But even if we end up with a less corrosive Norway-stule arrangement, the country is left weakened. We would be bound tightly to Brussels but devoid of influence. Oslo politicians have told me of lobbying allies to argue their cause, then waiting outside key European Union meetings that impact on their interests. Our politicians would have to get used to eating alone in their hotels at summits while leaders of other countries debate our fate.

May deserves blame for this debacle as we stand on the no deal precipice. ‘This isn’t about individuals,’ claims her chancellor as the vultures gather – but he is wrong. Her defensive skills that ensured Home Office survival proved entirely unsuited for navigating a path through the Brexit maze. She has made a string of mistakes, from triggering Article 50 too early through to robotically interpreting the referendum on her own narrow terms. Her botched approach, blundering diplomacy and blinkered partisanship have been accentuated by a lethal mix of shyness, stubbornness and stunning lack of political acumen.

Yet ultimately the finger of history will point firmly at the buffoons who sold Brexit to voters by exploiting prejudice against migrants, societal tensions and deep grievances over economic dislocation, political failure and flawed public services to further their own ambitions. The people who lit a fuse, ran away from the explosion and then blamed others for the damage. The people that peddled untruths about easy deals, Britain holding all the cards and big tax cuts. And the people that ducked responsibility for solving riddles they posed, refused to compromise – then bleated like feeble sheep about betrayal.

Do you remember Douglas Carswell, the former Ukip MP and leading light in the insurgency? He even suggested Brexit ‘might mean there is less space for anger in our politics’. Now we see a prime minister behaving like a populist rabble-rouser, a cabinet in open rebellion, the two main parties ripped apart, extremists of right and left resurgent, parliamentary traditions uprooted and even judges branded “enemies of the people”. Such is the uncorked fury that people terrorise an elderly woman behind an online petition urging the cancellation of Brexit while Anna Soubry, one of the few MPs worthy of respect in recent months, says she cannot go home due to death threats.

So how do we escape this mess that goes much deeper than the future of a failed prime minister? We have seen our nation shrivel while 27 neighbours stood united and top Tories play a game of thrones. Claims of taking back control have dissolved into dust, while unbending Brexit fanatics helped jeopardise their own dismal cause. Ideally the majority of MPs, who know in their souls the stupidity of Brexit, would finally behave with dignity by simply ditching this disaster, regardless of personal consequences. Failing that, they must go back to the people to find a way forward.

Another referendum would incense some voters – but sadly trust, the building block of democracy, has already been badly damaged by Brexit. This is the least risky route out of the quagmire. Bear in mind this is just the first stage. The alternatives offer more years of political paralysis, economic uncertainty, electoral anger and humiliation on the global stage. Besides, even David Davis admitted free nations must be able to change course in a rare flash of honesty from a leading Brexiteer. It is incredible, however, that we are almost three years into this shambles and just days before the original deadline – and still nobody knows what is going to happen.

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