In the months following the 2016 EU referendum, only the most evangelical Remainers spoke of stopping Brexit. The UK’s departure from the European Union – an institution it had long viewed with ambivalence – was regarded as inevitable.
Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn – both “reluctant Remainers” – immediately accepted the Leave vote. MPs voted by 498 to 114 to grant May the power to trigger Article 50, which she did on 29 March 2017.
But in the two years since, the possibility that Brexit could be stopped has progressively increased. The loss of the Conservatives’ majority at the 2017 election empowered Remain MPs to challenge an enfeebled Prime Minister and left May dependent on the hardline Democratic Unionist Party.
Brexiteers had boasted that the UK held “the strongest cards” in the negotiation. The collision with reality was painful. While the UK side remained irretrievably divided, the EU maintained a united front and forced Britain to agree to pay a £39bn “divorce bill”, to guarantee European citizens’ rights, and to accept a “backstop” – indefinite UK membership of a customs union – to prevent a hard Irish border. In return, May received a platitudinous, legally non-binding, 26-page Draft Political Declaration on Britain and the EU’s future relationship.
May’s draft deal united Remainers and Leavers in a strange harmony. Both argued that the proposed model was inferior to the UK’s à la carte EU membership: opt-outs from the single currency and the borderless Schengen Zone, a £4.9bn budget rebate and full membership of the single market.
Like the 2017 Conservative manifesto, May’s Brexit agreement succeeded in repelling support, rather than attracting it. On 10 December 2018, faced with the possibility of the largest government defeat in the House of Commons for more than a century, the Prime Minister postponed a vote she had insisted was essential.
May has invoked two scenarios should MPs continue to defy her: no deal, or no Brexit. But only one of these can be right.
If parliament rejects May’s agreement, the UK will by law leave the EU with no deal at 11pm on 29 March – an outcome for which it is profoundly underprepared. Food and medical shortages could result (the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, recently warned the cabinet of potential deaths) and Britain would likely endure an economic recession, having resorted to unpalatable World Trade Organisation rules.
Unsurprisingly, then, MPs are resolutely opposed to this outcome. Conservative backbenchers Nick Boles, Anna Soubry and Sarah Wollaston have pledged to resign the Tory whip should a no-deal Brexit become government policy.
But mere opposition to no deal is insufficient; the Commons must agree an alternative. In extremis, MPs could pass a motion of no confidence in the government, triggering a general election if a new administration cannot be formed within 14 days. This could be achieved with as few as seven Tory rebels. But very few, if any, Conservatives are willing to risk handing Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour the chance to enter government at a moment of national crisis. And there is no guarantee that a new election, which polls suggest would return another hung parliament, would break the Brexit deadlock.
This precarious stalemate has pushed an increasing number of Conservative and Labour MPs to support a second referendum (or “People’s Vote”). “MPs will desperately want to hand the screaming, defecating, vomiting baby back to its parents – the electorate – and let them decide what to do with it,” predicted the novelist Robert Harris on Twitter in July 2018.
But to advance through the Commons, such a proposition requires the support of the government. At present it lacks even the endorsement of the opposition. Labour fears the political blowback a second referendum could cause and Corbyn, a longtime Eurosceptic, has never shown enthusiasm for the idea.
Though May’s de facto deputy, David Lidington, and her chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, were reported by the Sunday Times to have floated the policy in conversation with MPs, the Prime Minister has declared that another vote would do “irreparable damage to the integrity of our politics”.
But it is not unthinkable that May – whose word now counts for little – or a new Conservative leader could yet embrace a European referendum on the expedient grounds that Harold Wilson and David Cameron did. The Prime Minister could advocate a choice between her deal or no-deal, in the expectation that parliament would add Remain as a third option. A second Brexit referendum would not, as some claim, be undemocratic, but it would intensify the UK’s Leave-Remain divide and further undermine parliamentary sovereignty.
As an alternative, some champion the softest of Brexits – a Norway-style deal that would preserve single market membership. This would be a very British compromise. The UK would leave the EU and its political structures but retain current economic ties: plus ça change. But May, who dislikes free movement, and Corbyn, who dislikes free markets, have consistently opposed this model. Should parliament resolve to be irresolute, the UK will most likely extend the Article 50 period (with the EU’s permission), rather than leave with no deal.
After the 1975 Remain vote, Harold Wilson declared that “14 years of national argument are over”. Just six years later, Labour was advocating withdrawal from the European Economic Community.
History, as Wilson and Cameron should both have known, is never over. When (and if) the UK leaves the EU, a campaign for it to rejoin will begin immediately. Brexit may happen, but the Europe question will never be settled.
Read all the pieces in our “2019 – the big questions” series: