Brexit has never been deliverable on the terms that were promised by Theresa May and its most ardent supporters. The question now is whether it is deliverable at all. Only a month remains until the United Kingdom’s scheduled departure from the European Union (29 March) but MPs are resolved to be irresolute.
Having humiliatingly failed to assemble majority support for her proposed Brexit deal, Mrs May again postponed a planned vote. Her subsequent promise to grant MPs the opportunity to extend Article 50 – in the face of an open cabinet revolt – was a belated acknowledgment of political reality. Mrs May’s repeated threat to leave with no deal has never been credible: a prime minister so weak cannot disregard the will of the House of Commons.
Yet rather than resolving the Brexit crisis, Mrs May’s new plan merely defers it. A short extension of the negotiating period offers no solution in the absence of an alternative deal. Mrs May is reaping the consequences of a doomed strategy. Her decision to respect the 2016 Leave vote was reasonable, but by invoking Article 50 recklessly early in March 2017, she needlessly weakened her position.
“No deal is better than a bad deal,” Mrs May declared in her Lancaster House speech in January 2017, thus legitimising a destructive course that she perhaps never favoured. Like David Cameron’s belated support for the EU during the 2016 referendum campaign, the Prime Minister’s new insistence that “a bad deal is better than no deal” now rings hollow.
Even after deservedly losing her parliamentary majority in 2017, Mrs May failed to reach across party lines and seek consensus. Instead, like Mr Cameron, she indulged her party’s Europhobic faction, a force now exposed as a paper tiger.
Faced with the Conservatives’ disarray, Jeremy Corbyn has, for the first time, promised a second Brexit referendum (albeit on the condition that Mrs May’s deal is passed). The Labour leader’s move was a belated and cynical act designed to appease party members and voters (who overwhelmingly favour a new vote) and to counter the new Independent Group of rebel MPs (which has polled as high as 18 per cent). As Mr Corbyn well knows, his pledge is a symbolic one: there is no Commons majority for a second referendum at present. The embattled Labour leader is more preoccupied with party management than the national interest.
The deadlock is the logical consequence of a truth too few acknowledge: there are no good options for Britain. A no-deal Brexit – the UK’s fate in the absence of an agreed deal – would be one of the greatest acts of economic self-harm in postwar history. A Norway-style deal would render the UK a rule-taker rather than a rule-maker (a greater erosion of sovereignty than EU membership) and force the maintenance of free movement. A second referendum would risk another Leave victory and further undermine parliamentary sovereignty.
But the moment at which Britain will be forced to choose cannot be postponed indefinitely. A resolution, however, will require Mrs May and Mr Corbyn to display qualities of leadership that have so far been lacking.
Summer in February
On 26 February, for the first time during a British winter, temperatures breached 20°C. “Glorious” was how many described the unseasonal warmth. But there was cause for disquiet too: air pollution across Britain reached dangerous levels and a looming cold snap could harm wildlife that has emerged too early. In the absence of detailed research, the Met Office is reluctant to attribute the February heat to climate change, but the rising frequency of extreme weather is undeniable: from Australia’s recent deadly heatwave to America’s “Snowmageddon”, human activity is creating a global climate crisis.
Scientists suggest that the world has just a dozen years left to restrict global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Should temperatures increase by 2°C (they are currently 1°C higher), humanity’s capacity to prevent catastrophic food shortages, floods, droughts, extreme heat and poverty will be severely impaired. Not all populations will be affected equally by this shift – and Britain may even enjoy milder weather. Yet the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution cannot avoid its legacy forever. Enjoy summer days in winter but, beware, something is wrong.
This article appears in the 27 Feb 2019 issue of the New Statesman, How Brexit broke politics