The UK is paralysed over Brexit because there are no good options

In the absence of a time machine, MPs are left to rue the unpalatable choices that flow from a reckless referendum. 

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Until the UK embarked on Brexit, no major country had ever sought to leave a trade bloc before. Britain’s torturous attempt to do so is evidence of why. Two and a half years have passed since the 2016 EU referendum, and only six weeks remain before the UK’s scheduled departure (29 March), but parliament is resolved to be irresolute.

MPs last night voted again to reject Theresa May’s plan without agreeing on anything to put in its place. The Prime Minister’s apparent triumph on 29 January — when the Commons voted in favour of her deal minus the Irish backstop  — was exposed as illusory. Tory MPs revolted over a legally meaningless but politically symbolic amendment opposing a no-deal Brexit. May’s strategy remains too soft for Leavers and too hard for Remainers.

The impasse is derided both at home and abroad as proof that the UK — traditionally admired for its stability and moderation — has taken leave of its senses. But the deadlock is the logical consequence of a truth far too few acknowledge: there are no good options.  

A no-deal Brexit — the UK’s current fate in the absence of an agreed deal — would be one of the greatest acts of economic self-harm by any major country. May’s deal would see Britain pay a £39bn divorce bill, guarantee EU citizens’ rights and accept the Irish backstop before negotiating a future relationship from a position of profound weakness. A soft, 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 defensible policy but one that Labour (and some Remainers) run shy of advocating. 

A second referendum would intensify the UK’s new Remain/Leave divide (to the detriment of shared economic and social concerns) and further undermine parliamentary sovereignty. Sceptical Remainers rightly fear a second Leave victory, or a Remain victory too narrow (51-49, 52-48) to settle the question.

Faced with these choices, some advocate simply revoking Article 50 (as the EU has confirmed the UK has the legal right to do). But this would amount to parliament overturning a democratic (if flawed) vote and trigger a true constitutional crisis. And MPs, who have so far refused even to extend Article 50 (to avoid a no-deal Brexit on 29 March), have no desire to pursue this course.

What many crave is something that does not exist: a time machine. David Cameron, who urged his party in 2006 to stop “banging on about Europe”, told Nick Clegg before his 2013 announcement of a referendum: “I have to do this. It is a party management issue.” The second statement — “a party management issue” — undercuts the first. Cameron did not have to hold the referendum, and a prime minister who put country before party would not have done so.

Dominic Cummings, Vote Leave’s campaign director, may have spread falsehoods and indulged racism but he was correct to argue last year that an EU referendum was a choice, not a necessity. “The idea that there was an irresistible force for a referendum is pushed by Farage’s and Cameron’s supporters,” Cummings wrote in a blog entry. “They are both wrong. The country supported one but without any passion outside the small fraction who had long been passionate about it. Most Tory MPs did not want it.”

Cameron, who wanted to be prime minister because he thought he’d be good at it, held a referendum because he thought he could win it. A Eurosceptic, austerity-wracked country decided he could not.

From that moment, “the status quo” ceased to exist. The spectre of the 2016 referendum will forever haunt any decision to remain in the EU and there is no easy way to leave. What MPs truly crave, then, is a past that no longer exists.

George Eaton is deputy editor of the New Statesman.