The Irish Times view on the paralysis in Westminster: Now for a soft Brexit – or a public vote
It was a referendum that created this mess. A referendum may be the only way to clean it up
With a mixture of horror and morbid fascination, Ireland and the rest of Europe looks on, like viewers who can see the looming disaster before the protagonists but are powerless to stop it. Photograph: Isabel Infantes/AFP/Getty Images
Two years after it set a date for Brexit Day, and just 16 days before that clock stops ticking, the UK continues its surreal, tragi-comic debate with itself over what Brexit it wants. With a mixture of horror and morbid fascination, Ireland and the rest of Europe look on, like viewers who see the looming disaster before the protagonists but are powerless to stop it.
The House of Commons’s overwhelming rejection of a no-deal withdrawal on Wednesday was an important indication that a majority of MPs still put the interests of their constituents and the reputation of their country above their own narrow delusions, but, legally, it doesn’t change much. A chaotic no-deal departure is still the default, and it will be activated on March 29th unless London asks for an extension to the withdrawal process – and EU leaders grant it.
So what should Theresa May do now? Some in London seem to cling to the forlorn hope that the EU, spooked by the scale of Westminster’s rejection of the withdrawal agreement on Tuesday, will offer one last concession to allow a dignified climb-down for the extremists in the Conservative Party and the DUP. Indeed, it’s difficult not to see in the timing of London’s release of its sobering no-deal tariff plan an attempt to nudge the EU towards a dilution of the backstop.
That’s wishful thinking. It’s clear that, unless the Brexiteer ultras perform a 180-degree turn, the withdrawal deal cannot be passed in Westminster. That brings into play several alternative paths – all of them, ironically, inimical to the Brexiteers’ aims to some extent. The first is the article 50 extension. May reportedly favours a short delay. That would be a mistake.
All the evidence suggests that this impasse cannot be unlocked in a few weeks. London should instead seek a postponement until late summer at the earliest, and the EU should accede to that request. May should then use that time to change course. Until now, she has fixated on holding the Tories together at all costs by pandering to the fruitier fringes of the party. Now she must put the UK’s national interest first, and that means working to find a cross-party majority for a softer Brexit. Whether that means permanent membership of a customs union with the EU or the “Norway-plus” option of remaining in the single market could be etablished by way of a series of indicative votes.
If such a majority cannot be formed, the question should go back to the people. In 2016, the British public voted on a vague, abstract idea after a campaign marred by lies and deception. The result has isolated Britain, paralysed its political system, jeopardised peace in Ireland and made the UK a laughing stock – and that’s before Brexit has even happened.
It was a referendum that created this mess. A referendum may be the only way to clean it up.