Faced with Brexit, parliament is resolved to be irresolute. There is no majority for Theresa May’s “Chequers deal”, nor for any other conceivable agreement. We have reached an impasse.
The Prime Minister’s proposal took two years to devise and less than a week to unravel. Conservative Brexiteers and the European Union alike have dismissed it as unacceptable. For the former, policies such as membership of the single market for goods represent an intolerable breach of sovereignty. For the latter, they amount to opportunistic cherry-picking.
Only through further concessions, such as over the free movement of people, could Mrs May hope to secure EU approval. Yet any deal of this kind would be rejected by her recalcitrant backbenchers and, in all likelihood, a majority of the electorate, anxiety over immigration being one of the engines of Brexit. Nor is there any prospect of the Labour Party, which aims to force an early general election, gifting the Prime Minister the votes she needs.
In these circumstances, some Tory Brexiteers now explicitly contemplate leaving the EU with no deal. Liam Fox, the International Trade Secretary, has insisted that the government is not “bluffing” and has warned that the economic impact on the EU would also be “severe” (an estimated loss of 1.5 per cent of GDP compared to the UK’s 8 per cent). Dominic Raab, the new Brexit Secretary, has declared that Britain will “thrive” if forced to leave with no deal. Jacob Rees-Mogg, the head of the European Research Group, has stated: “I think we are heading to WTO [World Trade Organisation terms] and I think WTO is nothing to be frightened of.”
Contrary to Mr Rees-Mogg’s assertion, there is much to be frightened of: as senior civil servants have privately warned the government, such a scenario could lead to shortages of food, medicine and fuel within a fortnight, and chaos at ports and on roads. Far from being an innocuous alternative, no deal would be the greatest act of national self-harm in postwar European history.
An increasing number of MPs, on both the Labour and Conservative benches, now advocate the opposite stance: no Brexit. However, there is no clear majority, either in parliament or the country, for a second referendum. In the absence of any Brexit agreement to put to the electorate, the idea remains wishful thinking.
Two years after it voted to leave the EU, Britain is confronting an ineluctable truth: there is no cost-free option. It must sacrifice either economic access or political sovereignty, which, in any event, is an illusion in an age of globalisation and multilateral alliances. The Leave campaign’s great deception was to suggest that the UK could enjoy both. Global Britain indeed!
A polarised electorate deserves honesty about the choices that Britain faces. Yet so debased has public discourse become that neither side is prepared to provide it. Both the dogmatic Brexiteers and the unrepentant Remainers refuse to acknowledge the sacrifices that their positions would entail. An enfeebled Prime Minister is trying – and failing – to placate both.
This article appears in the 22 Jul 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special