The day-to-day politics of Brexit are wildly unpredictable and volatile. But the bigger picture is one that has long been predictable. Back in 2016, shortly after the referendum, I argued that Brexit was a long game that would result in Brexit not happening. Nothing since then has substantially altered my view. Theresa May, with uncharacteristic clarity, has outlined the three options that remain viable: her deal, no deal, and no Brexit. The very warm favourite has to be no Brexit.
May’s deal is simply a bad deal. This is not surprising, since there was never a good deal to be had—something that has been obvious since the referendum itself to anyone with reason and sense. The pursuit of a deal was always about mitigating the considerable downsides to leaving the EU; the idea that the UK could retain all the benefits of EU membership but none of the responsibilities and inconveniences was something the average child (if not the average Brexiteer) could understand was impossible. Those Brexiteers who maintained that it would be straightforward to secure a good deal are fantasists or stupid (or both).
The best negotiators in the world would have failed to succeed given the various incompatible goals of a good deal and the heavily disadvantageous negotiating context: frictionless trade; no hard border in Ireland; an end to free movement; holding the Union together; the ability to make independent trade deals; the high-wire parliamentary arithmetic; the uneven playing field of one country of 60 million people negotiating with a block of 27 countries of 450 million people.
And the UK ran the project of negotiating Brexit with all the skill, organization and experience of a losing team on The Apprentice. In addition to having no obvious negotiating plan, the UK seemed to treat Brexit as if it was hiring a sitcom cast rather than a team of crack negotiators: the doggedly unimaginative and incompetent Theresa May, the self-important Dominic Raab, extremist unicorn-chasers like Steve Baker and Suella Braverman, and (the crowning ignominy of it all) the delusional, workshy, inflated ego that is David Davis (in a fiercely competitive field, possibly the most overrated politician of our time). Passing mention also has to be made to the idiotically unhelpful contributions occasionally made by various senior figures, such as Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt.
Given all that, and given her own mantra that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’, it’s a minor miracle that May reached any sort of draft agreement. Of course, her mantra was, like much of her Brexit rhetoric, simply fluff that she didn’t believe in. She was always going to cobble some sort of deal, because the alternative would have been a personal disaster. And so she has now pivoted, arguing that this is the best the UK can get (which is probably true), and that parliament should ratify it because the UK needs some sort of deal—all of which is just another way of saying that ‘a bad deal is better than no deal’. A further argument for her deal has been made: in its series of compromises, it is the deal that best reflects the 52:48 referendum divide. Superficially, this has some truth. But if a popular vote revealed a 52:48 split over whether the England football team should play in red or white, and it was decided that a pink strip was an acceptable compromise, then the outcome is one that satisfies nobody’s wishes. So it is with May’s deal.
This was always the likely outcome. It is tempting on all sides to point out May’s failings as prime minister—she is badly out of her depth in the role, and, for all her evident ability to cling on grimly to her position, she is an astonishingly limited leader, singularly incapable of building bridges and uniting factions (except, perhaps, against her). But I doubt a less incompetent prime minister would have achieved much more in the negotiations; although such a prime minister might have gone about things with less overpromising of success, less grandstanding about her toughness and resolve, and less spinelessness in the face of Brextremist demands, and with more imaginative and quiet exploration of how to bring together moderates to find solutions.
Parliament should refuse to ratify the deal, and in all likelihood that is what it will do. That will lead to a crisis—and how that will play out is uncertain (my best guess is that May will resign or be forced out, which will make for entertaining drama but resolve nothing). A parliamentary defeat of May’s deal will also simplify matters by removing from the table one of the three options (not least because there is no prospect of the EU renegotiating the deal), so that we will be left with two: no deal, or no Brexit.
Being left with those two options means that the choice will be between the only two coherent positions there have ever been on Brexit. May’s deal was always going to be incoherent, because it is manifestly worse than the current position of full membership of the EU, yet it also fails to deliver most of what the Brexiteers want. No Brexit (or Remain) is self-evidently rationally coherent, since it ensures the continuation of what has been a mutually beneficial and prosperous relationship that cannot be replicated in any other way. No deal (or hard Brexit) has little rational coherence, but it clearly has an emotional, perhaps even romantic, coherence: if you’re going to leave the EU, then, as Boris Johnson might say, ‘fuck business’ and sense, wax lyrical about independence and global Britain and believing in ourselves as a nation, dream of glories past and fantastic futures, and take a mad but exciting punt. It’s a crazy argument that will almost certainly lead to disaster, but I can see how it appeals to the dreamers who care little for facts or reality.
Although parliament has more than its share of dim and deranged members (how people like Philip Davies, Andrew Bridgen, Nadine Dorries and Andrea Jenkyn actually get elected is one of the great political mysteries of our age), it is almost inconceivable that, faced with the prospect of no deal, it will fail to act. A general election is unlikely—and it is even more unlikely that it would solve anything anyway. Renegotiating isn’t going to happen, and the EU will not extend Article 50—unless there is the prospect of a second referendum. Another referendum will be pretty much the only option left on the table to prevent a catastrophic hard Brexit. And since there is no majority among MPs for a hard Brexit, it is a referendum that they will, in effect, be forced to go for. Referendums are not a good way of conducting politics; but when the situation is such that the only viable way out of a problem is a referendum (and the gridlock in parliament is such that it is hard to see any other parliamentary solution), then needs must.
As a Remainer, I’ll be delighted with another referendum. It was always going to require another vote to reverse Brexit. And it was always likely that we’d have to stare into the abyss of a hard Brexit and realize how insane any sort of Brexit is before the nation as a whole would seriously begin thinking about how to pull back from the edge. Voting down May’s deal, despite the immediate prospect of no deal at all being in place, is therefore an acceptable risk. Of course, a second referendum may deliver another victory for Leave; and a victory for Remain is not suddenly going to end the divisions (but a referendum will not create divisions, it will simply reveal them). But for Remainers and Brexiteers alike, the political impasse is such that a referendum is the best chance for either to get the outcome they want.
Reversing Brexit was never going to be easy or risk-free; but for those willing to play the long game, it has always been doable. If Brexit was a two-legged football match, then we’d just be about to finish the first leg with the Brexiteers 1-0 up, having scored in the opening minute and, with increasing desperation, clung to their advantage since then. The second leg will begin soon, and for Remainers there is still all to play for.