Britain faces an increasingly dangerous reality on Brexit
Alarm bells are ringing as time runs out without a majority for anything
People take part in a ‘Brexit Betrayal’ march organised by Ukip in central London. Photograph: PA
This week’s House of Commons vote on Theresa May’s Brexit deal is immensely important for the future of the United Kingdom and for its relations with its neighbours, including Ireland.
There is a consensus amongst commentators that it will be extremely difficult for May to muster a majority in favour of the proposed deal. Different factions of the Conservative Party, as well as various opposition parties, are therefore touting a range of alternative options should she be defeated in the vote. However, at this stage, none of these alternatives appears to have any realistic prospect of majority support in parliament.
It is like one of those puzzles in a children’s comic in which six meandering paths lead away from the centre of the maze, only one of which leads to escape. In this case, however, the children will find that it is a horrid trick. The parliamentary arithmetic means that every one of the paths, after zigging and zagging about with great apparent purpose, seems to find its way back to the starting point at the heart of the maze.
I imagine that some MPs, as they wander the corridors of power, which currently may seem more like corridors of impotence, may be quietly humming Bob Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower to themselves: “There must be some kinda way outta here/said the joker to the thief.”
The extraordinary and increasingly dangerous reality seems to be that in the mother of parliaments, faced with one of the most momentous decisions in its history, there is no majority for anything.
The apparent blockage is so complete that, when I met some MPs in London recently, the suggestion was that, if the deal is voted down next week, May could have no alternative but to bring the same deal back to parliament in January.
Many people have contributed to leading the UK into this pretty pickle. There’s oodles of personal blame to be dished out. However, the glaring reality is that the underlying problem is not the prime minister’s negotiating strategy, or any intransigence on the part of the EU, or even the Belfast Agreement’s impertinence in wanting to be preserved. The fundamental problem is Brexit itself.
The outcome of the 2016 referendum set emotional English aspirations on a direct collision course with Britain’s interests. It trumped realistic future choices with an appeal to an imagined history. It set up the impossible conundrum of building a successful economic future without the most vital building blocks: free access to Britain’s most important markets, the maximizing of international influence and the continued untrammelled availability of the skill and sweat of neighbours.
These are the contradictions deeply embedded in the confrontations which will dominate the House of Commons in the days ahead.
The array of proposed alternative solutions now reads like the front window of a travel agency. Norway, Canada and so on. It’s probably the closest the UK will ever get to “going global”.
Solving the puzzle
As British parliamentarians thrash out the detail of the various paths promising a way out of the Brexit maze, it may be useful to recall some of the simple parameters for solving the puzzle. These ought to be obvious but understanding the obvious has not been a prominent feature of the Brexit debate.
MPs' starting point must surely be the truth about their country’s interests and its responsibilities
A principal parameter is that time is simply running out. There is no majority in parliament for the UK to crash out of the EU without a deal; but equally there is no majority for any alternative. In the absence of agreement on an alternative or an extension of time, the UK will crash out on March 29th.
The EU will not offer a more generous deal. The EU might conceivably respond if the UK itself were, by a convincing majority, to seek a closer relationship with Europe than reflected in May’s approach; but the likelihood of that seems limited and the timing is tightening by the day.
The EU would probably agree to a limited time extension of article 50 but only for a clear, realistic and deliverable purpose. Not for faffing about. The calling of a second referendum requires legislation and would therefore need the support of the government.
My heart tells me that a second referendum would be in the interests of the British people and of the EU itself. However, my head hears an alarm bell about the risk of the UK crashing out.
It is on British MPs that the historic responsibility now falls for teasing through the options. However, their starting point must surely be the truth about their country’s interests and its responsibilities to the wider world; and a rejection of the lies and fantasy which have dominated so much of the Brexit debate.
Perhaps it is again Dylan in All Along the Watchtower who offers the words of greatest wisdom. “So let’s stop talking falsely now/The hour is getting late”.
Bobby McDonagh is a former Irish ambassador to the EU, Britain and Italy