It is not too late to escape this epic mess

Published by The ipaper (12th November, 2018)

Once again, the lions have been let down by donkeys. There are many villains in the Brexit debacle: David Cameron for calling a disastrous ballot, Theresa May for triggering Article 50 with no idea of resolution, Boris Johnson for perpetually putting ambition before national interests, Jeremy Corbyn for failure to offer any opposition. But finally we arrive at the moment in this corrosive chapter of our history when lies and posturing confront hard political reality.

It has been a dismal saga from start to finish, diminishing an influential democracy previously seen as a bastion of pragmatic common sense. Already the upper-crust generals of Leave bleat about betrayal as they duck responsibility for their actions. Some such as Johnson have already fled the cabinet frontline as the consequences of their actions become apparent. Others like Iain Duncan Smith, the worst Tory leader in memory, and Owen Paterson, arguably the worst cabinet minister this century, still parrot soundbites such as ‘Downing Street needs to wake up and stare Brussels down’. It is pathetic given the circumstances.

Many might pity the Prime Minister as she picks her cautious way through a political minefield, dodging bullets from all sides while rivals dig trenches. Yes, she is trying to protect the nation from the consequences of ripping up its key alliance. Yet we should not ignore that May is author of much of her own misfortune, from bungling a vote that depleted her ranks so disastrously through to constantly inflicting her own blinkered interpretation of Brexit on the nation. Regardless, as the dark tide of populism is turned back slightly from Poland to the United States, Britain remains stuck in a self-inflicted quagmire. We must find the best escape route.

The resignation of Jo Johnson has shone harsh light on our plight. He may have been miffed by ministerial demotion from higher education to transport, forced to serve under the woeful Chris Grayling, but he is a self-effacing and loyal figure who acted out of frustration. It is hard to argue with his sharp analysis: ‘To present the nation with a choice between two deeply unattractive outcomes, vassalage and chaos, is a failure of British statecraft on a scale unseen since the Suez crisis.’ And as he says, what is being proposed now is nothing like what was promised two years ago with all that hogwash about ‘the easiest trade deal in history’.

May’s team hoped to cobble together a deal they could proclaim to the public as historic while bringing enough MPs on board to squeeze through a vote, even if only by terrifying recalcitrant Tories with the threat of Corbyn in power. One key figure told me last month that effectively Britain would remain in the European Union ‘but as a rule-taker and not a rule maker’. Now as they prepare to bring their battered proposals back to the Cabinet, possibly this week, they accept that the parliamentary arithmetic almost certainly fails to add up. Besides, fudging a solution to the Irish border issue only extends and intensifies the torment.

So what happens if May’s deal is defeated? She might quit, crushed by failure, although her future is the least interesting aspect of this epic crisis. She might adopt no-deal arguments and rant about European intransigence in a desperate effort to keep her job. Or she might plough on in her mulish way, proposing an extension to Article 50 or even asking the country to back her in a second referendum.

Yet her deal – as even key figures at Downing Street admit to me – is substantially worse than current status and significantly weakens our sovereignty. For all May’s bold talk of respecting the referendum result, her plan goes against everything promised to the electorate by those triumphant hustlers of the hard-right. And weirdly, one eccentric family now defines this debate as they savage a prime minister from very different standpoints.

Jo Johnson, showing the seriousness that has always eluded his brother, exposed with impressive clarity the dilemma facing Westminster. Do MPs want to go down in history as backers of a botched deal that is bad for Britain? Or are they prepared to vote it down, chancing the catastrophe of no deal, in order to find a way – whether through risking a second referendum or even a contentious parliamentary vote – of remaining in Europe? This would, after all, clearly be the patriotic outcome.

Several moderate Tories told me last week they fail to see how another referendum would heal the divisions opened by this tragic process. ‘In my own constituency, views seem to have hardened since 2016,’ said one. They are right. We may well face splits in both main parties and the rise of a nasty nationalist party, some kind of UKIP on steroids. Yet Britain is trapped by a tragedy that unleashed disruptive forces and there is no outcome that does not further damage our fractious nation. So the core issue is, which is the least bad destination and how do we get there?

It is clear that May’s deal would weaken the nation. No deal would be total disaster. Brexit was a false dream, sold by shysters making phoney promises. As smoke clears from the battlefield it is entirely democratic to seek a fresh vote, whether from the electorate, now it can see the shape of their proposed future, or in Parliament. As I write these words church bells are ringing out to mark Armistice Day. Surely this should serve as a reminder to MPs of the fierce need for courage, competent leadership and putting the nation’s interest’s before party and personal ambition.

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